Taking a Tour of the Past

There’s something amazing about the Assassin’s Creed series. Yeah, the parkour movement system is fun, and sure, it’s cool to get a bunch of gadgets and be Classical Era Tony Stark or Batman. But the coolest thing about the series is what I like to call Historical Tourism. It’s been there in every main entry, from the first with Altair through the Ezio trilogy and Kenway saga, and now to the most-but-not-for-much-longer recent Assassin’s Creed Origins, which takes place in Classical (not ancient) Egypt.

The team at Ubisoft is fantastic at choosing interesting dynamic eras of history for their games to take place in. We’ve run around Jerusalem during the Crusades, the Italian Renaissance, the Caribbean during the Golden Age of Piracy (my favorite), Revolutionary America, Revolutionary France, and London during the Industrial Revolution (lots of revolutions) and there are others even beyond that. I love it.

I’m a history junkie. Big fan of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History (go check out his podcast if you’re even slightly into history and historical warfare; his Great War series is top-notch). The fact that I get to experience these milestone events—even just fictitious recreations—has me giddy with excitement. This is why I call it Historical Tourism. The series takes an immensely important period of history and lets you experience it. You don’t just read or hear about it. You don’t just see the buildings or streets. You can walk the streets. Climb the buildings. Kill the popes!

The historical set pieces featured in most of these games have always hit their mark best, in my opinion, when you realize what the event you are about to witness actually is. Assassin’s Creed III is the period I was most familiar with prior to starting the game (thanks US History class!). Early in the story, prior to donning the iconic uniform of the order, your character is exploring Boston with his mentor, when a crowd catches his attention. Tensions are rising as the cut-scene pushes in, framing the people against a backdrop of buildings that is burned into the memories of most American high school students who paid attention in history class. Suddenly, my heat sank as I realized I was watching the Boston Massacre unfold as Redcoats raised their muskets toward the unruly crowd in front of the State House.

Other games in the series had similar moments, be it the assassination of Cesare Borgia, Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge running the reef to his eventual doom and storming The Bastille to kick off the French Revolution. I was aware of Blackbeard’s end and the general events of The Bastille prior to the games, which each filled me with excitement and a little sadness. The events of Assassin’s Creed II  and Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood take place in Renaissance Italy, a period I wasn’t largely familiar with prior to the games. However, after playing the games, I eventually took a class in college called History of the Papacy. During that class, it was very interesting to see how excited a large amount of the students were getting the closer we got to the Borgia popes, with many of them (myself included) directly citing II and Brotherhood. This excitement in history due to our slight familiarity of the events told in a game made me start thinking about the possibilities for education with this series.

When Ubisoft, the publisher of Assassin’s Creed Origins, announced they were launching an educational, virtual museum mode called Discovery Mode aimed for use in schools, I was overjoyed. For years, I championed the idea Ubisoft should use the assets available from Assassin’s Creed to create an educator-friendly series that lets students and learners interact with the past in a novel and unique way. AND NOW, THEY’VE DONE IT.

Discovery Mode strips away combat and adds more information in each of the locations, essentially transforming Cleopatra’s Egypt into a virtual museum exhibit. You can see how old the Egyptian civilization was based on the pyramids already being in partial ruin millennia ago. You can better understand the politics by seeing who was alive and active in the same time and place. Again, I love it.

And of course, Origins features a handful of set-piece historical moments we interact with or witness, including the defeat of Pompey and the presentation of his head to Julius Caesar, sneaking Cleopatra to Caesar in a rolled-up carpet and even participating in the assassination of Caesar alongside Brutus and the other co-conspirators.

Assassin’s Creed is not only fun to play, but it makes history fun. While they take story-telling liberties with various moments, it is often either blatantly fictional, as there are also science-fiction and historical conspiracy elements heavily in each entry, or no more offensive than many historical fiction novels or movies. It is this love of history that makes me, and I’m sure many others, love this series.

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