Note: This article will primarily focus on Assassin’s Creed 2.
The idea for this article struck me a few weeks back when I was visiting The National Gallery in London. I was admiring a series of paintings depicting Renaissance era Italy, in particular the cities and architecture. While I should probably have been thinking about the skill of the artist and the captured history in front of me, my first thought was ‘It looks just like Assassin’s Creed 2.’ This train of thought reminded me also of when I visited Italy myself in April 2013. Again, I was struck by how well the buildings in Assassin’s Creed 2 resembled the real-life historical buildings of Italy. All of this led to me think about the historical accuracy and fact wrapped up in the Assassin’s Creed franchise. But are they using the games to deliver entertainment and education, or simply taking a fascinating historical time frame and twisting it to make it more appealing for the audience?
Let me be clear: I am not saying the audience of Assassin’s Creed 2 are uneducated and accepting everything in the games as historical truth. But I wonder how many of those playing have an in-depth knowledge of Renaissance Italy, in terms of it’s politics, religious infrastructure, architecture, nobility and so on. Given that Assassin’s Creed 2 is after all a video game, and therefore a form of entertainment, is it so strange to suggest that the creators would have slipped in a number of historical inaccuracies to make gameplay more exciting? Aside including from a secret order of Assassins, which I think we can accept as a given.
Many of the buildings in the cities throughout Assassin’s Creed 2, and Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, are still standing and recognisable, like the Pantheon, the Colosseum, Basilica de San Lorenzo, Ponte de Rialto and the Castel Sant’Angelo to name a few. All of these appear in Assassin’s Creed 2 and are rendered with surprising historical accuracy. Naturally it can be assumed that Ubisoft did not want to be seen butchering such prized historical architecture in creating the game (although clearly this attitude for detail has not been carried on with their recent announcement regarding the lack of female assassins in Assassin’s Creed Unity). And yet I cannot help but wonder how many liberties were taken in designing them in-game to enhance the gameplay. How many ledges and handholds were added, how many ladders and steps and neatly fitting roofs were jammed together? However I cannot deny that the settings are beautifully designed and very rich in detail, which makes for a very good gaming experience, whatever inaccuracies may be present. I am not a historical expert in Renaissance Italy though – I have no idea what is accurate and what is fake or added or altered.
The idea of historical inaccuracy becomes a little clearer when the game begins to incorporate famous historical figures. Leonardo Da Vinci is the most prominent, acting as a friend and inventor for Ezio (the protagonist assassin) throughout Assassin’s Creed 2 and Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood. While many of the inventions used are drawn directly from Da Vinci’s original designs (like his flying machine and prototype tank). It is more the actual character of Da Vinci that makes me question accuracy. How can we possibly know what he was like? Why doesn’t he seem to age over the course of Assassin’s Creed 2 despite such a long time frame of the game? Of course, creative liberties have to be taken with things like this, but the whole idea of using figures relative to the time seems a little…tacky to me. Why not have an invented Renaissance inventor specific to the order of Assassins to serve them? After all, there were many inventors and ‘Renaissance Men’ at the time, if you are already going to include a fictional assassins order you may as well give them their own engineer rather than shoehorning in Da Vinci. I noticed this happening again in Assassin’s Creed 3 with Benjamin Franklin appearing. It feels like showboating historic figures for the sake of it. Any fictional character would have served as well in their place.
Ubisoft does recognise that it takes liberties with the history surrounding the game, and makes effort to point out the differences on their Assassin’s Creed Wikia page. Their disclaimer at the start of the game regarding the creative development team and that the game is a work of fiction ‘inspired by historical events and characters’ does provide cover for any inaccuracies they had to or wanted to use in the game. Yet they seem to spend the game hedging between committing to a greater level of historical accuracy, and taking liberties with the gaps in history and their own creative ideas. While part of me wishes there were a greater sense of factuality behind the game, I do still enjoy Assassin’s Creed 2 very much, and whatever inaccuracies it uses, I am happy to overlook them for several hours of quality gameplay.