London’s Victorian incarnation has been recreated for the latest Assassin’s Creed game. Jonathan Pile finds out how it was done
What makes a good city? Oscar Wilde said it should be full of “beautiful idiots and brilliant lunatics”. Playwright Edward Albee didn’t want to live anywhere there wasn’t “a production by Samuel Beckett running”. But for Marc-Alexis Côté, the creative director at Ubisoft Quebec, it’s about the landmarks. Specifically, landmarks you can climb: “That’s part of the fun. Obviously, you can’t climb Elizabeth Tower in real life, so we fulfil that fantasy.”
London is the setting for the game he’s just made – the latest in the Assassin’s Creed franchise (subtitled Syndicate), and the pressure’s on. And not just because of the difficult launch of last year’s Paris-set game – “difficult” is being kind; it was a bug-riddled mess.
Here’s the other issue: no one who played the Crusades-set first game knew what it was like in 10th-century Damascus, so they could design the city as they saw fit. But London? People know London. And 1868 isn’t that long ago. Not in comparison with the Holy Lands a millennium ago, or the series’ other locations, such as Renaissance-era Italy and Boston during the American Revolution. By 1868, St Paul’s existed, as did Elizabeth Tower and the National Gallery – and many people know what it’s like to walk between them. The game world has to be both recognisably accurate (or people get angry) and fun to exist in (or people play something else). So, as we said… the pressure’s on.
Mapping it out
The past master of building virtual approximations of real cities is GTA creator Rockstar Games, but co-founder Dan Houser acknowledges the difficulty of the process. In 2013, he told The Guardian: “There’s a great skill in doing the first layouts of a map. It’s so complicated. They have to make areas that look believable, but work well for gameplay. You begin by saying, ‘This is the area we want the game map to represent,’ but in reality the game is going to be one-twentieth of the size – so what are the iconic things you have to have? And then you have to organise the map so it still feels like, say, New York or LA. You have to capture the essence of what’s really there in a city.”
Or London, in Ubisoft’s case. So, with the location chosen, what “iconic things” did they keep?
“One of the things I liked about recreating London is that the Thames is right in the middle of the game world. This makes it easy to orient yourself. We’ve been very careful with the river’s shape. You can stand there, take a look around and see St Paul’s and Elizabeth Tower, so you’ll always know where you are. We’ve made sure those landmarks, and places such as Westminster Abbey, feel like they’re in the right place and are the right distance apart.”
The city in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is 2km square, roughly covering the area from Victoria Station to London Bridge. And then there’s Whitechapel in the north. Which, in reality, isn’t in the north at all, it’s farther east.
This is where compromise begins to creep in. Whitechapel is a historically interesting, visually distinct pocket of Victorian poverty. But putting it in the correct place would make the map too wide. The decision was taken: geographic accuracy wasn’t viable in this instance. Gameplay is king.
We made sure landmarks feel like they're in the right place
Call the experts
Judith Flanders is a historian with expertise in the Victorian era. But we mention her specifically because she worked with the team to help get the feel of the city right.
“One of the most interesting elements,” she says, “is how similar it was to the present – the streets filled with construction. Now it’s skyscrapers, then it was sewers and the Underground.”
During the early 19th century, London had open sewers, which everyone was very surprised to learn were the cause of various cholera outbreaks. Proposals to modernise the system were made in 1856, but only approved after hot weather caused the Great Stink of 1858. Similarly, the first Underground lines opened in 1863, so it would have been brand new when the game is set. But they’re both missing. Why?
As before, it’s a question of gameplay: “Unfortunately, the original Underground was so dark and dirty there wasn’t much fun to be had down there,” says Côté, sounding like he’s also describing today’s Underground. “It was cold and the ceiling would fall on people – it didn’t seem like a good place for us.”
But it’s difficult to ignore that modern transportation was born in this era. Not least because it’s one of the things Côté tells us excited him about the setting. His solution to that inconsistency is perhaps the biggest shift from reality. At the time, London’s overground railway lines were owned by different companies and went outwards from the city like spokes on a wheel. Ubisoft decided to connect the stations by a circular track (a Circle line, perhaps) that runs overground. This type of loop is typical of open-world games featuring trains (Red Dead Redemption, for example). It means you don’t run out of track if you’re on a mission on a train – you keep going round.
What else is important about this fictional London? Hopefully you answered something about it feeling vibrant and alive, because that’s the final thing we’ll focus on. There are big things – the Thames was far busier back then, which is reflected in the game (it’s part of the similarities Flanders mentions between then and now – “noisy and crowded”). But the small details are important to her, too.
Flanders spent six months ensuring accuracy – down to what men did with their hats when they entered restaurants and finding an article from the 1850s that listed every London pub. She even contacted the archivist at St Paul’s to find out when the bells rang.
Her help, plus archival footage from the BFI, photographs, maps and paintings, helped the team rebuild Victorian London – changing things, but keeping the important elements intact. The main characters are twin assassins Jacob and Evie, but London is the star. When their names fade from memory, you’ll remember the city.
“It’s the setting we’re most proud of,” concludes Côté. “We went to such lengths to ensure authenticity. For example: we’ve recreated the gold grasshopper on the Royal Exchange’s weathervane. Our bug testers thought it was an Easter egg. But my favourite part of the city is just walking north along the bank of the Thames. When I do it, it just feels as if I’m in London.”
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is released on 23 October on PS4 and Xbox One