The game might just be the best history book on the French Revolution to date.
It's no surprise that Laurent Turcot, a professor at The Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, is a bit of a details person. It's the reason the team behind Assassin's Creed Unity recruited him to be the historian behind its latest installment of the murder-for-hire franchise, which is set during the French Revolution.
As we spoke at the game's launch party, Turcot couldn't help but joke about two of the hired costumed actors a few yards away from us.
"Sometimes when you're out on a date, you can see that (sort of costume)," said Turcot of Paris, a place he said has been the fashion capital of the world since the middle ages. "At that point in time, people wanted to be at the front of fashion."
Because I had to ask the question, he admitted, with a heavy sigh, that the signature white hooded uniforms worn by the Assassin's Creed series' antiheroes would similarly stand out like a Timbit in a French pastry shop at the time of the French Revolution.
Many of the most successful game franchises fulfill some sort of fantasy. Mario Kart for those who want to drive on a space-rainbow. Grand Theft Auto for those who want to do loop-de-loops in an armed chopper before crash-landing onto a street of pedestrians. Assassin's Creed, which will swat at your hand for pointlessly killing bystanders, champions its historical settings, letting players parkour and swan-dive into hay bales throughout recorded time.
Previous games have taken players through the likes of Crusades-era Damascus, Jerusalem, Renaissance Italy, and the American Revolution. The newest game, Assassin's Creed Unity, which Turcot was recruited for, takes place in Paris during the French Revolution, a location with the potential to be recreated uncannily. So why not try?
"What they wanted to do was crazy," said Turcot. "The first time they contacted me, I said that what they wanted to do was unimaginable. It's like taking a city like 19th century New York, and recreating it completely. It's so dense. So many buildings. I just said, let's go. I went to the archives in Paris, took out the plans of buildings."
Turcot is an expert on the era, but the level of attention required was insane. He travelled to Paris to scan their archives. Being under an non-disclosure agreement meant he couldn't tell the staff there that he was passing in and out on behalf of a blockbuster video game.
Laurent's work on the game wasn't related to the story arc, or what he described as the game's politics. He, an expert on 18th century France, was brought in for the details. The minutia. Architecture, art, culture, behaviour. Things that, over history, have been somewhat boiled into stereotypes or inaccuracies.
While Paris still obviously stands, Unity couldn't just replicate its contemporary appearance, or likewise copy the final segment in Mel Brook's History of the World, Part I, though if any game developer does want to make that, by all means. I'd be way into it. One of the major set-pieces of the game is the Bastille, which was destroyed in 1789.
"Paris of the 18th century doesn't exist anymore," said Turcot. "To build it from scratch, you have to take archives, paintings, engravings. That was my job. To show them everything that we have on visual culture. To be able to reconstruct it."
Paris of that time was, as he described, a 'rat hole.' Full of filth, poverty and stench, somehow worse than what you can currently find there. "It's when you play you'll understand," said Turcot, "Paris is just so dirty, everywhere."
All that said, this Paris isn't just a Les Miz program (though Turcot does say Parisians would often sing to mock the king). Amid guillotine executions and turmoil, life went on. People went to work, to marketplaces, life went on.
Turcot said to compare it to when major protests happen in your city, certainly a lot of public attention is fixated on these demonstrations, but most of the city functions as per usual. "The baker made bread every day," said Turcot. "People went to the theatre. You can see that in the game."
It's easy to see that Turcot is enthusiastic about having fleshed out Paris as it was hundreds of years ago. He keeps contrasting this work against publishing an academic journal, which is deemed a success to be circulated amongst hundreds, while Assassin's Creed Unity will probably be played by millions. He says the offer was like Doc Brown showing up in the Delorean to go on an adventure, except to a period he's spent his life researching instead of the Old West.
Turcot said he'll be the first to volunteer when the holodeck gets invented, when we'll need historians to reconstruct the past so we can tempt fate for a simulation program to go wrong and stick us with Marie Antoinette, Abe Lincoln and those tiny little raptors from Jurassic Park or something. While this probably shouldn't be the case, Assassin's Creed Unity may be the most some people will ever learn about the French Revolution, a veritable birth nest of our right versus left-wing politics.
Though the story plays out on the conspiracies of shadow-hiding assassins who control the threads of fate, Turcot is delighted with the results of his own input. The city itself. Paris. He kind of hopes Ubisoft will make a mod removing all of the missions, story, and characters, just let players float around 18th century Paris in all its virtual glory. He'd love to use it to teach his students.
In other words, Assassin's Creed Unity, might just be the greatest history book on the French Revolution to date.