Assassin’s Creed has always danced a complicated jig between historical accuracy and bonkers, sci-fi fun. By necessity, the series cuts corners when it comes to historical accuracy. These are games, not textbooks; they need to be fun, they need to be playable and they need to be sprinkled liberally with Assassin lore.
While the games and their extensive database entries don’t separate fact from fiction, they still brim with historical research. There’s not a small amount of effort that goes into making historical games.
That’s why I’m so excited for the new Discovery Tour mode for Assassin’s Creed Origins. It shines a spotlight on not just the historical reality of ancient Egypt, but also on the game design process. It illuminates what the developers changed, and why.
Opening up the open world
Discovery Tour in fact contains 75 discrete tours, covering everything from “Beer and Bread” as a facet of daily Egyptian life to a biography of Cleopatra (one that eschews the fictional ending that the game gave her). It turns the sprawling, gorgeously detailed Egypt of Assassin’s Creed Origins — which our reviewer called “a vibrating world of color and life” — into a combat-free playground.
With the removal of combat and objectives, Discovery Tour becomes accessible to, well, everyone. The player maintains the ability to fast-travel, and to climb everything. But they can do it as one of 25 playable characters, including the aforementioned Cleopatra, Julius Caesar or an assortment of Egyptian civilians.
At the demo that I attended, the developers said that they had tested Discovery Tour in schools with good results, though they emphasized that they only ever conceived of it as a supplement to teacher-guided education. What strikes me as awesome is that students coming into this mode can explore Egypt through so many avatars, including children and many women.
The tours take the form of a series of points on a glowing, golden path. At each point, a voice-over narrates a brief database entry. These entries are often paired with visual elements, like historical frescoes or modern recreations, such as the watercolor paintings of the French architect, archaeologist and researcher Jean-Claude Golvin.
Making design transparent
These are, of course, the same resources that the game development team at Ubisoft Montreal used to bring ancient Egypt to life. My favorite parts of Discovery Tour were the instances where it pulled back the curtain on game development.
The tours occasionally highlight changes that the designers made when history and entertainment were at odds with each other. There, the mode becomes something we don’t see very often: a behind-the-scenes documentation of the development process.
For example, when I was exploring the pyramids (as Julius Caesar, no less), the tour informed me that changes had been made to the interior layout of a pyramid. There were two entrances in place of the single robbers’ entrance, and the portcullis slabs that should have blocked the pharaoh’s tomb were eliminated.
This is also an opportunity to appreciate small details. The “Beer and Bread” tour points out that the nonplayer characters have toothache animations, because the stone tools that the Egyptians used to make bread also led to dental attrition.
Magnifying the details
Details of the NPCs’ cycles are made even more evident in free-roam mode, where the player character can assume the place of any NPC and perform their animations. That means the player can get a first-person look at the bread-making process, for example. This involves putting dough in molds and placing them in a stone kiln, then removing the cooked bread molds with tongs.
It isn’t as interactive as say, having a bread-making minigame, but I loved the way it illuminated subtle details of the world.
Discovery Tour offers the kind of behind-the-scenes supplements that I wish every game had, and frankly I’m dying to find out if Ubisoft will release add-ons like this for future installments of the Assassin’s Creed series.
The work that went into Discovery Tour is nontrivial. It has a different UI from the base game, to say nothing of the NPC mirroring functionality and the additional playable characters. It shows the monumental care that went into making a game like Assassin’s Creed Origins, as well as the real history that the team molded into entertainment.
Discovery Tour will be available Feb. 20 as a free update for all Assassin’s Creed Origins owners. It will also be sold as a stand-alone experience, but only on Windows PC, for $19.99 via Steam and Uplay.