Climbing the Colosseum in Rome: the Immersion of History in the Assassin’s Creed Game Series.

Article written by Rhiannon Pickin. Edited and Researched by Richita Bhattacharyya.

The Colosseum

In an age of technological advances and a thriving gaming industry, video games undoubtedly affect the way that history is presented and developed.

One of the most prominent historically set games in the past decade has been the Assassins Creed series, which has taken players from the sights and sounds of Holy Land during the Third Crusade to the modern day apocalypse.

The reason for this focus on this series is that it engages with the discourse of history. Its unique game play allows the player to read about history and to wonder through the recreated streets of past societies. Some would say that this level of gaming could in fact become part of the way history is perceived in the public eye but perhaps it may also become part of the historical debate.

The story follows the modern protagonist Desmond Miles who through a machine called the “Animus” relives/replays the lives of his ancestors throughout history; specifically the Holy Land, Renaissance Italy and the American War of Independence. All of these environments create an exciting backdrop to the action of the game where you can talk to historical figures, witness important events as well as becoming a part of them, therefore creating a virtual and unique historical experience for the gamer.

What all these games have in common is the fact that the player can chose to learn about the environment they move through yet there needs to be a sense of understanding or an awareness of the environment you are moving through. An important aspect of the series is the use of well-known historical figures such as King Richard I, Leonardo Di Vinci, the Borgia Family and the Founding Fathers of America. When the protagonist engages with these characters it makes the experience unique so much so that when you get a distinct character he or she will affect the way you view these historical figures.

These do not necessarily give a biased view however as different attributes of these figures which are historically documented do make their way into the games. Therefore when one is engaging with a historically controversial player, it encourages people to read more about it. In one example in Assassins Creed 3, you discover George Washington has ordered an attack on a Native American village. The game plays on the common knowledge we have and the positive portrayal Washington has enjoyed throughout history and so the player does not expect this.

One of the main selling points of the series is also that they are set in different and exciting historical settings that allow the player to scale up buildings and perform assassinations from historical monuments. In each game you could also press a button as you walked past one of these and information about its construction and history would become available to read on the screen. Such an example is the famous coliseum in Rome. You could also become a part of historical events, for example including helping the Boston Tea Party throw crates of tea into the waters of Boston harbour. This creates a fantastic and entertaining experience for the player as it feels that they themselves are recreating history.

Whilst there are examples of historical inaccuracy the commitment to creating an impressive and realistic game environment to encompass a story of fantasy can arguably create a more traditional aspect of historical presentation in favouring accuracy over interpretation. For instance, whilst researching for Assassin’s Creed 2, co-writer Cory May consulted several historians as well as studying Machiavelli’s contemporary history of the city of Florence.

However, a postmodern view can be used to evaluate the effect of the historical interpretation of the series. Some could argue that the series tells us more about ourselves than it does about the past. As well as studying old histories of the cities of Italy, Cory May also stated in his blog that some buildings would have looked different to how they do know and so history has been appropriated for the viewer. For instance the façade on the clock tower of Venice’s Saint Mark’s Square looks different to how it does today and so the creative team recreated a more modern looking version of the monument.

Assassin’s Creed has attracted a wide variety of gamers because of the kind of entertainment it offers. Although the series has been dismissed as showing little historical accuracy, there is clearly some attempt to create a realistic environment to absorb the player into the game and its story. There seems to be an underlining feeling of something needing historical research, even if just the feeling of history is achieved. Even the inaccuracies of the series are useful in themselves to show why public history becomes false for the purposes of satisfying our own basic knowledge of the period in question.

In years to come perhaps Assassin’s Creed shall become a part of the historical debate in how our generation perceived history either because of these games or how the team behind it wanted to present it to us for the purposes of entertainment and awe. I only wish that the last game had been released earlier though; it would have helped with my American history module, even on the basis of background knowledge.

Did You Know:

-The Assassin’s Creed series is inspired by Vladimir Bartol’s novel called, Alamut.
-A new game in this series will be released in 2014, with a completely new hero.
-There are also mobile games discovered by Assassin’s Creed fanatics, which are similar to the game.

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