The epic video game adds a virtual museum tour of ancient Egyptian sites.
Assassin’s Creed: Origins, the latest in the popular video game series, takes place within a giant simulation of ancient Egypt, circa 50 BC. In the game, players guide an assassin from the deserts to the Nile as he avenges the death of his son, crossing paths with Cleopatra, Ptolemy, and Caesar along the way.
Recently, a surprise software update introduced Discovery Tour, a new feature that adds virtual museum tours to the game, exploring the history, geography, and anthropology of the era. After logging more hours in the main game than I’d care to admit, I decided to give it a spin.
Origins is the latest entry in Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed series, which tells lightly interconnected stories of fictional assassins throughout history. The games implement an ‘open-world’ structure based on large maps; players can guide their avatar assassin freely across the landscape, taking on any missions that cross their paths.
The games are noted for their highly-detailed environments, from ancient Damascus and Jerusalem in the original game through Renaissance Italy, Revolutionary-War America, and most recently, Victorian London. Origins expands the scope, presenting an enormous game map of more than 100 square kilometers that encompasses a wide swath of the Egyptian landscape, from the Nile Delta to the Qattara Depression, from Memphis to Alexandria. Completing the entire game takes roughly 100 hours.
While the scale of these settings is necessarily condensed compared to their real-world counterparts, the designers have made extraordinary efforts to research their subject matter and reproduce the settings as accurately as possible. The Discovery Tour provides an opportunity to take one’s time exploring this immersive world without facing the violent chaos of the original game.
On entering the Discovery Tour mode, the user is presented with 75 individual tours in 5 categories: Egypt, Pyramids, Alexandria, Daily Life, and Romans; each of these tours lasts between 2 and 20 minutes, making for more than six total hours of additional content.
To begin a tour, users select one of the game’s many characters and travel to its starting location. From here, they maneuver their avatar along a glowing line that connects all the tour stops. At each stop, a voice over provides narration while the camera shifts to direct the user’s focus. Most stops have additional supporting images, ranging from ancient art and artifacts to contemporary maps and illustrations.
The nature of each tour varies depending on the content. A tour about Cleopatra walks you past vignettes of key moments in her history, played out by 3D characters in a style approximating Disney animatronics. A construction tour takes you through a quarry, illustrating the processes by which limestone was cut and transported to build the pyramids.
Some tours are more successful than others. Walking tours of deserts and boat tours of the Nile are poorly suited to the scale and scope of their subjects. These might have been more successful by breaking the format and allowing users to fly above the map for a big-picture view. The Daily Life tours, which cover topics ranging from farming to religion, reminded me of aging anthropology dioramas at AMNH; the context is clear, but the presentation is uninspiring.
Tours that focus on the architecture of the pyramids and cities seem to work best, as they take advantage of the walking format and draw attention to the detailed, immersive environments. The narration concedes, though, that the game’s designers interpolated the appearance of many of the structures, as historical records are limited.
I found the Discovery Tour feature to be a nice addition to the game, and a good way for the designers to repurpose the thousands of hours they’ve spent recreating the ancient world. It would be fantastic in VR – there are currently no plans to implement this, but a few creative hackers have tried their hands at it.
The information presented seems solid and well researched, and the production values are high, but I’m curious if this was developed with any input from museum educators or interpreters. The scripts are heavy on detail, but flat. There are no attempts to engage the user through inquiry; no prompts to look more closely, to compare the ancient world with our own, or to really think about what we’re seeing. There’s a stodginess to the structure; perhaps it’s trying too hard to be taken seriously.
And for a videogame-based experience, it’s surprisingly non-interactive. Yes, you navigate from location to location (much like you would on a museum audio tour), but once you reach your destination, you pause while you listen to the voice over. You can zoom in on the related image, but you spend an awful lot of time waiting for the guide to stop talking.
And so the Discovery Tours often suffer from the worst gaming sin imaginable: they are boring. I played about a third of the tours, and learned quite a bit, but I gained a deeper understanding of ancient Egypt’s history, landscape, and daily life from playing the game itself. The game drew me back to it, while the tours seemed like work.
I hope that if Ubisoft incorporates this feature into upcoming games, they’ll expand upon it with more creative, interactive pedagogical techniques. The Discovery Tour should leverage the game’s keen use of play and engagement – not interrupt it.