Assassin's Creed Unity video game an intriguing view of French Revolution

'Assassin's Creed: Unity,' a video game set during the French Revolution, hits shelves Tuesday. Ubisoft's Toronto and Montreal studios worked for years to build an accurate digital version of Paris in 1789, which players can use to role-play, or change history.

Ubisoft's new take on the French Revolution a mix of realism, fiction

Imagine finding yourself in the public square outside the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris — in 1789. It’s the height of the French Revolution. Angry sans-culottes threaten to riot. Soldiers point their rifles at the crowd. Dissenters are going to the guillotine.

You have the power to maintain order, or help the crowd overthrow authority. You can change the course of history as we know it. What will you do?

Assassin’s Creed: Unity, the latest video game in the series by French publisher Ubisoft, launches Tuesday. Set primarily in Paris in 1789, players take on the role of Arno Dorian, a fictional character who belongs to the secret Assassin organization, voiced by Dan Jeannotte.

"We try to get as historically accurate as we can with the landmarks and the way they (the people) were back then, especially the focal points of what were key defining moments of the French Revolution and that time period," says Ubisoft Toronto associate producer Dan Sutton.

Historical figures such as Napoleon Bonaparte, Maximilien de Robespierre and Le Marquis de Sade make regular appearances.

Ubisoft has also made much of its digital recreation of the French capital, a monumental project that has taken years to build, with work split between its Montreal and Toronto studios.

Eight other studios around the world contributed other portions of the game, making it the company’s largest collaborative project to date.

Life in the French Revolution

Walking through Unity’s recreation of Paris is a sight to behold, even for a seasoned gamer. Crowds of hundreds burn effigies of King Louis XVI in the public square outside the Notre-Dame cathedral. Two angry men pin a terrified aristocrat to the door, threatening violence. Artisans weave clothing, or temper leather at a tannery.

Ubisoft collaborated with historians to make the sea of people living in the game's digital Paris as realistic as possible. (Ubisoft)

This attention to detail is the work of an entire team dedicated solely to the citizenry, to add ambience and verisimilitude to the environment.

Laurent Turcot, a history professor at L’Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, was brought onto the project to ensure an authentic crowd life. To him, painting an accurate picture of the citizenry of the time period is just as important as how King Louis XVI is portrayed.

"Of course, politics is very important, but even if people are getting beheaded in the streets, others were still living their lives" as best as they could, says Turcot.

Games accused of 'distorting' history

While the game's developers have gone to great lengths to make the setting as accurate as possible, the portrayal of historical characters and the interpretation of their actions is a different sort of challenge.

Turcot predicts some people will be upset with the game’s portrayal of major historical figures, as they meet, interact with, and work against Arno.

Choosing what parts of history to stay faithful to and what to alter for the sake of more entertaining game play in Unity was a delicate balancing act for the developers at Ubisoft Toronto. (Ubisoft)

"The right wing is going to say Louis XVI is badly represented! The left wing is going to say Robespierre wasn’t as bloodthirsty as he is represented! There will be a lot of critics," he says. 

Comparatively, he says Napoleon will be seen "the way French people see him, which is as a hero."

Napoleon's portrayal in media has fluctuated wildly over the years, but this incarnation is a far cry from the diminutive, petty villain often seen in American popular culture. In promotional trailers ahead of the game's release, Napoleon, voiced by Brent Skagford, stands nearly as tall as Arno. 

Le Marquis de Sade's appearance, meanwhile, appears to recall his libertine ideals rather than some of his other works, whose sexually charged and often violent imagery landed him in jail and helped coin the term sadism.

"He's a champion for freedom -- and not being hindered by morality," says the Marquis's voice actor Alex Ivanovici.

Assassin's Creed: Unity takes place mostly in Revolutionary era Paris. We say "mostly" because a recent trailer revealed a feature called the Time Anomaly. In it, main character Arno finds himself in Paris at the height of the Second World War. Arno is shown climbing the Eiffel Tower (completed in 1889), and firing machine guns at fighter jets. Clearly, this isn't a game restricted by a single historical period.

If Ubisoft irks people for the liberties it takes with history in Unity, it wouldn’t be the first time. In 2012, the Globe and Mail published an editorial accusing Assassin’s Creed III of distorting history. That game’s protagonist, an assassin with mixed Mohawk-British heritage named Connor, usually aids George Washington during the American Revolution.

Portraying a First Nations warrior taking the colonists’ side rather than the loyalists, said the Globe, "grotesquely twists the facts."

Gamers were quick to respond, pointing out that the Creed games have always played loose with the finer details of history. Indeed, in the climax of Assassin’s Creed II, you fist-fight Pope Alexander VI inside a secret alien base hidden underneath St. Peter’s Basilica. Obviously, this isn’t meant to be a documentary.

Choosing what to keep faithful and what to alter, however, is a delicate balancing act.

"If you exaggerate it too much, you’re going to lose some of the significance there," Ubisoft's Sutton says.

Time-travelling field trips

In its latest financial report, Ubisoft said the Assassin's Creed series has sold a total of 73 million copies. Since its debut in 2007, the series has included more than a dozen games, as well as tie-in merchandise such as action figures, comic books and high-end apparel. A feature-length film is reportedly in the works for a 2016 release, with Michael Fassbender in the lead role. 

The detailed historical recreation of Paris in Unity may open the door to another spinoff opportunity for the series.

Players will take the role of Arno Dorian, a fictional character who meets historical figures and influences the French Revolution from the shadows. (Ubisoft)

Although Unity's plot is mostly fiction, with its central characters invented for the game, a gigantic digital Paris presents some unique possibilities for learning about the period, even for a classroom setting.

Turcot plans to use Unity in his classes on the French Revolution, for example. He sees it as a new way to get students engaged in what might be seen as stuffy material.

"We’re going to wander through Paris, and we’ll stop to look at some of the most important buildings, for example Notre-Dame, and Le Palais du Luxembourg," he explains. "It’s a new and playful way to help people learn about history."

Sutton also leaves open the possibility of using the Assassin’s Creed template for something purely for scholars who want to take a digital tour of Revolutionary Paris, or another era entirely.

"We’re totally talking about, maybe, a historical mode in the game, where we’ll remove the enemies and let players walk around in the streets of Paris," says Sutton.

While this won’t be a part of Unity, the possibility — a Creed without conflict – is enticing idea nonetheless.