Today is the launch day for the new Assassin's Creed (AC) game - let joy be unconfined!
Mirage is set in ninth century Baghdad and charts the back-story of the character of Basim Ibn Ishaq, who appeared in AC Valhalla (2020). The usual commitment to historical accuracy and artistic beauty are present and it looks to be as big a hit as any of the previous editions.
A lot is going to be said about Ubisoft's ability to recreate historical worlds, and populate them with authentic details and obscure curios. Indeed, this commitment has led to many teachers and academics using the AC games to educate, inform and explore ideas. But instead of focusing on purely historical details, we thought we'd look at the role of storytelling in the franchise as a huge part of what has made it so successful.
For those who perhaps aren't video games afficionados, AC games come with two modes: the regular game, filled with climbing, hiding, fighting and stealing; and a second option called the Discovery Tour, which allows players to interact with the game-world's history. Have a look at this clip of Oxford academics using Ubisoft's recreation of fifth century Athens in AC Odyssey.
The academic impact of these games has been significant.
Academics aside, narrative is a powerful device in the games. I don't mean as a way of sneaking knowledge and facts past the unwitting student. I love parables and fables, but that is not what I'm talking about here.
I mean simply that the characters and their stories in the AC games have a hook which compels players to keep on with the journey and its many quests. Indeed, without the power of the writing, it is debatable how successful the historical side of the games would be. After all, we can all think of video games set in the ancient world which looked like they were going to be wonderful, but they were so lacking in charm or fun, that their historical content ended up being the video game equivalent of a PDF downloaded but never read. The story must be good.
And as it happens, the three games in the series which have the closest connections to Classics have some of the best stories and characters.
AC Origins (2017) is set at the end of the Ptolemaic period of Egyptian history. It was the first game in the series to have a huge open-world approach, with hundreds and hundreds of interactive historical locations and characters. Cleopatra and Julius Caesar are both here. However, the story of Bayek, seeking justice for the death of his own son, is the hook that takes the player along.
The recreation of Renaissance Rome in AC Brotherhood (2010) provides dozens of Classical landmarks to explore (as well as plenty of Renaissance ones, of course), but it was the story of Ezio, fighting against the Borgias, which captivated millions of gamers. The investment in all that historical detail would almost have been unnecessary without the narrative. For many AC fans, Ezio has become the defining character of the game franchise thanks to the way the character was written.
Anyone who has read this zine before will know what we think of AC Odyssey (2018), the game set in the Peloponnesian War. Some of the Working Classicists team are actually embarrassed to say how many hours they have spent playing it. And while a huge attraction is the glorious recreation of the fifth century Greek world (the game is quite breathtakingly vast), again the story of a Spartan orphan trying to find their parents is the necessary engine that drives the story on and keeps players invested.
I am sure many here would have played these games regardless of the plot, desperate for Classics representation in video games, but in terms of outreach for Classics and History in general, the stories do more than the historical design alone ever could.
Teenagers - a huge percentage of the game's audience - who may have switched off from school, can enjoy Bayek's journey, and will learn along the way. Any teens who would never have looked at a text by Machiavelli, or a painting by Michaelangelo, will absorb some through following Ezio, the real object of their narrative affections. Those who haven't even heard of Classics - and that number is greater than you think - will love wandering the port of Piraeus when part of Kassandra's story.
Obviously, the writers for the games deserve enormous credit, but even then, in some games the lines can land like dead fish: the actors must inject them with character and emotion. Again, these three all have excellent performances from the protagonists. Roger Craig Smith (Ezio in AC Brotherhood), Abubakar Salim (Bayek in AC Origins) and Melissanthi Mahut (Kassandra in AC Odyssey) all deliver their lines with conviction, feeling, and charm.
And so today I, like millions of others, will be heading to Baghdad learn about the city in the ninth century. And I might use the Discovery Tour mode, but it will be a lot more fun to do my learning as part of Basim's story.
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