I am a (not uncritical) fan of historical murder-simulation franchise Assassin’s Creed, and I’ve played pretty much every major entry in the series since it began, often gritting my teeth at the bad plot and violence to explore the worlds of Renaissance Italy, Victorian London and Revolutionary Paris. I’m also an educationalist and former history teacher, so when Assassin’s Creed Discovery Tour: Ancient Egypt was announced I was intrigued by the concept of learning history through playing what is usually a blockbuster game. The first thing that came into my head was this joke from the classic Simpsons episode ‘Marge vs The Monorail’, when Springfield Elementary School’s budget looks to be getting a huge boost:
Ubisoft states that Discovery Tour is an attempt to make the game ‘more accessible to teachers and students’. So is it Lisa Simpson’s daydream made real? The overall concept behind this new mode is that you explore the massive version of Northern Egypt circa 50 BCE with the same controls as you would in the main game. All of the plot and missions have been replaced with over 70 guided tours of individual areas, covering topics from the construction of pyramids to education in Alexandria. With a squeeze of a button you switch into first-person mode, which removes the player avatar and puts you directly into the world as you wander around at your own pace.
Above everything else, I’ve always been impressed by the environmental design of Assassin’s Creed, and from my playthrough it is clear that this new mode makes the most of this. I was reminded that none of the design choices in the game were arbitrary; that the attention to detail that Ubisoft’s designers show is not just aesthetic but historical. For example, there is a discussion of the omnipresence of sand in Egypt, which got into bread during baking and wore down people’s teeth. This ultimately led to the designers including a default ‘toothache’ animation for non-player characters. The tours also acknowledge the contribution that real historians made to the game, especially the Egyptologist Jean-Claude Galvin who worked with the team on reimagining cities that have been lost to the desert. The tours do not shy away from unanswered questions either, and actually discuss interpretative controversies in some detail, especially when the design team used these to shoehorn in the weird alternate history that the plot requires.
Having spent some time with the mode, though, I’m not entirely convinced it meets it educational aims. The Assassin’s Creed series is regularly criticised for only offering limited ways of interacting with its world, and this is certainly the case as you take part in tours. You don’t even have to do anything once they’ve started; just follow a glowing path on the ground. At the same time it’s remarkably similar to the main game in its mechanic; each tour basically consists of clearing dots off a map (which is another thing Ubisoft games are criticised for). Each node on a tour provides you with a lovely view, which is often accompanied by a related artwork, artefact or diagram, and an audio commentary. This is fine, but ultimately, it felt like I was playing the main game whilst listening to a podcast (which is something I’d probably be doing anyway).
Learning is all about doing, and removing one verb without replacing it with another made the whole experience feel passive. I found myself imagining how brilliant it would be to interact with the world in the way the commentaries described; to actually brew some beer, or mummify a corpse, or dig up some artefacts (or to ‘eat who Genghis Khan eats’, to coin a phrase). These lessons would stick so much more than the commentaries, which, although full of fascinating facts, are pretty dry. Weirdly, I found myself missing all the murdering; at least that was another way of interacting with the world. Above all I wanted to live in this world rather than just walking around it like a ghost.
There are already games that do this type of interaction, though they don’t have Ubisoft’s historical research backing them up. AC:Origins‘ major influence The Witcher III has a similarly massive open world (and is equally violent), but there are a number of story and side quests which require investigation and exploration rather than killing, and mini games including the addictive card game Gwent. Obviously, none of this is (directly) based on history, but it gives the impression of a living breathing game. In fact, previous Assassin’s Creed titles have included mini-games like this (especially the pirate-themed Blag Flag), though were never explored historically as they might be in Discovery Tour.
Another game that might influence future educational open worlds is The Witness, which I haven’t stopped thinking about since I first played it. This is a game which has just one ‘verb’ – drawing lines on screens to solve puzzles – but which takes that verb and ensures that you come to understand its many permutations through playing with it in as many ways as possible. Like Assassin’s Creed, puzzles are effectively nodes to clear on a map, but in The Witness the fact that they have a logical flow to them that ensures and demonstrates your development, along with the fact you’re drawing the map for yourself through exploration, means that you cannot help but learn as you clear them. It is, ultimately, a game that is self-consciously about metacognition, which is at the heart of deep learning. The game was the product of an intense, personal design process which perhaps cannot be replicated by a major studio like Ubisoft, but there are still lessons to be learned on how open-world games can be designed to empower players to learn through doing.
Lisa Simpson’s dream virtual-reality history lesson is only considered possible given an unrealistically huge school budget, so perhaps I am being too much of a perfectionist. It is impressive that a mainstream developer has released this expansion for what is already a massive game for free. I just hope that the next inevitable Assassin’s Creed game builds on this; puts some of the real history back into the real game, foregrounds the amazing work that Ubisoft do in designing based on historical research, and allows for some new non-violent but non-boring interactions that actually enable players to learn.