To some, Maximilien Robespierre—an advocate for the poor and the downtrodden during the French Revolution—is a hero. To others, who regard his violent methods as morally questionable, he is a villain. And then there’s 2012’s Assassin’s Creed Unity, which portrays him as a tyrant who describes the world as “nothing but a carcass on which mankind feeds like worms,” before promising to embark on a “genocidal crusade.”
Suffice it to say, subtly is not one of Unity‘s strong points.
Then again, neither is factual accuracy. Assassin’s Creed has lurched from Third Crusade to Italian Renaissance to American Revolution with much historical braggadocio, but little tact. Unity, which led one Jean-Luc Mélenchon to describe it as a “smearing [of] the great revolution,” caused so much upset that publisher Ubisoft was forced to tell French newspaper Le Monde that the game was in fact “not a history lesson” (and that’s to say nothing of the door knobs).
Except, now it is. The Discovery Tour, a free piece of downloadable content launching at the beginning of 2018, turns the upcoming Assassin’s Creed Origins into an interactive history lesson. Gone is the combat and narrative of the main Origins campaign, replaced instead with lessons on the character of Cleopatra and the technicalities of mummification. Audio narration, pictures, drawings, and 3D objects bring the tours to life alongside the existing open-world recreation of ancient Egypt, which tells a tale of Templars and Assassins from the building of the pyramids through to the reign of Cleopatra.
Assassin’s Creed Origins at a glance
- Assassin’s Creed Origins uk release date
- The game will go on sale on October 27, 2017 on PS4, Xbox One and PC
- Assassin’s Creed Origins pre-order
- Pre-orders for Assassin’s Creed Origins aren’t open yet and Ubisoft hasn’t released details of any pre-order bonus features.
“The Discovery Tour has been in development for more than two years now,” says creative director Jean Geusdon. For years we’ve received regular testimony from teachers that say ‘your work is awesome, I use the game to create my own materials to bring into class. But, you know, I have to edit it carefully, to craft some school-proof videos that avoid combat. Could you guys provide us with this awesome content, in a more accessible way?’ That’s basically the idea behind The Discovery Tour.”
While the technicalities are yet to be finalised, there are some remaining video game mechanics designed to funnel players through tours. Some remain locked until others are completed, while your choice of character (unlike in the campaign, you aren’t limited to playing as protagonist Bayek) affects the types of tours accessible. Unlike Minecraft: Education Edition, however, which takes the approach of learning by doing, The Discovery Tour is less video game and more open-world museum, a pumped-up version of Encarta Mindmaze for the PlayStation generation.
Ubisoft’s writers are guided by the “30-second rule,” which, according to Geusdon, is “when we mention an event, a location, or a character that’s historical, when you Google it what you find in under 30-seconds is what we need to respect.” Basing an entire educational mode on what is only a skin-deep reading of history is an interesting move, although Geusdon says that Historians and Egyptologists were brought on board during the development process to add accuracy. Ubisoft typically consults with historians, although, it has done so with in its own laissez-faire way.
Pointing out the historical inaccuracies in an Assassin’s Creed game is something of an internet sport at this point, with analysis appearing on everything from fans blogs through to daily newspapers. The Guardian recently dug into Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, pointing out that its depictions of child labour and prostitution (or lack thereof) didn’t align with the reality of Victorian London. “I think it’s beautiful,” said historian Alana Harris, “but it works on a fairly superficial level of engagement.”
“We’re not always 100 percent accurate. And we know that,” says Geusdon. We will have stations on the tour that say ‘this is not as it was. This is not real, but here is why.’ We made a choice to represent this one way or another way, because of technological constraints or whatever. This transparency is really something I’m interested in…If we deal with information that would normally require a PHD or long research, we accept that it’s OK to bend reality sometimes, especially for gameplay reasons. If it’s preventing the fun of the game, we change things.”
“Or for technical reasons,” continues Geusdon. “For example, in Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, the colosseum is circular. But in real-life we know that it’s an oval. An oval would have been too complex in terms of memory, in terms of modularity, so much so that we went with a circle instead.”
Whether or not a video game has a place in the classroom remains a divisive issue. While Minecraft: Education Edition has found fans in teachers that use it to deliver interactive lessons—as well as with researchers at the University of Hull that created the MolCraft mod to teach molecular chemistry—others have called them little more than “gimmicks.” “I would say to teachers: ‘Do you need to use this game or is there something that is cheaper and better—like books?'” UK Government advisor Tom Bennett asked in a series of Tweets last year.
There’s been little long-term research into the educational benefits of video games, even less than there has been into potential ill-effects, but there is encouraging feedback. Level up learning: A national survey on teaching with digital games found nearly three quarters of teachers effectively used games to improve their students’ math skills. Meanwhile, a paper from the DCE found Minecraft helped students demonstrate “high levels of cooperation and collaboration” as they moved between on-screen and off-screen play. Which is nothing to say of a recent Australian study, which found playing games could help students’ academic performance.
However, almost all of this research has been focused on games that enable learning by doing. There’s little evidence The Discovery Tour, which merely presents information in a slightly more interesting way, would have the same effect. Regardless, the sentiment behind The Discovery Tour is admirable. And so long as the accuracy is there, it certainly won’t do any harm.
“I think games have the fascinating power to attract young minds,” says Geusdon. “When you see kids and students, they were born into an interactive life. Now it’s really hard to just sit in a classroom and listen to a teacher lecture them. With Assassin’s Creed we always saw our work as a possible entry-point that would be appealing to them. We don’t pretend at all to replace teachers, but if, through our work, we can bring kids into more academic knowledge I would be super-happy.”