“The Role of Historical Accuracy in Storytelling: Assassin’s Creed Syndicate”

The most obvious, yet, abundantly difficult aspect of writing a novel or script set in previous time period, is remaining historically accurate.  Historical pieces of fiction are undervalued by mainstream audiences, and even when they are enjoyed, readers are unlikely to stop and think about the countless hours of research needed to tell that specific story, whether it is set across decades or in a single year.  In the digital age, not only do we have increasingly realistic movies and the constant stream of great literature, we, as consumers of stories, have the medium of video games. 

Even ten years ago, the stories told in modern games would not have been possible, but thanks to a heavy focus on technology across the world, today, video games are capable of telling stories with polished scripts supplemented by layered worlds.  The popularity of video games which has captured the majority of society from hardcore enthusiasts purchasing blockbuster titles at retail chains on release day to parents and grandparents fiddling with iPads and smartphones, enjoying the latest free to play trend, and increased popularity and mainstream appeal creates higher budgets for game studios. 

The biggest game releases destroy the budgets of major studio films each year.  And in the world of games, Ubisoft and Electronic Arts are the Universal’s and Sony’s of video games.  EA is a staple for sports games among others, while Ubisoft’s efforts to capture a wide audience has been vast and sprawling.  Today, one franchise is synonymous with Ubisoft.  Their flagship franchise since its debut in 2007, each year, Ubisoft has released at least one entry into the series, always with a prominent focus on history.

On October 23rd, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate hits shelves.  Progressing through history over the course of the series, the latest title raises the stakes for historical accuracy due to the place and time of the tale.  On the heels of the Industrial Revolution, Syndicate is set in 1868 London.  Recently, I had the opportunity to explore London with the people behind the game in order to better understand the backdrop and evolution of the game.  Just like historical novels and films, video game scripts go through major revisions to remain as authentic as possible, taking liberties only when absolutely necessary for consumer enjoyment.  The team at Ubisoft Quebec, in their first time at the helm of the company’s annual series, sought out to bring players to a very specific time and place for the first time with the goal of maintaining the suspension of disbelief.

Syndicate’s Creative Director, Marc-Alexis Cote says, “London at the time was the capital of the largest empire humanity had ever known.  He goes on to state, “It takes place directly after the Industrial Revolution, a period in history that completely changed mankind.  We went from a medieval society to the modern world that we live in today.”  Cote’s remarks only add to the pressure, since London, in 1868, was an epicenter of culture thats influence can still be felt in modern society, especially in modern day London.  “We use this context to transform the Assassin’s Creed experience,” Cote emphasized in his presentation in an old warehouse building straight from nineteenth century London.

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Concept Art: Buckingham Palace.  Provided by Ubisoft.

In order to transform, Ubisoft brought in expert counsel.  Judith Flanders, Historical Consultant, specializes in nineteenth century daily life in Britain during the Victorian era.  Her role, which included details as small and unnoticeable as the design of fire engines, carriages, and pubs, was an intricate part of the creation of the game.  When she received the script, written by twenty-first century North Americans’, Flanders had to set aside her love for the story that unfolded in order to comb through the dialogue for loose threads that could potentially remove the player from 1868 London.  She worked to develop a whole language that fit the time period while not hindering the flow of the story.  For instance, when she came across idioms such as “to cut a long story short,” she questioned whether that phrase was used, providing alternatives when necessary.  Perhaps oversharing, but amusing nonetheless, Flanders said she knew 97 different ways to say “you’re mad” during that time, and presented various slang words for alcohol: any kind would have been referred to as gargle or turps, gin was white velvet and beer was reeb, its letters appearing an opposite order from modern usage.  As Flanders noted, addressing people at the time was more complicated than today where we normally use first names in most settings, and the script needed to be reworked in order to fit the traditions and standards in 1868.  In addition to working with dialogue, she verified, after the proper research, proposed names of weapons and other items in the game, going as far to specify the differences between artificial light photography and flash photography.  They researched child labor laws, pub names, and the placement and amount of carriages across the different Boroughs of London which ranged widely from the rich bankers of Westminster to the less affluent areas such as White Chapel.  She says the scrupulous research was done in order to “create a textured, reality behind the characters in the game.”

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Concept Art: Westminster Abbey.  Provided by Ubisoft.

Lydia Andrews, Audio Director, worked with Grammy nominated composer, Austin Wintory to combine the score, underscore and the in game music throughout the game, a first for the series to dive that far down the rabbit hole in the pursuit of seamless immersion for the player.  Using famous songs like “Champagne Charlie” and “The Ballad of Sam Hall,” Andrews worked to incorporate the way they were sung across the various Boroughs into the incidental times of the game where Wintory’s score overlapped piano players and singers inside the pubs. 

During the tour of London, Jonathan Dumont, World Director, described how the team scaled the iconic London landmark, Big Ben, to fit in the game as well as other London staples like the Tower of London and Buckingham Palace.  Thankfully, twenty-first century still holds a certain nineteenth century atmosphere as many of the buildings are hundreds of years old so recreating the streets and buildings was a matter of proportions.  Still, with the presence of London as it is today, recreating the city as authentically as possible was incredibly important and took many hours of walking the streets, taking pictures, recording film, and jotting down notes to implement in the game.  Famous historical figures from the time also make appearances in the game.  During my time with Syndicate, I crossed paths with the voice of nineteenth century London, one of the most treasured novelists of all time, Charles Dickens. 

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Concept Art: Westminster Abbey.  Provided by Ubisoft.

Some of their hard work will likely go unnoticed to the casual gamer, but like every good piece of historical fiction, the little things add up to create a believable portrait.  The research that went into the game is not unlike that of a historical novelist, but since the finished product is an interactive experience, its missteps are amplified.  Ubisoft left no stone unturned in the development of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate from their research to writing the script and creating the world housing its protagonists, Jacob and Evie Frye.  They experience 1868 London for the first time just like the player, a good story mechanism for teaching the consumer about the world in front of their eyes.  Syndicate is sure to please longtime fans of the series, newcomers, history buffs, and even accidental spectators intrigued by the story of 1868 London.

Steven Petite

About Steven Petite

Steven Petite received his Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing from Cleveland State University and is currently pursuing a Masters in Publishing Studies at Southeastern Louisiana University. His journalism has appeared in Playboy, Huffington Post, Crixeo, Ranker, New York Game Critics Circle, and others. His fiction has appeared in Cigale Literary Magazine. He can be reached at stevenpetite@gmail.com.