Game Design,  Travel

assassin’s creed’s virtual notre-dame proves the value of video games

When the devastating fire ravaged the roof and toppled the spire of the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris on the Monday of Holy Week (15th April 2019), I, like the rest of the world, was shocked and heartbroken.  Having visited Paris some years ago, watching images of the cathedral up in flames was surreal, and the thought of my family vacation photos becoming historical artifacts even more so.

The outpouring of grief from around the world was expected.  After all, Notre-Dame stands at the heart of Paris, literally and figuratively – its front doors are right next to Kilometre Zero, the official centre of the capital city.  But what surprised me was the global attention directed at a video game in the wake of the disaster.

Image from: Ubisoft.

Assassin’s Creed Unity, like the other games in the franchise, is a game about memories.  It opens with the player using a science-fiction gaming device called Helix, which allows the main character access to genetic memories, in particular those surrounding the events of the French Revolution.  The game starts with a female voice describing this process, before landing you in a strikingly accurate Paris of centuries ago.

The past is not lost. The past lives inside us.

– The opening lines of Assassin’s Creed Unity

How fitting it is, then, that Assassin’s Creed Unity would be the focus for building a collective memory of the Notre-Dame de Paris that we’ve just lost.  Level designer Caroline Miousse spent two years building the virtual model of Notre-Dame, interior and exterior, down to brick accuracy1.  And now sources claim that this faithful model is potentially a reference for rebuilding the landmark2.

(This amazing walkthrough by Matheus on YouTube showcases the gameplay inside the Notre-Dame of Assassin’s Creed Unity.  Check it out if you’re nostalgic for the cathedral.)

But let’s be honest, Assassin’s Creed Unity is not a favourite Assassin’s Creed game.  When it was released in 2014, it was rife with glitches and technical issues that made it difficult to play3, and critics panned it for a repetitive premise4, clunky free-running mechanics5 and mediocre combat6.  A 2015 Game Informer article ranked it eighth out of ten installments in the franchise7.

And this is where all my thoughts about game design went flying out the window.


In writing this blog, I’ve always been focused on what makes great games – good writing, captivating characters, intuitive mechanics, compelling art, and so on.  What never struck me was that a game’s value could go beyond how “good” of a game it is to play.

It is possible that a game can be valuable for something other than gameplay.

Assassin’s Creed Unity has proved that.  In light of the events in Paris, Ubisoft announced that it would donate €500,000 to the restoration of Notre-Dame, and that it would be giving away Assassin’s Creed Unity for free until 25th April8.  Within days, more than 500 positive reviews appeared on its Steam page,9, with players and non-players alike showing appreciation for what the game and the company has done to help ease the grief of losing a historical building.  And all of this praise has nothing to do with actual gameplay.

Image from: Ubisoft.

When Assassin’s Creed Unity was released to the world five years ago, it hadn’t found its purpose or its place in cultural commentary.  It was evaluated as a game then, and not as a piece of art or a historical reference.  But all that work of digitally recreating Notre-Dame de Paris in painstaking detail has suddenly become relevant, and that is cause for celebration in the midst of all the despair.

Ubisoft has shown the world that video games have a purpose far beyond providing a niche community something to do as a hobby.

It took passionate designers and developers who cared about historical sites and cultural representation to put the effort into getting a near-perfect rendering of Paris and Notre-Dame into the game.  Now, on a global stage, the world can start to understand that video games are a serious medium – in fact, one that can preserve the memory of, and help restore a beloved historical landmark, if not in real life, at least in our hearts and minds.

Years ago, efforts towards reconstructing a building would involve looking at photographs and maybe videos.  Now that technology has allowed us to create 3D scans and models, I’m excited that people who miss Notre-Dame are discovering video games as a medium to reconnect with their memories and explore an important building, even if it’s as a sword-wielding assassin.

A view from inside Notre-Dame de Paris, from my last visit to France almost ten years ago

Nothing, of course, can replace what was lost in the fire on Monday.  The wooden beams bore the weight of the roof and almost eight hundred years of history, and it’s that heaviness that weighs on our hearts as we mourn Notre-Dame.  While the Notre-Dame of Assassin’s Creed is not the Notre-Dame we lost, but a fictional recreation of Notre-Dame during a fictional recreation of the French Revolution, it may be the closest we can get.  Like the French Revolution, the original Notre-Dame is now a part of history.

Video games, in that sense, have the power to build our collective memory of things we have lost in real life.  And perhaps for some games, their real value is not in how fun or engaging or well-rated they are, but in their statements about art, history, culture or society.

Over the past few days, I’ve come to the conclusion that the act of creating games, like the act of creating art, is never put to waste.

Sharing a game with the world, no matter how well it does with the critics or fans, or how much money it makes at its release, is intrinsically valuable.  And game designers should never be afraid of having a vision, or being passionate about art or history or science or any expertise that informs their game’s design.

We should never be shy about putting time and resources into getting something just right in our games, even if it’s as replaceable to the gameplay as the 3D model of a cathedral.


References Cited

  1. Webster, Andrew. “Building a better Paris in Assassin’s Creed Unity.” The Verge, 17 April 2019. Web. 21 April 2019.
  2. Gilbert, Ben. “The effort to rebuild Notre-Dame Cathedral could get help from an unlikely source: A video game.” Business Insider, 16 April 2016. Web. 21 April 2019.
  3. Prell, Sam. “Assassin’s Creed Unity review: A tale of two games.” Engadget, 11 November 2014. Web. 21 April 2019.
  4. Webster, Andrew. “‘Assassin’s Creed: Unity’ review: bigger doesn’t mean better” The Verge, 14 November 2014. Web. 21 April 2019.
  5. Senior, Tom. “Assassin’s Creed Unity Review” PC Gamer, 14 November 2014. Web. 21 April 2019.
  6. Bramwell, Tom. “Assassin’s Creed Unity review.” Eurogamer, 11 November 2014. Web. 21 April 2019.
  7. Juba, Joe. “Ranking The Entire Assassin’s Creed Series.” Game Informer, 13 December 2015. Web. 21 April 2019.
  8. Ubisoft. “Supporting Notre-Dame de Paris.” News. Ubisoft, 17 April 2019. Web. 21 April 2019.
  9. Grayson, Nathan. “Steam Users Flood Assassin’s Creed Unity With Positive Reviews Following Ubisoft’s Notre-Dame Efforts.” Steamed. Kotaku, 19 April 2019. Web. 21 April 2019.

Additional References

  1. Matheus. “Assassin’s Creed: Unity – “Confession” Sivert assassination – All challenges 100% sync.” Uploaded to YouTube, 20 November 2014. Web. 21 April 2019.