Gaming the Renaissance

A canal in Venice as experienced in the video game “Assassin’s Creed II” (ArchDaily/Ubisoft)

A fascinating interview in ArchDaily of Colombian architectural historian Maria Elisa Navarro, of McGill University, who advised creators of the video game “Assassin’s Creed II,” opens up new vistas for the classical revival.

Florence in “Assassin’s Creed II” (ArchDaily/Ubisoft)

Millions of young people play these video games. The games’ allure relies at least in part on exciting scenery within which players confront enemies in situations programmed to reflect historical reality. Players see the beautiful historical architecture on display in 3D and may come, willy-nilly, to expect today’s reality to better reflect the beauty that they have “experienced,” and that classicists believe should inspire the built environment. This is popular culture, the masses putting their money where their mouth is and where their tastes are. Could it be that the beauty of architecture can also battle back into elite culture – and our cities and towns – as well?

Of course, the events that play out in historical re-enactment are not always as beautiful as the architecture itself – as true today as in every other period of history. Let’s not make the mistake of blaming the buildings for what goes on in and around them.

In “What It’s Like to Be an Architectural Consultant for Assassin’s Creed II,” Navarro described some of her duties as historical consultant to the creators of a game that unfolds in places like Florence, Venice and San Gimignano:

Another aspect we dealt with was the look of the buildings — they were modeling, and I would meet with them periodically to verify the accuracy of the historical reconstruction. Sometimes, for gameplay purposes, they needed to have walls with a lot of texture so that Ezio could climb them, but when the time came to lay those parts out, there were some inaccuracies. For example, I remember a balcony with a wrought iron railing that couldn’t have existed in that time period. I was responsible for detecting those issues. On the other hand, late 15th century buildings most likely had only one level, two maximum, but they decided to ignore that fact for the sake of gameplay.

The question of what historical accuracy is required and what can be dispensed with raises broad issues in a wide range of fields related to architecture, philosophy and indeed life. Navarro says her job placed her in the role of educator, on a number of levels:

For me the most interesting thing about the experience was the historical interest in the development of a video game. The genuine concern on their part was a pleasant surprise. What’s more, it seems like an excellent way to spread information that is normally quite hidden. In fact, compiling the information was half of my job for two years, so it seems to me an excellent way to make sure that knowledge doesn’t stay hidden. It represents another form of learning.

Navarro’s reflections on this method of spreading knowledge of historical architecture lies apart from the interest today’s classicists have in reviving beauty as a method of engaging the public’s civic spirit and individuals’ joy in life. But they are far from unrelated.

Her work environment in Montreal, where the game company Ubisoft was headquartered, expanded as the level of technical complexity in producing the video game expanded. She went from working with 20 people to working with 400 people, in a basement with strict security arrangements because the gaming industry is a secretive business.

Which may be of interest to Rhode Islanders struggling with a scandal involving public financial support for a video-game production company, 38 Studios, founded by Boston Red Sox star pitcher Curt Schilling. Many people have a difficult time imagining how the company could run through so much money so quickly, and why the production of video games required so much secrecy. Navarro’s description may shed some light on that.

Ezio enters the Duomo. (ArchDaily/Ubisoft)

Ezio enters cathedral. (ArchDaily/Ubisoft)

Make sure you watch this five-minute video segment of our hero vaulting through and around a cathedral, up and down the streets around it, unsheathing his sword in earnest only at the end. More information can be had from a 35-minute video that sets the scene for the game’s historicity. It can be seen by clicking on a screen toward the end of the article.

You will be awed and astonished by the technical virtuosity that went into creating the 3D motion experienced by players of “Assassin’s Creed II.” And in fact, where else can you have a similar experience without trading an arm and a leg for a flight to Italy? And I should say that Ubisoft is only one of many game makers placing their characters in historical environments that are not only exciting but beautiful.

Frankly, its hard to imagine similar levels of excitement (let alone beauty) arising from most modern architecture. Even at levels for the youngest players, such as my 6-year-old son Billy, who is an expert at “Angry Birds,” backgrounds tend to be traditional city and townscapes, with vernacular architecture predominant. “Get ’em started early!”

Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, Renzo Piano, Zaha Hadid, etc., call your office!

[Hats off to Samuel Lima for sending this ArchDaily interview to TradArch.]

[Saga, Manuel. “What It’s Like to Be an Architectural Consultant for Assassin’s Creed II” [María Elisa Navarro, la arquitecta que asesoró el desarrollo de Assassin’s Creed II ] 07 Oct 2015. ArchDaily. (Trans. Matthew Valletta) Accessed 8 Oct 2015. <http://www.archdaily.com/774210/maria-elisa-navarro-the-architectural-consultant-for-assassins-creed-ii/&gt; ]

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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4 Responses to Gaming the Renaissance

  1. Chiara says:

    It’s always a pleasure reading comments about our fine city. I hope that this page, that we’ve just published on our blog, about the Florence Duomo will be interesting those readers of your that want to learn more about this fabulous Cathedral.

    http://www.fibnb.com/insights/florence/the-duomo-of-florence/

    Warm regards
    Chiara

    Like

  2. Hi

    I just want to clarify on the image you have posted (Ezio enters cathedral. (ArchDaily/Ubisoft)) that it is not from the video game thats being written about but from a later installment of the same series Assassins’ Creed Unity set in France (Paris)

    Great article by the way

    Thank you

    Like

  3. Extremely nice post. I just stumbled upon your weblog as well as wished to say
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    Like

  4. Pingback: Step into London’s industrial age | Architecture Here and There

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