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Ancient history shines in Assassin's Creed's new Discovery Tour – but it's the gaps that are truly thrilling


One of the most fascinating things I ever read about Shakespeare revolves, rather perversely, around how little we actually know of him. Putting the plays and the sonnets to one side, everything we know about Shakespeare the man is “contained within a few scanty facts,” according to Bill Bryson. In his book, Shakespeare: The World as a Stage, Bryson marvels that Shakespeare exists within the historical record in a mere hundred or so documents. Despite almost a million words of text in his drama and poetry, “we have just 14 words in his own hand – his name signed six times and the words ‘by me’ on his will.”

Facts, as Bryson argues, “are surprisingly delible things.” So delible, as it happens, that much of our knowledge of the physical realities of Shakespearean theatre – our knowledge of what Shakespeare’s working environment would have looked like and how it might have operated – is based on a single sketch by a Dutch tourist visiting the Swan Theatre in London in 1596. The original sketch has not survived, of course – why make anything easy? – but a friend made a copy in a notebook that was rediscovered, in 1888, in the library of the University of Utrecht. Voila: “The only known visual depiction of the interior of an Elizabethan playhouse in London. Without it we would know essentially nothing about the working layout of theatre of this time.”

When I think of history, I do not often think of what we do not know, and how much of what we do not know there must be out there. It messes with the head. Shakespeare’s one hundred or so documents, according to Bryson, actually make him one of the more historically visible people from the late 1500s. Even so, much of his world, of its details and quirks and busy contradictions, has faded in the 400 years since his death.

And that’s just 400 years. Shakespeare had it easy, you might say. Shortly after he died we had Pepys and Evelyn and their diaries, and we had the slow professionalism of the civil services and of government, and a great uptick in documentation, in recording the ways in which things worked. The closer we get to the present, the more visible the world of the past becomes. But what if you spin the dial in the opposite direction?

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Caesar takes to the streets on his horse. Such a man of the people.

It is dizzying to think of this stuff when confronted with the big-budget three-dimensional certainty of an Assassin’s Creed game. Here is the distant past, and yet you can run about in it, pickpocket its citizens and knock their hats off, ride its horses and explore its landmarks. Here are destroyed temples, rising intact from the ground once more. Here are the greats of history cracking wise anachronistically or sending you out around town to collect their scattered papers.

I had never really thought about this, about the great contradiction that drives this fascinating series. To convince as games, as open worlds, the Assassin’s design team must reconstruct historical real-estate with no gaps, with no dithering or uncertainty. And yet history is filled with gaps, and even the certainties are frequently not as certain as you would like. Sure, sometimes these certainties are heavy ledges of dates and figures, of triangulated testimony regarding who did what and how. But sometimes the certainties are a copy of Dutch tourist’s offhand sketch.

And more: these gaps in history, these mysteries that allow pseudohistory to bloom and fester, are ultimately essential if you’re going to seed the game’s central preoccupation in the first place. You need the uncertainty if you’re going to try to tell the unlikely story of a global, millenia-spanning war between secret societies.

All of which makes the Assassin’s Creed Origin team’s latest work seem curiouser and curiouser the longer you think about it. With the main game wrapped and the DLC plans taken care of, a core group of developers have returned to Bayek’s Egypt and opened it out, removing the fighting and the death and the missions and allowing you instead to wander the land freely and in no danger in a brand new mode, and stumble across – what’s this? – 75 separate guided tours, rich in historical detail.

The team’s calling it the Discovery Tour, and it’s out on the 20th of February as a free title update for people who have bought Assassin’s Creed Origins (it’s also available as a paid standalone on PC). Man, it’s a gorgeous, lavish, bewildering thing: a tool for examining this ancient world that Ubisoft has brought back to life. But it’s also a fascinating glimpse into the gaps in the historical record – and how Assassin’s developers navigate those gaps. It’s a mea culpa, in manner of speaking, albeit an extremely generous and detailed mea culpa. It’s the design team stepping forward to explain how they knew what they knew – and to talk, at times, about what they didn’t know and couldn’t find out.

“The interesting part is that what people have in mind about Ancient Egypt is very diverse,” Ubisoft’s franchise historian Maxime Durand explains to me after I’ve spent the morning messing around with the Discovery Tour. “Some people don’t know anything at all, some people think of Gods of Egypt, Exodus, Antony and Cleopatra. So when they can get into contact with a digital world like ours, that becomes their new paradigm of Ancient Egypt.