In a fit of generosity, Ubisoft are literally giving away the research and knowledge that they’ve built up over the course of Assassin’s Creed Origins’ development. As part of an update coming out next week on 20th February is Discovery Tour by Assassin’s Creed, letting you take a dive into the setting, the people, their lives and the rich tapestry of gods that made up this fascinating era.
After exploring some of Discover Tour, which you can read about here, we spoke to Maxime Durand, Franchise Historian at Ubisoft Montreal. To add a little spice, a little adventure to the interview, we chucked in a pop quiz on Ancient Egyptian history to test Maxime’s, with the questions and answers coming from our resident history buff Ade – he’s the one behind those Playing With History features.
TSA: Discovery Tour looks like a really great tool for learning, and one of the main points is actually making all this research you’ve done easy to bring into the classrooms. The only problem is that I don’t think there’s many schools out there that have got rooms full of Xbox Ones or high end gaming PCs, and that feels like the main hurdle.
Maxime: So the first thing was to actually try to get that info. Every place in the world, every province, every state has a different education system, everyone uses different tools, and so a lot of places use tablets, but not everyone. There are lots of difference in quality for what they can use.
Most schools don’t have any consoles, and we were very aware of that, but the thing that they have in common is the PC. You mentioned the high end PC isn’t something that most schools have, but that’s fine. We tried to achieve a quality that could run on PCs that are quite a few years old, because it doesn’t ask for the same requirements as the main game.
It’s the first time we do this, it’s the first time we try to create an educational tool, and hopefully people like it and this will give us a reason to push further in developing these tools and making them even more accessible.
TSA: I guess one of the things pushing you is that the games are already being used in an educational setting. One thing from your presentation was that professors would take footage of the game, play it back and people to criticise it. I’m curious how getting that criticism feels, when you do try and be historically accurate?
Maxime: For me, there are two sides to this. On one side, it’s very healthy that people can do that and criticise. The educational world, and even more in universities, professors will criticise. They’ve been doing that they’re whole career as scientists!
So I think that’s fine, but on the other side, one thing that was more bothersome was that some people would criticise out of ignorance. They believed sometimes that we made design choices because we didn’t know history, which was not true. This was why it was very important for us to create these behind the scenes places and moments and to integrate the content that inspired us, so that people would understand how we made these decisions.
We wanted to give that information and explain that, because again, there’s real value in saying that this is one perspective of Ancient Egypt, even with the best research that we’ve done, it’s a subjective history. So here’s as many examples as we can give and I think we achieved quite a lot; not as much as I think we would like, because at some point we had to find a good balance of making something interesting.
TSA: There’s probably an accountant going, “Ooooh, you guys are spending a lot of money!” [laughs]
Maxime: Well not exactly. It came from us asking to do this and we took the budget out of the main game to do this.
TSA: You can’t say that, people are going to be so angry now that you’ve said that you took the game budget and spent it on history stuff!
Maxime: [laughs] Well it was crazy, because it was the Creative Director convincing the Producer to let us do this. It didn’t come from external pressure, it’s just we thought it was a good thing to do and our CEO has a policy of saying we should enrich players’ lives, whatever we do. Obviously he was the first person we needed on board, and he was, so that really helped us.
The fact that we’ve been doing this for a long time, the fact that teachers have been asking for this has given us credibility to do it, and it’s been a very fun experience. Obviously, we’re not there to replace teachers and it’s a tool if they want to use it, but it’s also a very enriching tool for people that just played the regular game. They receive this for free and they can enhance their experience. […] Everything they’ve seen in the main game, they will get a new perspective on that.
For example, the fact that we put men and women on an equal step in Ancient Egypt isn’t based on the fact that we’re making this game in the 21st century where men and women are more equal, it’s also based on the fact that Ancinet Egyptians were a more equal society and men and women were equal in rights. These are the kinds of information that have real value and give you a better perspective on that.
TSA: Going back to the kinds of tradeoffs that you have to make Assassin’s Creed be a fun game, have there been any times where you’ve put your foot down and said they really can’t do something?
Maxime: So, yes! [laughs] In part, that’s my job. I’ve been here since 2010, freshly graduated from university. I knew video games and I liked them before, but as the historian I was asking myself where my position was here? Where does it stop that I can say to them that we have to be historically accurate?
So I learnt through that process, and i learnt that the more information you give to the team in advance, the better. We have a huge database that we use internally of videos and books, so I scan a lot of books that we buy…
TSA: So you’ve got your own little Library of Alexandria going? I assume you don’t send the copies back to Amazon, though. Hey! I learnt something!
Maxime: That’s another topic! But giving people more information ahead of time makes people more aware of the same ideas about what Ancient Egypt was like, means I have less to punish at the end.
I’ll give you an example, where in an early concept we have mango trees pretty much everywhere. They wanted to put fruit trees everywhere, which made sense because it’s Egypt and it’s very lush, but mangos were only imported later on by Arabs. It didn’t make much sense in Cleopatra’s Egypt, and so the compromise that we took was to change the mango trees to pomegranate trees, because that was in Ancient Egypt since the beginning, it’s about the same colour and size. That’s the kind of compromise where I have to think of a solution before I say anything.
Or with the Sphinx, where you’ll learn in the Discovery Tour that we did five to seven takes on the Sphinx before going to a more historical perspective. We tried a subjective perspective first, taken from pictures that you see and what you’d expect. The lens in the game changes the way you see it a little bit, so we have to play with proportions a lot, but the first takes we were doing didn’t make sense and looked cartoonish. […] In the end we actually used the photogrammetry, the 3D scans from scientists, and we made it as accurate as possible so that no-one can complain about it! This is it, this is the best you can get!
TSA: OK, so now I want to change the tone a bit. It’s time for an Ancient Egyptian history pop quiz! One of our guys, Ade, does a Playing With History feature about history as seen in video games, and he’s come up with a few quick questions to test you.
First up, how did the Sphinx lose its nose?
Maxime: Aha! So in modern times, they say it’s from Napoleon’s expedition, which is false. He didn’t shoot a cannon or have his men shoot a cannon at the Sphinx – it wouldn’t have blown off just the nose! And it’s not Obelix from the Asterix & Obelix comic books.
It was actually an Arab from the time period in Egypt that was a religious man and believed that the Sphinx was a disgrace for his religion and decided to remove the nose. He was burned alive under the Sphinx for that.
One of the Egyptologists that uncovered the Sphinx in the 19th century, he found ashes at the bottom of the Sphinx, so we’re not sure if the ashes are from incense from sacrifices or from this guy who was burned.
TSA: A very good answer. Next, how many slaves were used to build the Great Pyramid?
Maxime: Technically zero!.
TSA: Good, that’s exactly the answer that I have here!
Maxime: [laughs] It’s more complex than that, but recent archaeology shows us that they were actually very well fed.
TSA: Yeah, the answer I’ve got here is that they were paid in beer and bread.
Maxime: And meat!
They served under a system like serfs in the middle ages. They had to give days to their lord, and so they’d go to the pyramid for a certain amount of time, like two months or three months, and they would rotate back to their fields.
TSA: How many cities called Alexandria did Alexander the Great found?
Maxime: Oh, that’s a good one. I think it’s probably 20, or something?
TSA: I’ve got “70-ish”.
Maxime: Yeah, it’s crazy. He was very humble.
TSA: Were there any annual ceremonies the Pharaoh had to perform to make the Nile flood?
Maxime: You know, gods in Ancient Egypt weren’t just black and white, they weren’t only good and evil, they all had different personalities. Hapi was the god of the Nile and in his other divinities was associated with fertility, mostly in different villages.
So it was very important the Pharaoh respected the gods – he wasn’t quite a god himself, well, in some regards he was. Anyway, I’m going to great lengths to say that yes, there were a lot of festivals that were very important in Ancient Egypt. It’s very rich and very complex.
TSA: So, can you give me one example of a ritual? Probably the most outlandish one you can think of?
Maxime: There’s the jubilee? We have some engravings from Pharaoh Joseph, from his 22nd year jubilee, and he liked to run around in a circle and that celebrated his reign.
TSA: Well, OK. I’ve got “and then ejaculates into the Nile.” [laughs]
Maxime: Yeah, so Osiris, when he’s reborn is missing his genitals, and so his wife and his sister are bringing back his genitals so that he can impregnate his wife Isis, so that she can give birth to Horus to avenge him. That’s also linked to fertility.
TSA: The last question I’ve got, and this is slightly related, is: what would Ancient Egyptians use as contraception? Ade says, “That always results in fun answers.”
Maxime: [laughs] I know that, and these aren’t exactly Egyptian, but in a location of Cyrene that we have, they used silphium, the extract from the plant. I guess Ancient Egyptians would probably use ochre, because they always use ochre for something, and quite possible honey for, yeah, pretty much everything.
TSA: [laughs] Sadly Ade says it’s a Pessary, which is made of crocodile dung and sometimes honey which is inserted up the vagina. Apparently it actually would work as the dung acts as a spermicide! It sounds wonderful.
Thanks to Maxime for chatting about Discovery Tour, you can catch our impressions on this here, or simply wait until this time next week where it will have been added to Assassin’s Creed Origins in an update!