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THE HISTORY TOYS
When games blur the lines between real world history and fictional creation, how important is it to remain faithful to reality?
By Will Porter
We’ve all stood in the ruins of ancient civilizations tapping numbers into audio tour guides. We’ve stared at broken walls, imagined long-destroyed towers and learned much about hypocaust systems. Every time, though, the drive is the same – to imagine how these people lived. What would you ask if you met them? How would they react to you?
“I think there’s a magic to the idea that you are a tourist in time, exploring long dead cities and speaking to people who have long since died,” explains Alex Hutchinson the Creative Director on the Assassin’s Creed series. “We try to bring history to life, then let you play in it.”
Gordon Van Dyke, the producer of the forthcoming War of the Roses game, agrees. “People like the settings of the past because it’s our history, it brought us to this point. Now with videogames people can try to experience what it must have felt like. It’s an awesome opportunity we have now, as creators of these worlds and experiences. Videogames will never be the same as the real thing, but it’s the closest we can get.”
Epic films, evocative historical novels and, in their day, cultural touchstones like the plays of Shakespeare have used the past to tell stories that resonate with a contemporary audience. Increasingly games are no different. History, however, is not a static thing – our understanding of the past has been moulded by the ways these tales have been told. There are many historical voices to attend to, and the truth can be buried deeper than what’s commonly believed. So how important is it for game developers to set the past to rights?
“Every target in every Assassin’s Creed game is a real person who dies in the right year at the right place, although we take liberty in ‘how’ they died of course,” explains Hutchinson. Clearly, however, the nature of gaming means that the tangent of Ubisoft Montreal’s vision of the past must divert from reality – generally with a cowled figure flashing a blade. How, then, are the adventures of AC3’s hero Connor weaved through the American War of Independence?
“We stay with the truth, although we try to find interesting angles,” says Hutchinson. “We usually begin with an event that’s fairly well known, such as the Boston Massacre, then we build out the landmarks and set up the crowd to play out basically as it did in history, then we put our mission down inside it. When we have characters who had strong opinions, such as George Washington or Ben Franklin, if it works in our story (and we can find historical documentation to back it up) then we will put it in even if it’s a little confrontational: it gets people talking and we know we have supporting evidence.”
That ‘historical documentation’, it seems, is vital – and part of the reason that Ubisoft has historians on-staff, and a budget for hiring consultants like the Native American cultural advisors that have worked on Connor’s story arc. “We spend a big chunk of the early development of all of our games on historical research,” says Hutchinson. “We read books, watch documentaries, search the internet and try to find not only the well-known history but any conspiracy theories that might be useful. Once we have a base of ‘fact’ we weave our story.”
This is just a small extract from the full feature in Issue Three. To read the entire article, click here to purchase the complete digital edition of Continue for just $2.99/£1.99/€2.25.