Assassin's Creed Unity: How Ubisoft is approaching the historical French Revolution

Ubisoft historian Maxime Durand speaks to Shacknews about how the team is approaching the French Revolution, the chaos that ensued, and how the Assassins and Templars are caught right in the middle of the conflict.

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A big part of the reason that the Assassin's Creed series has maintained as much steam as it has is because of its fascinating interpretation of human history. Though it's obviously taken its fictional turns, many of the historical figures and events in the franchise are indeed based in reality.

Assassin's Creed Unity's peek into the French Revolution is just as faithful in its approach to history as its predecessors. The common folk are in an uproar, the monarchy is on its way down, the age of Enlightenment is at hand, and both the Assassins and the Templars are caught right in the middle of the conflict. To learn more about Ubisoft's approach to this important time in history, Shacknews spoke to the development team's historian, Maxime Durand. Off the bat, we see that Unity's single-player story will be addressing the dawn of the Revolution, while the game's co-op missions go a little bit beyond.

"Most of [the story] is 1789 through 1794," Durand told Shacknews. "It's really the beginning of the French Revolution. 1794 is the end of the Terror period, when Robespierre is executed. But we actually go, with the co-op missions, a little bit further than that. With the side content, we go to around 1800. And to see a character like Napoleon, you have to go a little bit later."

The French Revolution saw society overhauled from the bottom up. Fed up with economic strife caused by numerous wars, as well as corruption from the monarchy and the church, the common folk rose up to march against France's royal family and the clergy. There's civil unrest and a sense of righteous anger and fury, one that Unity seeks to capture fully.

History is the backdrop in this game for Arno, but every interaction with the Assassins and the Templars that you see with other characters, it's always involving the French Revolution and the different ways the Revolution unfolds.

"The whole idea of the French Revolution is driving this game," Durand continued. "On every level, it's very important. It's a very important event in mankind's history and Western history, because it's the founding of our modern societies. It's very political and because we can use the Assassins and the Templars' visions of the same event, we can actually show the facts and show the players the different ideas of the time period. So that's really driving the narrative. History is the backdrop in this game for Arno, but every interaction with the Assassins and the Templars that you see with other characters, it's always involving the French Revolution and the different ways the Revolution unfolds.

"So again, the beginning of the Revolution is very merry… everyone is trying to find a good solution: create the [Declaration of the] Rights of Man, the abolition of nobles' rights, the church. But the more that the Revolution goes on, the more people realize that it's really hard… The city of Paris is that cluster where people get very afraid of every idea that's not the Revolution, so you really have that feeling in the game. You have that feeling on the streets when you walk by. You see life events that are driven by the Revolution, people getting robbed, people getting killed on the streets on a daily basis, and you can decide to interact or not as Arno. He's just a guy in the Revolution."

Durand goes on to describe how the differing philosophies of the Assassins and the Templars affect the player's outlook on the ongoing events of this volatile time period. The Assassins are anarchists at heart, believing that mankind should be free of rules. They see the onset of Enlightenment principles as an opportunity to free the people from the structure of corrupt rulers. The Templars likewise see the Revolution as a necessity, feeling that the old system has failed the people and must be done away with. However, the outlooks on how the Revolution should unfold is where the two factions are at odds, with the Assassins feeling that the people should take the future into their hands, while the Templars believe a new system of order must be instilled. In keeping with the themes of the series, both factions continue to come across as complex entities, rather than black-and-white depictions of good and evil.

That's how Unity ends up with the tenuous alliance between Arno and Elise, one that's illustrated in the trailer from late July. Elise's role in the game appears to illustrate another interesting aspect of the French Revolution and that's the idea of modern feminism. During this time period, women's rights became a hot topic amidst the outcry for social reform. Though the movement was momentarily crushed in the Revolution's later years, women were actively fighting for a voice during the time that Unity takes place. However, Durand points out that while the feminist movement was an important aspect of the Revolution, Elise's role points to a slightly different telltale reality of the time period. She represents the fall of France's nobility, as she quickly goes from respected nobleman's daughter to second-class citizen.

"The [March on Versailles] is one of the events that talks about women's rights during the French Revolution," Durand added. "This is when they marched to Versailles, though half of them were actually men dressed as women. But they went to Versailles and asked the king to come back to the city. They had actually still hoped the king was going to save them. The French Revolution changed a lot, but it wasn't yet a moment where women were granted rights. That was more in the beginning of the 20th century. Elise is the daughter of a noble, so the way she's struggling with the French Revolution is more her relationship with the old regime, like her losing her rights. But you mention that Assassins and Templars can work together and that's the whole idea of the French Revolution. Nobles, the clergy, the middle class people, they all tried to work together at first, but they realized at some point that they couldn't always get along. That's why the Revolution unfolded into a very chaotic moment, because there was so much to lose and it just got crazy."

While the single-player narrative will explicitly deal with the beginning of the French Revolution within Paris, Durand notes that there are ample story opportunities beyond the city's borders. That's where the game's co-op mode comes in, offering a look at the Napoleonic era of the Revolution, as well as interpretations of other historical figures during the time period that didn't necessarily see their stories unfold in Paris.

Assassin's Creed Unity is set to release for PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4 on November 11. For more with Durand, including whether certain callbacks to some earlier Assassin's Creed games are in the cards, check out our video interview below, in which our own Greg Burke asks a few more questions.

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Ozzie has been playing video games since picking up his first NES controller at age 5. He has been into games ever since, only briefly stepping away during his college years. But he was pulled back in after spending years in QA circles for both THQ and Activision, mostly spending time helping to push forward the Guitar Hero series at its peak. Ozzie has become a big fan of platformers, puzzle games, shooters, and RPGs, just to name a few genres, but he’s also a huge sucker for anything with a good, compelling narrative behind it. Because what are video games if you can't enjoy a good story with a fresh Cherry Coke?

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