Why time traveling never gets old – DW – 10/04/2023

The “Assassin’s Creed” game series has been sending gamers back in time since 2007.

In the first title of the series, players traveled back to the 12th century and explored Jerusalem. In other games, they sailed through the Caribbean on impressive ships; experienced the social upheaval in Paris caused by the French Revolution; explored pyramids in ancient Egypt; fought against the Athenians and Spartans in Ancient Greece; and finally slipped into the role of a Viking — with the option of selecting a female Viking — to conquer England.

Even though the locations and epochs depicted in the game series are exotic, they were generally chosen for their popularity among the fan base.

Travel back in time to the Golden Age of the Abbasids

The setting of the new game, “Assassin’s Creed Mirage,” is perhaps not as present in current pop culture: The action takes place in Baghdad in the 9th century.

Today’s capital of Iraq, which its residents then also called Madinat-al-Salam, the City of Peace, was a thriving metropolis under the rule of the Abbasid Caliphate. It was the center of powerful secular and religious rulers, contemporary artists, traders, philosophers and scientists.

At the time, at least 500,000 people of various religious faiths lived in the city by the Tigris River.

Still from the video game 'Assassin’s Creed Mirage': an Arab city with a circular fortress.
This is what Baghdad might have looked like at the timeImage: Ubisoft

When recreating historical settings for the games, the “Assassin’s Creed” developers have always aimed to achieve a high level of authenticity.

Players are led to discover particular historical locations in the game world, and also get to learn about how people lived during that period and meet important historical figures.

In “Assassin’s Creed Mirage,” for example, they meet scholar Ali ibn Muhammad, an opponent of the ruling Abbasids, or the Banu Musa brothers, three gifted scientists and inventors.

Games provide special access to the past

The games are not 100% historically accurate — but they don’t have to be, says historian Lucas Haasis, who researches games and history and introduces such video games as educational tools in universities and schools.

What is crucial, he points out, is that the games are credible. They give players an “impression of an era that couldn’t be obtained in any other way. No other medium can do that,” Haasis tells DW. “You can immerse yourself in the atmosphere of an era, and that leads you to become curious about it; you might not have developed that interest otherwise.”

He reports that many students have chosen to study history because they wanted to learn more about the past after playing “Assassin’s Creed.”

Games developed with historians

Games also offer the opportunity to integrate historians’ latest findings and contribute to remembrance cultureby sharing history in a more colorful way.

Historians have been involved in the development of “Assassin’s Creed Mirage” since 2021. The team includes renowned experts such as Glaire Anderson from the University of Edinburgh, who researches Islamic art and architecture in the age of the Caliphs (650-1250), and Vanessa van Renterghem, who is specialized in the social and urban history of Baghdad’s early era.

The studio also worked closely with museums.

“I think it’s very important that more and more historians open up about games,” says Lucas Haasis. “Because games are here to stay and are becoming more and more important.”

For many young people, games are simply part of their lives. Haasis therefore sees a great opportunity in games that are based on history. “We should encourage young people to be interested in history. At the same time,” he adds, “we should train their critical perspective,” in order to allow them to recognize the differences between fact and fiction. They should all be aware that “what is being presented is an illusion, a reconstruction by the developers,” explains the historian.

Still from the video game 'Assassin’s Creed Mirage', view from above of a figure climbing up a building, the ground beneath them is bright red.
The game’s main protagonist, Basim, climbs and jumps his way around the cityImage: Ubisoft

Explore the history of Baghdad in a playful way

Almost nothing remains of the original city, which was founded on July 30, 762, and grew up out of the desert sand within a few decades. What is known is that it had a circular layout, with the caliph’s palace standing in the center.

The sparse documentation related to the city during that era allowed developers to be more creative in the depiction of the location. They used as sources of inspiration a book about Baghdad during the Abbasid Caliphate by English scholar Guy Le Strange (1854-1933), as well as contemporary travel reports and archaeological finds.

Players are now free to explore this magnificent city, riding a horse or a camel, or walking through its busy streets, and marveling at its mosques with turquoise domes shining in the sun.

Items are collected throughout the game, including in recreated historical locations, and they offer more information about the history of Baghdad.

Still from the game 'Assassin’s Creed Mirage' showing tabs leading to different informative entries, now open in the section Bazaar, with a green glass jar.
Players can learn about different aspects of daily life in the gameImage: Ubisoft

The sometimes confusing story in the “Assassin’s Creed” games always revolves around the conflict between Templars and Assassins or their predecessor organizations, the Order of the Elders and the Hidden Ones. This is also part of the narrative in “Assassin’s Creed Mirage.”

The games have always featured solid gameplay, without, however, revolutionizing the genre. It can therefore be assumed that the historical settings are the main draw in the “Assassin’s Creed” series, which counts 155 million fans worldwide, according to the games’ developing company, Ubisoft.

But what is so fascinating about time travel?

“There is a basic human interest in wanting to see where you come from and to explore what is foreign,” says historian Lucas Haasis. “And time travel in games is particularly interesting because it happens in a protected environment. You immerse yourself in something and simply leave when things get tricky or you don’t feel like it anymore.”

Anyone who — like the author of these lines — has played every title in the series will feel immediately taken by “Assassin’s Creed Mirage,” which is released for all gaming platforms on October 5, 2023.

Basim, a supporting character in “Assassin’s Creed Valhalla” (2020), takes on the main role in the new game. Many tasks and game mechanics from the beginning of the series have been implemented, such as following or eavesdropping on characters, observing guards’ paths, or the useful eagle eye that highlights enemies and treasure chests. If danger is imminent, it is advisable to go into hiding or tear wanted posters from the walls.

Since he is not a tough guy, Basim has to act from the shadows — or more specifically, from a haystack or the bushes — in order to sneak into palaces or enemy areas. If he is discovered, escape is his best option.

Still from computer gamer 'Assassin’s Creed Mirage': Two hooded figures jumping from one building to the other.
The ‘Hidden Ones’ are trained to eliminate targets undetectedImage: Ubisoft

He practices parkour to make his way over the roofs of the city, using the countless wall ledges, wooden beams, pulleys, stacked boxes and taut ropes to quickly get away. The city’s dense development is ideal for urban parkour expeditions.

The story typically revolves around the eternal conflict between powerful secret societies and the quest for the shards of Eden, powerful artifacts that can rob people of their free will. But the storyline is admittedly secondary to the excitement of immersing yourself in another era and drifting through a bustling and opulent city — from the comfort of your own home.

This article was originally written in German.


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