Unlike most who live in our fair land’s capital, I’m a Londoner born and bred and, for my sins, a genuine cockney to boot. Born within earshot of the chimes of Bow Bells, I’ve got the best pie and mash shop (G. Kelly’s) on speed dial and remember Brick Lane as the Mad Max-like, tarpaulin-sprawled junk shop free-for-all that it was before the hipsters took over.
I’m also "moby dick" (sick) of people "half-inching" (pinching) my heritage, appropriating it for commercial gain. Whether it’s “mockney” bands like The Libertines or the farce that is Eastenders, I feel (justifiably) protective of my neck of the woods as it is portrayed in the media. So it was with more than a little trepidation that I’ve been following Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, the latest game in its historical stab-em-up series. The setting this time around? Victorian London.
But, would you Adam and Eve it (believe it), Ubisoft is pulling out all the stops to make Syndicate’s London a faithful playground through which to stalk.
The Industrial Revolution and a Changing World
Assassin's Creed Syndicate is set in the London of 1868, a time of great political and social upheaval for Britain and, really, the world. For a series that’s slowly climbed through the ages, from the Crusades of the original game through to French Revolution-era Paris of last year’s troubled Unity, this most modern of Creed settings was an obvious choice.
“We chose this era because it was one of incredible change for humanity and London was at the centre of it all,” Marc-Alexis Côté, Syndicate’s Creative Director, tells us.
“The industrial revolution completely changed the world. In this short period of time, technological breakthroughs enabled humanity to evolve from a medieval society into the modern world we know today.”
With the Industrial Revolution covering the country in great swathes of smog and the population primed to boom, Syndicate’s blood-soaked story of Dickensian criminals and mysterious Templar orders has to walk a sensitive line. It was a period of great hardship for many Londoners and, as the backlash against the recent opening of a “Jack the Ripper” museum in east London proves, the distance afforded by the passing of time does not give the developers carte blanche to ignore the human cost of the era. While lead development studio Ubisoft Quebec is understandably shy of revealing too many story details, the breadth and depth of its research into Victorian London suggests a dedication to a fair representation of the period.
To really understand [the Thames] You need to stand on a bridge and look at both shores. You can close your eyes and picture it with a thousand boats – Marc-Alexis Côté, Creative Director
“The most obvious and possibly most important step was to physically travel to London,” Jean-Vincent Roy, the team’s resident historian, says.
“Both our Art Director and World Director went to London, plus our Creative Director, Audio Director, Writer, Texture Artists and others. The point here was to get a feel for the city. How streets unwind and gently roll, how natural light affects and modifies the mood throughout the day, how the Thames acts as one of the city’s arteries and how it feels to walk in the city and somewhat suddenly raise your head and be faced with St. Paul’s Cathedral. We went to visit as much as we could, we walked across London, often with guides from the city, taking thousands of pictures in the process.”
The London of the 21st century is far removed from that of the 19th. But Côté stresses that a visit to the capital was still vital to soak the Canadian team in the atmosphere of the British capital.
“It’s incredibly useful to capture the vibe of the city,” adds Côté.
“Even if the city has changed a lot, many things still create its essence. The Thames is a great example – to really understand its importance I feel you need more than pictures and videos. You need to stand on a bridge and look at both shores. You can close your eyes and picture it with a thousand boats.”
In addition, “traditional reference work from books, maps, photographs, footage and documentaries,” was carried out, according to Roy.
“The combination of it all made for an impressive quantity of references. Overall, the project was in an amazing position, reference-wise, simply because we had access to a large amount of data which was of excellent, extensive quality.”
The attention to detail goes beyond simply the architecture and geography of the capital, but down to the specific look and feel of props and items in the game too, all equally thoroughly researched.
“We visited many museums in London,” explains Roy.
“The big ones, but also, perhaps, lesser-known ones. For instance, at the London Fire Brigade museum, a veteran fireman explained how Londoners have been dealing with fire since the 17th century. The Stewart Museum in Montreal gave us a thorough primer on firearms evolution during the 19th century and allowed game designers and artists to manipulate the real thing and grab precious references.”
Upon seeing an early trailer of the game, featuring the caricaturish crook “Bloody Nora”, alarm bells began ringing that, while Ubisoft Quebec’s attention to geographical detail would be hard to fault, the developers would still lean heavily on stereotypes for its characters.
But Roy insists that cultural sensitivities and details have been examined at great length, which hopefully suggests Nora will be an anomaly.
“We worked with Victorian history specialists who helped us get many of the details right, from securing references on suitable places for entertainment to suggesting what kind of street food would have been sold, proposing appropriate pub names or providing source reading for what it was like in the court of the Royal Exchange in the middle of the 19th century,” Roy explains.
“They were and continue to be instrumental in helping us make our London feel authentic. Other specialists, from librarians to university professors, gave us information about topics as diverse as the evolution of ideologies or confirmed our take on Indian and Sikh culture. A costume specialist helped us thoroughly understand Victorian fashion and the evolution of women’s silhouettes in the second part of the 19th century.”
When I raised concerns over the stereotypical use of British accents in the media (exaggerated Dick Van Dyke cockneys and ever-present plum-voiced posh villains), Côté assures that every effort has been made to entertain rather than offend.
“We work with world class historians and linguists to help us get things just right,” he says.
“Obviously, there’s a balance to be struck, as we want the game to be perfectly understandable by a wide range of players, so we do have to restrain ourselves with some accents.”
London as an Assassin's Playground
However, Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is, of course, primarily a video game, and not an interactive museum. Exploring its version of London has to be not just enlightening, but fun, too.
“For all the work that went into securing good references and forming as accurate a picture of 1868 London as possible, for us, historical authenticity, though highly important, was not the overriding factor, and we sometimes decided to compromise on this for the sake of gameplay and world design,” admits Roy.
With the Assassin’s Creed games famed for their parkour locomotion, some areas of the city (30 per cent larger than the representation of Paris in Unity) have been tweaked in favour of gameplay.
“We’ve tried to keep the essence of the city layout as close as possible and shorten some of the distances to make travelling more optimal for gameplay. The landmark areas are positioned very accurately,” says Jonathan Dumont, World Design Director.
“When we started with the city layout, the elbow shape of the Thames was for us very important to preserve because everything else falls into the right place when you respect that key component.”
Even when taking into account the changes, that’s not to say knowledge of the general layout of the city won’t give an edge over other players.
“This is especially true if you walk or drive from Parliament to Trafalgar then to St Paul’s,” says Dumont.
“St James Park will be where you expect it to be as well as Charing Cross station and Temple Church along the way. So, yes, players familiar with London will definitively know where they are on the larger streets of the city.”
Syndicate’s London will feature six distinct “boroughs”: Westminster, the Strand, the City of London, Whitechapel, Southwark and Lambeth. While each will have a feel consistent with their real-world counterparts, “you may find the area where you live, but probably not your actual house”, admits Dumont. (Though, admittedly, you’d have to feel for anyone still living in a Victorian hovel!) Key landmarks, including Big Ben, Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Trafalgar Square (overlooking the National Gallery), St. Paul’s, The Monument and Bank junction, have however been recreated with photo-real attention to detail.
You make decisions to bend reality a little bit or to adapt reality to your needs, instead of the other way around – Jonathan Dumont, World Design Director
“19th century London is a city of extreme contrasts and contradictions,” says Thierry Dansereau, Syndicate’s Art Director, of Syndicate’s saturated visual pop.
“The splendour and colours of Buckingham Palace’s surrounding gardens and the majesty of the architecture reveal opulence and pomp, the same way that workhouses and smoke-spewing factories reveal degradation and poverty.
“Of course, the incongruity within the city makes for an ideal game setting, filled with opportunities for artistic contrasts. Overall, we emphasised Industrial Revolution elements by its factories and warehouses, its trains and railway networks, its slums and working class houses and the intense pollution, creating a unique visual signature for Assassin's Creed Syndicate in comparison with the previous entries.”
While it’s a technical marvel to see the recreated sprawl of London under the scrutiny of a critical historical eye, turning the labyrinthine streets into compelling gameplay zones is a challenge all of its own.
“Philosophically, I would say that world design is very different from level design,” says Dumont.
“World design is to create a credible and immersive world that offers gameplay and exploration opportunities, while level design is more of a moment to moment guide that supports specific actions. For sure you can blend a little bit of both, but the key, in my opinion for an open world, is to create that super strong credible foundation, suggest areas for mission design to use and then make modifications to the area to fully support the mission.
“For our world foundation to be great it has to serve gameplay. In that regard, you make decisions to bend reality a little bit or to adapt reality to your needs, instead of the other way around. It still has to fit within the fantasy. A good example in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is our Railroad system, which loops through the city. The real London had many stations but were not all connected. We connected them, because it simply made a better game, while it still feels like 1868 Industrial Revolution London.”
It’s a fine balance then, between pleasing local curmudgeons like myself and serving the digital tourists worldwide that have turned the globe-trotting, time-hopping Assassin’s Creed franchise into an annual blockbuster staple on the gaming calendar.
“From a purely historical perspective, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate will engage people with the time,” says Roy.
“It will, undoubtedly, spark interest in the time period, which is just as important as historical authenticity.”
Assassin's Creed Syndicate UK release date is set for October 23rd for Xbox One and PlayStation 4. A PC version will follow in early 2016.
Additional reporting by James O’Malley