Interview with Assassin’s Creed Historian

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PCGames.de interview the Assassin’s Creed brand historian, Maxime Durand about Assassin’s Creed Origins and his work on the franchise in general. Here’s the translated version of it:

PC Games: How did you become the chief historian of the Assassin’s Creed series?
Durand: Quite simple – I’ve studied history and started right after graduation from Ubisoft. As a historian, I’ve been working for the AC series since Assassin’s Creed: Revelations. Two and a half years ago I began to work on Origins. I help the developers, of course, with historical questions, but above all I try to bring the team closer to the respective era. This is how I provide the developers, for example, with time documents, literature and other documents. Most importantly, I believe that all participants in the developer team are on the same denominator over the time period, so they can decide later on which aspects they want to shed light on. What should be contained in the game from the historical perspective and what can be hidden? These are questions for which I am responsible. But when it comes to gameplay aspects, the developers have to make the decisions themselves.

PC Games: Alone through the different Assassin’s Creed parts you had to deal with the various historical periods. Which section interests you the most?
Durand: I’ve studied history of the colonial era, speak to me as a student with the 18th century in North America. So I also came to work with the Assassin’s Creed 3 team. However, I am fascinated by history in general, so I am always looking forward to a new era, whether through books, novels, films or comics.

PC Games: For historians the source position is decisive. The more trustworthy written testimonies at a given time are available, the better we can get a picture of how people have lived at that time. What is the source of the time of Egypt at Cleopatra’s time?
Durand: For some games I have to say that the source position on certain questions is very difficult – it is simply too little there. For Assassin’s Creed: Origins, on the other hand, it looks just the opposite, there are simply too many sources available! Of course, not every aspect of Kleopatra’s time has been illuminated in detail, and many popular TV series, films, and books also reflect a scientifically wrong image of the time. My task here is to select the right books and describe to the developers the historically correct version of the time. In our game, however, we also use some of the scientifically incorrect clichés. In the case of mummification, however, it was important for us to represent everything correctly. We were not only interested in why the bodies of the people were conserved at that time, but as much as they were made. Also details such as the clothes of the priests, whether they had a bald head and much more we have noticed. All these small aspects make our game seem credible. In mummification, the priests had to shave, for example, because they were only as hygienically clean. They did not want to give the deceased into the hereafter. In conclusion, I can say that there is a lot of material about ancient Egypt. Not all of it is good, but very much has helped us.

PC Games: Is not it difficult to find objective time tables of the time of Cleopatra? Most historians and writers were politically motivated or were otherwise self-conscious.
Durand: We try to use as many sources as possible, such as Roman, Greek and Arabic. The Arab authors, of course, wrote much later on ancient Egypt, just as naturally the modern Egyptologists.However, some claims by historians can be confirmed by means of DNA investigations, additional written sources of time, and other scientific methods. But of course it is very difficult overall. For example, Julius Caesar, who wrote about the time of Cleopatra in Egypt, is clearly politically motivated. Likewise, most of the other authors of the time were also enemies of Cleopatra, and they have portrayed them accordingly badly.

PC Games: How do you know how the life of “normal” Egyptians was at that time?
Durand: For this we use many different sources, such as museum exhibits. Equally important are the works of famous Egyptologists. In addition, the hieroglyphs tell in the graves about the everyday life of the Egyptians. It should be noted, however, that it is often a stylized and embellished version. Expert Egyptologists can help us to establish a more objective version. For example, we were able to find out how and what the Egyptians ate, how the gods were given, and much more. In total, we have established more than 70 activities for the residents of our Open World, which they do every day.

PC Games: Were there surprising things for you in the history of that time?
Durand: Actually I did not know much about the Egyptian history as now. What really impressed me, however, were the sciences and above all the mathematics. They knew so much about science at the time. At the time of Cleopatra, for example, they knew about the curvature of the earth. Much of the knowledge of the ancient Egyptians have been taken over by the Greeks and handed down to the present day. However, there was a dark period in the Middle Ages where scientific knowledge was lost for a long time. Only through the Arabs did we learn how much the Egyptians knew thousands of years ago. It is even more astonishing how much we still need of the knowledge today. We wanted to transfer that into the game. For example, there are places in the game where mathematics is taught. Quite simply, the mathematicians did not use numbers, but wrote their equations without numerals. The monumental buildings such as the pyramids, which could never have been constructed without mathematical formulas, or that would not have lasted for a long time, show that this has worked anyway.

PC Games: The epoch of the first pharaohs has a time as great a distance from the time of Cleopatra as ours to the rule of Cleopatra. Was that really real to the then man?
Durand: Yes, definitely. This is one of the reasons why Alexander the Great went to Egypt.However, one should not assume that the “normal” people of the time knew about the long history of Egypt. Most guarantors were illiterate, hieroglyphs, for example, were magical signs for them.That is why religion was so immensely important in time. People were not in a position to read religious texts, or even to interpret them. They also did not know the reasons for natural phenomena such as the tides. They therefore needed a religious explanation and, at the same time, higher authorities, which helped them by means of fixed rules, to cope with everyday life.Some of it worked well. Honey, for example, was used for medical purposes for religious reasons.The Egyptians did not know the antiseptic effect, which is why honey helps in healing a wound, but they believed that honey helps because the gods said it.

PC Games: Is the Assassin’s Creed series also good for school teaching?
Durand: Of course, this is not the main reason why we are developing the AC series. But what we definitely know is that individual offshoots are actually used for illustrative purposes in the classroom. In any case, it is a good thing that the series arouses the interest in certain epochs in people.

For the original interview in German, click here.

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