The Assassin’s Creed games have always been eye-popping affairs. Right from the first instalment in which players took on the role of Altaïr, an assassin making his way to targets dotted around the Crusade-era Middle East, the attention to detail in the games’ historical backdrops have been a wonder to behold.
While video game constraints have always been a factor (no, it’s not possible to ride from Medieval London to Hadrian’s Wall in a matter of minutes, no matter what Assassin’s Creed Valhalla would have you believe), the developers behind the franchise expend great effort to ensure their game worlds look as much like their historical inspirations as possible.
Just take a look at the Roman ruins dotted about the English countryside in Valhalla, the Renaissance architecture of Assassin’s Creed II, or the steeply inclined roofs players traverse in pre-revolution Paris in Assassin’s Creed Unity.
The Assassin’s Creed developers’ motto is “history is our playground” and the series’ Discovery Tour modes, available in the last three instalments Origins, Odyssey, and now Valhalla, take this credo more than a few steps further. For enthusiasts of history, they’re a goldmine.
Discovery Tour is essentially Assassin’s Creed stripped down to a walking tour through the games’ historical landmarks. Unencumbered by Non-Player-Characters (NPCs) attacking them or generally making their lives difficult, players can wander around the ancient world and simply take in the sights. This interactivity is accompanied by audio commentary, a timeline and extra textual information.
Walking in ancient Egypt
In Origins, for example, players can take in a tour of the pyramids of Egypt. This not only accounts for the stunning symmetrical architecture of these wonders, but explores how they were built, the labour involved, the composition of the materials used in their construction and the reasons they were built in the first place.
Similarly, the Pharos Lighthouse and the Library of Alexandria are given their due consideration. The tour involving them is interjected with present day renderings. They are also placed in historical context. For visiting tourists, they’re astonishing relics of times gone by. For those who used them, they were structures with functions and utilities.
Hiking with the Hellenes
The Discovery Tour in Odyssey takes the groundwork laid down by Origins and builds upon it. It does this in much the same way the base game builds on the mechanics, visuals, and overall experience of its predecessor.
In Odyssey, players can visit renowned landmarks such at the Parthenon in Athens and the Amphitheatre of Cyrene. It aims to contextualise their ancient appearance as well as their virtual interpretations. For example, the developers hold their hands up and admit the amphitheatre was based on a Roman design, with Greek amphitheatres more oblong in shape.
And while we’re used to seeing statues and landmarks from this era cut in white marble, with no colours at all, Odyssey’s Discovery Tour makes the point that all of the statues on display were originally painted to better represent the figures they depicted.
Athens’ most famous structure is presented in-game in all its ancient glory, but it is also intercut with images of how it exists in a modern context. It’s rather heart-breaking, while informative. It explains how the Persians set it alight, and then much later many of its friezes were taken to the British Museum.
Gateways into ancient history
There’s something rather calming about walking around the worlds contained in Assassin’s Creed: Origins and Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey without having to watch your back. Being able to simply soak up Ubisoft’s interpretation of the past in a specific game mode testifies to a certain investment on the creators’ part in their audience learning about their games’ historical settings.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla’s Discovery Mode hasn’t dropped yet, but when it does it should be quite an eye-opener for anyone who has played the game. First off, as the historians working on the game were well aware, Viking history in England is hard to track down.
Secondly, the Medieval time period and English setting of Valhalla lacks the shock and awe of the Pyramids of Giza or the Temple of Athene Nike. Or does it? There’s an opportunity here for Ubisoft to embark on a whole new Discovery Mode, one which directs attention off the beaten path towards places and stories that confound expectations.