History Matters met Prof Laurent Turcot, historical advisor on Assassins Creed: Unity, to talk popular history, video games and controversy.
Interview and translation by Anna Jenkin.
Laurent, how did you become a historical advisor for Assassins Creed?
Honestly, I’m not sure how the game producers found me. My CV is available on my personal website, and a lot of my publications are on open access. I had just published two 600 page volumes with Thierry Belleguic on the history of Paris from the 16th to the 18th century (Hermann, 2013) which came about from an interdisciplinary conference. There was also my book Le promeneur à Paris au XVIIIe siècle (Walking in eighteenth-century Paris) (Gallimard, 2007) which had sold pretty well. I’d done a bit in the French media. And, in fact, though everyone assumed otherwise, it wasn’t the Ubisoft office in Montreal who approached me but the head office in Paris. The Paris producers called me saying that they were developing a game, or rather a ‘research project’ – those were their exact words, the name Assassins Creed wasn’t mentioned – on Paris during the French Revolution. Would I be interested in being involved? I agreed immediately. But they refused to give me any more details until I’d signed a confidentiality agreement. It was only after I’d signed that I learned that it was for Assassins Creed.
What did the work involve and what were the biggest challenges?
At the end of November 2014 they told me what they wanted me to do. I had to organise 6 hours of training sessions, in English, for the Toronto team who were in charge of recreating the Latin Quarter. And they sent me this crazy list, extremely detailed. Straight off, I told them ‘do you have any idea how much work that is?’ I did it anyway, but the six hours were really packed. I gave them tonnes of images, film clips, etc. Stuff that wasn’t very specific but showed more a way of thinking like someone of the eighteenth century. If you’re a specialist of a historic period, you can guess how the people of that period would behave and appear because you understand the wider context. You would never, for example, put a wristwatch on Robespierre. But they didn’t have this kind of understanding. So the point of the training was to give them a kind of instinctive reflex, to ask themselves, ‘would this have worked?’
You notice it in some films, like in Patrice Leconte’s (biopic of the seventeenth-century court of Louis XIV) Ridicule, (1996) there are some paintings which are from much later in the eighteenth century and during the opening scene there are phrases taken from Beaumarchais’ 1778 play the Mariage de Figaro. For those in the know, there’s an instant recognition that these things are from the wrong period. But the public will see everything put in front of them as all being real. So the challenging bit is to say, wait ! not everything is true. It’s this question of filling in the empty spaces. In Baroque music, there are moments, on a score, where you’ll have one note followed by four rests, then another note. That’s saying to the player: Improvise! He’s not going to start playing My Favourite Things in the middle of a baroque piece. He’s going to do a scale, in the style of the music. They (Ubisoft), they didn’t do ‘in the style of’ because they would keep going back to 21st century things.
Jean Luc Melenchon (a left-wing French politician) said that the game was a ‘smear against the Revolution’ because of the violent representation of revolutionaries and Robespierre and the positive depiction of the royal family. What did you think of this?
This controversy demonstrated the continued importance of the French Revolution in the political and national identity of France. Those who think of history as pointless here have proof of the need to teach this fundamental moment, not only in the history of France, but of the West.
When I started work on the game I warned Ubisoft that they should prepare a press strategy, because there would almost certainly be major controversy when the game came out. They would be attacked from both the left and the right. That said, I didn’t know what was in the game’s script, I found out with everyone else. They didn’t show it to me because they wanted to avoid any possible leak. Only Jean-Clément Martin (Professor emeritus of the Sorbonne and co-author of Laurent’s book on his experiences of the game) had read the script from beginning to the end.
Ubisoft really didn’t want to get involved in the debate, although when I did interviews, notably with Anne-Marie Dussault for 24 Heures en 60minutes (a francophone Canadian current affairs programme), they gave us plenty of time to prepare. But Ubisoft preferred to send out a press release stating that all they’d done was make a game. It’s understandable, but at the same time, they’ve got to take responsibility for what they’ve done, to say, ‘yes, we decided to show Robespierre like that because we were using this historical interpretation.’ But they didn’t. That said, in the interviews I wasn’t defending Ubisoft, I wasn’t defending the game, I was defending my integrity as a historian, even though it wasn’t really my work, because I gave them tonnes of documents but I had no control over how they used them.
After the screening of the first trailer I sent them a list of anachronisms. One of the ones that most shocked me was the top hat. In the game you see ordinary people wearing them. I’d told them that such hats weren’t common until the 1810s. There were top hats in Paris during the Revolution, like the one worn by Camille Desmoulins, but they weren’t anything like the ones in the game, and certainly would not have been worn by beggars. At a certain point you’ve got to know how to negotiate, and that’s the real difficulty in public history, between the time you have to produce the product and the historical debates you want to respond to. There are plenty of elements in the game that could be subject to debate. Let’s not forget, history is made up of holes. The game is riddled with them.
What are your thoughts on the connection between this kind of popular culture and history? Can players actually learn history from the game, or is it just a backdrop?
I plan on using the game to help my students understand the shock and emotion that the major events of the revolution would have provoked, and to visualise eighteenth-century Paris. It’s an important teaching tool that universities could use to explore the daily life of the period and the physiognomy of the city, so much of which was destroyed by Haussmann in the 19th century. Ideally we would be able to undertake this kind of project in universities, but in France, like in Quebec, they keep us chained up in our teaching programmes, telling us we don’t need the money, and that it wouldn’t achieve anything. Yet here is a clear example of what can be achieved using university knowledge. It’s time the humanities were a bit more daring!
Laurent Turcot is Professor of history at the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, specialising in leisure activity and space in eighteenth-century Paris. He is the co-author (with Jean-Clément Martin) of Au coeur de la Révolution, les leçons d’histoire d’un jeu video, (Vendémiaire, 2015), which discusses his experiences of Assassins Creed.
Cover image, poster art Assassins Creed: Unity, Ubisoft. Image from wikipedia.org