Q&A: The Historical Context of Assassin's Creed Unity
Posted by Ken Barnes
Getting into the details...
Assassin's Creed: Unity is due for release on October 28th on Xbox One, and Ubisoft are turning up the hype machine. Today, they've released a Q&A with Maxime Durand, Production Coordinator on Assassin's Creed Unity. Maxime has also been counseling or coordinating at Ubisoft on every Assassin's Creed game in one way or another since Assassin's Creed: Revelations.
Without further ado, we'll hand over to Ubisoft and Maxime.
1. Assassin's Creed has featured many historic settings to date. Why did you decide on revolutionary Paris this time? Why is the French Revolution an important period in history?
One could argue that the French Revolution is the birth of the modern world. It is during that time that the charter of rights was drafted; a document that, to this day, is the basis of the UN. It is also the turning point that began shifting western power from the traditional aristocracy to a new merchant class, the bourgeoisie. All of this happened in one of the most brutal and chaotic series of events in the history of Europe. In essence, the period beckoned an Assassin’s Creed game. We’ve taken special care to handle this complex period with great care to make the game accessible to a broad audience.
The French Revolution is a pivotal moment in history as it marked the beginning of a global movement… It inspired modern revolutionaries who patterned their own revolutions on the French model. But the principles of the Revolution – Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité – also laid the foundation of the political liberalism that we take for granted today. It was far more than a simple rebellion against an unpopular King; it was a total rejection of repressive feudal principles that had endured for centuries. The French Revolution gave the middle finger (and the guillotine) to anyone who supported the old social order of Europe. The French Revolution was a time of firsts. It included the first-ever assault on the entire concept of organized religion. The first genuinely “Communist” uprising (which was put down by other revolutionaries.) The first time women had ever wielded revolutionary power. The first modern police state, with show trials, informants, and public executions. On the brighter side, it included the first clear enunciation of modern liberal principles that we in the West take for granted. For all our focus on the American Bill of Rights, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man predated the American document by a year.
Before the French Revolution, people remained who they were born to be for the rest of their lives. Nobles remained nobles and commoners remained commoners. Nothing could alter the course of one’s destiny. Thanks to the results of the revolution, people could become whoever they wanted to become. Napoléon was the most vivid proof of that new way of thinking. Napoléon was Corsican; he had a hard time speaking French when he was young. He spoke it with a heavy accent during his early adulthood. It is truly fascinating to see that this short Corsican man managed to gradually work his way up in the army hierarchy to later become emperor, not only of France, but of a large section of Europe. Without the French Revolution, this could never have happened. The best way to sum it up is to say: “anybody could achieve anything”.
2. What can you tell us about the Storming of the Bastille, that happened on the 14th of July 1789, and which since became a public holiday in France?
The Bastille was a medieval fortress-turned-prison in the heart of Paris, consisting of eight 24-metre-high towers and the thick walls enclosing them. The Storming of the Bastille occurred on the morning of 14 July 1789, as Revolutionary mobs, incensed at the symbol of Royal oppression, laid siege to the fortress. Despite its reputation as a grim and terrible prison, at the time of the attack the Bastille actually held only seven prisoners. The mob’s primary objective was not to free prisoners, but to seize the huge ammunition stores held within the prison walls. When the prison governor refused to comply, the mob charged and, after a violent battle, eventually took control of the fortress. The governor was seized and killed, his head carried round the streets on a spike. The storming of the Bastille symbolically marked the beginning of the French Revolution, in which the monarchy was overthrown and a republic set up based on the ideas of ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’ (liberty, equality and fraternity).
3. How did you integrate this pivotal historical moment within the Assassin’s Creed Unity universe and Arno’s story?
The player will of course witness this major event of the French Revolution at the front seat during the first hours of the game. But I won’t reveal the details and spoil you the surprise of reliving this historical moment while playing Assassin’s Creed Unity.
4. More generally, what part of the Revolution will be covered by the storyline? What historical milestones can we expect to witness in the game?
The game will cover several major events that occurred during the French Revolution. From the Estate General which marked the rupture between the King and the people to Robespierre’s arrest, the player will witness key moments from the French Revolution such as the Storming of the Bastille (as detailed before), the Storming of the Tuileries in August 1792 or the Prisons’ Massacres from September 1792, and of course, the beheading of Louis XVI in January 1793.
5. How will Arno own story be linked to these historical events? Will he meet famous historical characters?
It is important to make a distinction here. When creating ACU, we did not want to be trapped by doing a checklist of historical events. We had to avoid that at all costs. The story of ACU is Arno’s story, and this story happens to take place during the French Revolution (backdrop). Certain elements of the French Revolution affect and reinforce our main protagonist’s story. It is the Revolution that supports Arno’s story; Arno’s story does not bend to the Revolution. The game will be improved in that regard. We want this game to be a fun experience, reinforced by the French Revolution setting.
6. How is the French Revolution different from the American Revolution featured in Assassin’s Creed III?
First, I'd say the French Revolution is a very complex period filled with such rich history and we had so many events to choose from. Telling our story accurately while emphasizing on the important events that defined the French Revolution was probably the hardest thing. In complexity comparison and without simplifying it too much, the American experience of 1776-1783 mostly became a war for independance against the British crown. The French Revolution was a total rejection of repressive feudal principles that had endured for centuries and which is why the victims were mostly civilians. It gave the middle finger (and the guillotine) to anyone who supported the old social order of Europe.
Secondly, the French Revolution was a time of firsts. It included the first-ever assault on the entire concept of organized religion. The first genuinely populist uprising (which was put down by other revolutionaries.) The first modern police state, with show trials, informants, and public executions. On the brighter side, it included the first clear enunciation of modern liberal principles that we in the West take for granted. For all our focus on the American Bill of Rights, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man predated the American document by a year. The French Revolution saw the birth of the charter of rights; it’s the inauguration of a new world. It also gave way to Napoléon’s war that changed not only Europe, but also the entire world. It is during that time that the old way was replaced by the new. The other nations kept their monarchic structure, but the French Revolution made everyone realize that this model was doomed. A new system had to be found, and the foundations of that new system were laid.
Finally, at the individual level, it was exceptionally bloody; nearly all of the victims were civilian. It was a time of terror in which no one was safe. A man could be sent to the guillotine on his neighbor’s whim. In sum, it was an extraordinarily violent, cruel, and momentous decade that took Europe by surprise. And while we might think we know what happened, there are plenty of stories from that time which have, until now, escaped popular imagination. In essence, the French Revolution represents a perfect template for an Assassin’s Creed game. To this end, we believe that the fans who enjoyed our previous games are going to love the new setting!
Thank you to Maxime Durand and Ubisoft for this Q&A.