For a full decade now, Ubisoft has used the Assassin's Creed series as an excuse to let players get all stabby with the likes of everything from Knights Templar and pirates to sans-culottes. Only now, apparently, it's realizing it can use these big-budget bestsellers to teach actual history.
A few months after the launch of the upcoming ancient Egyptian-themed Assassin's Creed Origins, players will get to download a separate, peaceful "Discovery Tour" mode that lets them wander about the streets of ancient Egypt without having to worry about outrunning guards or pickpocketing random passersby.
Instead, as you amble about, genuine Egyptologists and historians will give you guided tours of the game's world on subjects ranging from mummification to the Great Pyramids, delivering real historical knowledge about what you're seeing compared to what the base game gives you.
"Discovery Tour is another way to enjoy the beauty of the world we've recreated," said Jean Guesdon, creative director for Assassin's Creed Origins, in the announcement. "It's a more educative mode, so it's clearly focused on education and on bringing to people actual facts, more academic knowledge."
But will it be fun without the stabby bits?
As a former history PhD candidate, I admit some bias, but I believe it will. Assassin's Creed has always been ripe for something like this, and I believe its brilliantly realized historical settings account for more of its appeal than the murderery bits. Many of my studies centered on the Italian Renaissance, and I first fell in love with the series with 2009's Assassin's Creed II and its faithful recreations of iconic structures like Florence's Duomo and the Ponte Vecchio. Ubisoft's attention to detail in this regard is so powerful that archivists at the Boston State House asked to use Ubisoft's research to help them restore the real-life building.
But Assassin's Creed's historical appeal isn't just about remaking buildings. It's the full package. The series stands apart because the extreme budgets involved allowed the street running through the Ponte Vecchio to burst alive with hawkers' shouts and Savonarolan sermons belted from disdainful doomsayers. Few other media allow for this kind of immersive experience quite like games. Movies lock you into a personal story, keeping the details of history limited to cinematography. Books reveal more information than anything else, but also leave much to the imagination. Games, though, can let you just "be."
I'm convinced the Assassin's Creed series would have died out long ago if soaking in the environment weren't as fun as backstabbing French bureaucrats. I'd say it's even more fun. After all, it's largely the settings that change from game to game; the basic action of sneaking, stabbing, and collecting items barely alters. All in all, I wouldn't even call that gameplay satisfying. It's arguably boring.
The appeal, instead, has always been in the exploration: the arduous climbs up Paris' Notre Dame cathedral while peering down on the repulsiveness of the River Seine's waters during the French Revolution of Assassin's Creed Unity. It's in presentations of familiar places that clash with our present understanding of them, as in the ramshackle chaos of Nassau in Black Flag age before the millionaires moved in. And it's worth noting that Ubisoft plans to emphasize this appeal in Assassin's Creed Origins.
"We wanted to show Egypt is a varied playground. Not just deserts," Raphael Lacoste, brand art director on Assassin's Creed, said last August in an interview with IGN detailing the increased focus on exploration. "We studied the geography and the nature coming from different biomes. And with this varied world comes varied fauna: leopards, rhinos, baboons, lions, hippos, crocodiles, horses, camels, rabbits, cats."
That's enough to make me interested in the series again. I consider the pirate-themed Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag one of the finest games of the current decade, but the series began to lose me with Assassin's Creed: Unity. I'd simply grown bored with the repetitive combat and the casual slaughter, which never really attracted me much in the first place. But seeing first-hand how mummification was performed? Learning more about Cleopatra? And all in a package that presumably won't embarrass me if I try to use it in a light conversation with an academic? That's the good stuff. More of this, please. It's another step toward maturity for games as a whole.