There are, broadly and unscientifically, two ways that museums display their material. There are the museum’s “exhibitions,” which bring artistic works and historical artifacts out into the world and use them to tell stories. These are temporary spaces, crafted via curation to send shivers up your spine as you feel a sudden, acute connection to and understanding of people, places, and ideas that were formerly entirely separate and alien to you.
Then there’s the museum’s “collection,” those objects which tend to be on permanent display, loaned to other institutions, or kept in secure storage. Here, these artistic and historic materials often feel like dead, distant objects, locked behind display cases and in vaults.
The newly-released “Discovery Tour” in Assassin’s Creed Origins, which lets you explore a combat and narrative-free version of its world, is an experience like no other—unfortunately, it’s also more collection that exhibition.
“Discovery Tour” turns Ubisoft’s brilliant and evocative late-Ptolemaic Egypt into a virtual museum, complete with dozens of guided tours of landmarks, complete with audio lectures. But it also seems to bleach much of the life and context out of that world, transforming a game that played like a living exhibit into assortment of assets accompanied by basic facts and trivia.
Mind you, it’s still an incredibly cool thing: As you guide your character around the world, following illuminated paths from one point of interest to the next, you receive short histories of a variety of subjects that help inform the world of Assassin’s Creed Origins. It’s not just that you’re walking around staring at different game locations while someone narrates, either. Each snippet of text is accompanied by illustrations and photographs to provide a little more insight or context around what you’re hearing.
As you stare up at the Lighthouse of Alexandria, and hear about how it eventually crumbled from earthquakes, you can tap a button and see its likeness captured on a worn-down ancient coin. It reminds you that this amazing building, such a gorgeous and awe-inspiring landmark for much of the game, was also an everyday object for its contemporaries. It’s a neat touch, one of many that you’ll find throughout these tours, and it shows that Ubisoft clearly went an extra mile or two in creating “Discovery Tour.” That care makes it a valuable appendix for Assassin’s Creed Origins or a cool educational supplement for the interested learner or teacher.
But in transforming Assassin’s Creed Origins into a vast diorama, “Discovery Tour” also breaks many of the connections that brought that world to life. The meaning of the dynastic squabbles of the Ptolemys, the tension between the African and Greek cultures that lived alongside each other, the significance of Rome’s arrival on the scene… all of that was played out and explained via the game’s story. It captured both the rhythms of everyday life and the massive political upheavals that were happening behind the scenes, and showed the connections between culture, art, race politics, and the sweep of history. Admittedly, it did this via a highly dramatized version of Rome’s annexation of the Ptolemaic Kingdom, but it was nevertheless successful in sparking both curiosity and communicating historical significance.
By contrast, in “Discovery Tour” the Egypt that feels so lively and well-realized in the main game begins to show its seams as a simulation. With nothing to do and few events occurring that will draw a reaction from the NPCs, you’ll notice more things like identical animations firing at the same time in crowds of people. Worse, the in-game lectures lean far too much on Wikipedia intro-style material and consistently left me feeling short-changed when it came to creating a sense of historical context and meaning. “Discover Tour” presented a bunch of “stuff” from ancient Egypt, but didn’t really fit it into a framework that would help all that disparate information accrete into a greater meaning or deeper understanding of the period. Ironically, you need to play the game for that—or to be using some other source in conjunction with the mode.
As I played, I found myself thinking a lot about the Field Museum’s “Pompeii: Stories from an Eruption” exhibition in Chicago, which took place about ten years ago. There was nothing “new” there, exactly. Some of the materials were of course new or on loan, but it’s not like our group of Classics majors was unfamiliar with the story of the Roman resort city, and the archaeological treasure trove that was a byproduct of its annihilation. But something about how it was all arranged, the way the tour walked us through three of the major sites and the relics of ordinary life that had been recovered there made it all seem real in a way it hadn’t been before.
There was one room that essentially re-created a section of one of the Pompeii dig sites, a place where a large group of people had huddled together and eventually died, leaving behind casts of their remains. I remember standing there a long time, after the rest of my classmates had gone on, alone with a long row of reproduced plaster casts of the dead, rearranged in the places and positions they’d been when the end came for them. I’d read so much, translated so much, seen so many examples of art and architecture… and it wasn’t until that moment that the humanity of this long-gone ancient world became palpable to me, as well as the ephemerality of my own.
There are a lot of things that draw people to history, and a lot of valid approaches to interpreting and relating to the past. But there’s something powerful about those moments when we realize that people in an ancient era in a distant land are not some alien beings that left us inscrutable relics for us all to gawk at, but were people who shared much with us, who faced struggles that might be familiar or relatable to us even if the specifics are foreign, and whose culture and achievements were not just bricks on the road of progress.
It’s why one of the most interesting beats in “Discovery Tour” is not about history, but about the choices made in re-creating it. There’s a brief tour where you walk through a school in Alexandria, full of kids half-paying attention to their lecturers and half to the tablets they hold in their hands like smartphones. The classes are full of little boys and girls, and the tour admits that such educations were a privilege afforded only to boys, and girls would have been excluded. For the sake of “inclusive gameplay,” Ubisoft chose not to reproduce this in their game.
It’s a moment that gives us a glimpse of how Ubisoft approaches making game worlds relatable to a wide audience. I admit I have some reservations: even setting aside the silly censorship of classical art, I think you can go too far with this kind of revisionism. Much about ancient societies was exploitative and prejudiced, and historical works are better off wrestling with that reality effacing it for the sake of presenting a deceptively friendly and welcoming picture of history to a modern audience.
But that’s not really the purpose this inclusion serves (and there is no shortage of cruelty and oppression on display in Assassin’s Creed Origins). What this one choice does is help forge that connection between subject and audience, to make this setting feel real and familiar to people playing today. It’s the difference between merely reciting and showcasing a collection of facts, and exhibiting history to an audience that has never truly encountered it before.
As you watch the students listen to their teacher’s lecture, a young girl’s attention starts to drift on a warm afternoon in Alexandria, and she stares across the bay at the Lighthouse. Maybe she’s wondering about the other worlds beyond it, and what they might be like to visit. It’s a hard thing to imagine, until you can picture yourself being there.