Ok before we start: maybe not “the best”, but very probably “the biggest”. More on that if you keep reading.
I finally spent some time exploring the Assassin’s Creed “Discovery Tours” and I have to say I like what I see.
If you are completely new to all this, Ubisoft’s “Assassin’s Creed“ is one of the most popular videogame series ever – the first was released in 2007 and the latest, Valhalla, is in stores right now. It’s also a cross-media phenomenon having published a major movie (although admittedly, not a great one) with Michael Fassbender, a tv series produced by Netflix right now, a boardgame, comics, books and whatnot. Altogether, the series has sold 155 million copies.
The games are centered around the deeds of a fictional guild of historical hitmen – hence the name – exclusively devoted to killing the bad guys of history. Well, almost, and most of the time. With so many episodes out, the individual adventures of so many protagonists can be hard to follow. And also, sometimes they don’t make much sense.
Suffice to say, the games can get a bit monotonous sometimes, but they are great fun.
But what is really interesting about the series is that each chapter takes place in a completely different historical era, reproduced with fidelity and realism which border on the maniacal.
The saga took its players to explore Jerusalem during the Third Crusade; Renaissance Italy and Byzantium; the American Revolutionary War; the French Revolution; Victorian England, Athens and Sparta during the Peloponnesian Wars, and much more.
Each historical period and locations are reproduced with the highest attention to detail, so much so that Ubisoft’s know-how is becoming encyclopedic and lends itself to some real-world uses. After the 2019 fire of Notre-Dame in Paris, the company made its incredibly detailed models of the cathedral fully available to help with repairs, together with a donation of 500k USD.
The sense of wonder of these games comes from walking in the streets of these incredibly realistic iconic locations, experiencing living and breathing ancient civilizations. The games always contained a huge lot of learning opportunities, represented as pop-up windows or “click if you want to know more” information panels that were made available to players as they encountered historical characters or locations.
But to be honest, they were often in the way of things – who wants to interrupt a breathtaking assassination mission to learn more about the Duomo of Florence?
And that’s why Ubisoft decided to change things. 2017’s “AC: Origins” represented a landmark in the series which changed many aspects of gameplay towards a more linear and immersive experience. The chapter, set in ancient Egypt at the time of the power struggle between Cleopatra and her brother and (ahem…) husband Ptolemy XIII, allowed players to immerse and explore the sites of Alexandria, Thebes, Giza and everything hosted within them.
The folks at Ubisoft must have finally decided that it was a real pity to scrap such a meticulous reconstruction after each game.
And so they developed the “Discovery Tour” gameplay mode: an experience separated from the game itself, in which players can just sit back and explore the world, without the pressure of enemy attacks or treasures to unearth.
The result is mixed but certainly interesting. Here is my experience.
The discovery package of Origins offers 75 “guided tours” in which players can explore legendary locations – say, the Great Library of Alexandria or the Pyramids – and learn interesting facts about archeology, history and lifestyle.
It also opens the door to some interesting experiments, such as when I decided to free-climb the Great Pyramid as Julius Ceasar.
or when, again as Ceasar, I decided to explore some of the highlights of Roman culture, such as Crucifixion (yes, that’s a thing you can do)
It is indeed very interesting, to choose one of the game’s characters and walk the streets of Alexandria, or get lost in the desert dunes, just to see what happens. The game provides tons of information carefully curated by historians, and I am sure this can be interesting for history buffs and for occasional users alike.
This fine experiment continued in 2018 when the next chapter of the series (AC: Odyssey) was released. This episode was set in ancient Greece at the time of the Peloponnesian Wars between Sparta and Athens, and again, the game world was represented with an astounding level of realism and detail.
One year after the main game, ancient Greece got its “Discovery Tour”.
I would say this is even better than the previous one. The tours are reduced in number (“only” 30), but they are better crafted. In them, it is possible to interact with voice-acted digital alter egos of historical characters, such as Pericles, Aspasia, Socrates or Leonida of Sparta, who act as tour guides for the occasion. It is fun.
And so you can join Aspasia on a walking tour of the Parthenon, complete with modern-day pictures of the site for comparison,
or explore the history and site of the Thermopylae with Leonida himself
As I said, it is fun and refreshing. It gives players the opportunity to explore also some less epic, more everyday aspects of ancient history, such as ceramics or winemaking in ancient Greece
and all in all, it’s the first time we see the amount of resources dedicated to the development of an AAA game (we are talking about 100-150 millions USD) lent to developing a purely educational experience, even if as a spin-off project. No “virtual encyclopedia” can compete.
In line with the whole game of “Odyssey”, the tours have frequent touches of humor, which make the experience smoother,
although – curiously – they had nudity removed from ancient statues, in order to avoid problems with censorship and parental rating. The original game (which is a solid PG-18) does not concern itself with any of those limitations, though.
Each tour is complete with a quick quiz at the end, to verify results, and they are not presented in a punishing way, just as a harmless and fast matter which helps reflect on the information received. I appreciate the feature which means, again, that the experience has been designed with education as a goal.
In conclusion, it is a definitely interesting experience, which for sure can inspire students regardless of their age to learn and get immersed in the historical periods of their choice. More good news come from the fact that the recently released “AC: Valhalla” (set between Scandinavia and Britain) has already announced its own “Discovery” package, coming soon.
That’s certainly good news.
Am I completely convinced?
Well, yes and no. The “tours” are included for free with the original games, otherwise they come for a somewhat hefty price (20 eur / USD, although special promotions are frequent). Ubisoft has released them for free earlier in 2020 as a form of lockdown relief, and I expect it will happen again since their reputation can only benefit from it, and the real money comes from selling the main games.
Although the Discovery Tours are placid and relaxing experiences, the games still carry the word “Assassins” literally in the name. Although the main narrative would like us to believe that protagonists are do-gooders who only kill the bad guys, this is not true. In these games, A LOT of innocent guards and bystanders get hurt – which is part of the fun for a mature gamer <cough cough> such as myself <cough cough> – and these are definitely PG18 experiences that frequently feature bloodbath: something parents and educators will need to address in a mature and responsible way with their target groups.
The scenarios are informative, fun and useful – to which point? One study has found that they have a positive impact on learners, but this can be made even more effective by the presence of a real teacher to facilitate the experience – so fear not, educators, you are not about to be replaced by a machine. Yet.
Each tour is short enough to keep people entertained without getting bored, and the visuals, sound effects, environmental details are so immersive that sometimes I was motivated to spend more time in the learning environment, just for its own sake.
The experience is individual. There is no way – to my knowledge – to make a group interact in the game environment: now, that would be fun! Imagine having your entire class of students running around the Colosseum or the streets of ancient Egypt, performing a treasure hunt or gathering information from the locals. But this is yet to come.
Accessibility: we need to be careful to lower the barriers to their use, so that these innovative tools don’t become a privilege only available to those with the means and the opportunities to access them. In particular, I am thinking in terms of learning needs and disabilities.
I can also imagine legal problems, since every single PC must be equipped with a licensed version of each game, and this (promotions aside) can get expensive. A classroom of 20 PCs would need an investment of 400 eur to be equipped with ONE of these games. And do licenses apply to a machine or an individual user? On whose account? Go figure. To my knowledge, I couldn’t find a “school license” option for these games – although maybe it’s a future development if a critical mass is there.
But in general, it’s definitely a welcome element and I want to see more of it in the future.
We already have ancient Egypt and Greece, and medieval England is coming. The franchise explored iconic scenarios like Renaissance Italy, revolutionary America and France, Victorian England or the Crusades and one can only hope that these, too will receive the same treatment.
And I can only get more and more excited if I think how this will evolve, when Virtual Reality will become a standard commonly accessible in every household or school.
Digital tools – and their human facilitators – can definitely open the door to a brighter future of education and learning. All it takes, sometimes, is a little “leap of faith”.