When Assassin's Creed Unity—the eighth major installment in a video game franchise that lets players climb and stab their way through various historical settings—came in out in 2014, it was greeted with underwhelming reviews. The game garnered a 70 percent score on Metacritic, which, roughly speaking, translates to: It's not a total disaster, but no better than just OK.
But critics praised the depiction of the game's primary location, an exceptionally detailed digital mock-up of 18th century Paris, with a reviewer for the popular video game news and reviews site IGN writing that the fully explorable virtual city "[pierces] the sky like the spire of Notre Dame. On a purely technical level, Unity is a marvel to walk through and admire."
This week, Notre Dame's famous spire burned down in a fire that took out major portions of the cathedral. French president Emmanuel Macron vowed yesterday to rebuild within five years, an ambitious goal that some have warned is unrealistic. Several of the country's wealthiest families have already raised a reported $700 million to fund the effort. However the reconstruction proceeds, Assassin's Creed Unity could prove invaluable to the effort.
At the time of the game's release, Caroline Miousse, senior level artist, told The Verge she spent the better part of two years working on the game's virtual version of the cathedral. During that time, the site reported, she went over "photos to get the architecture just right, and worked with texture artists to make sure that each brick was as it should be. She even had historians help her figure out the exact paintings that were hanging on the walls." In a separate interview, she said she based some of her designs on historical blueprints.
The result wasn't perfectly accurate: Some alterations and additions were made to account for the franchise's freewheeling, exploratory gameplay. And the cathedral's famous spire was added even though it wasn't built until after the period the game is set in.
And yet, the in-game version of Notre Dame is nonetheless surprisingly realistic, at least as video games go, with the familiar arches and flying buttress supports and oversized stained glass windows all recreated in painstaking detail. You can watch a video of someone exploring the in-game cathedral below.
I remember the first time I played an Assassin's Creed game more than a decade ago. The story and screenwriting were awful, and the mission structures quickly grew repetitive—but I was intrigued anyway, mostly because of the depth of its (virtual) historical setting. The game offered a stunning sense of place. It wasn't precisely like being there in person, but it was closer than I expected. I had a lot of fun just exploring the map and seeing the sights—playing the game more like a tourist rather than an assassin.
I haven't played a game in the series for several years, because there's no sign the core gameplay has significantly improved. But I have followed coverage of the franchise, and it's clear that, as game technology has advanced, the virtual locations have grown even richer and more detailed. Recent editions have even included what is essentially a "tourist mode," in which players can just move around the map without having to bother with the game.
Arguably more than any other medium, this is what video games are best at—geography, location, creating a sense of presence and place. The best video game locations can seem almost physical, especially when those locations are based on real-life places. In a neat reversal, a video game's virtual version of Notre Dame could end up providing a reference point for a recreation of the real-world place.
Assassin's Creed Unity, by most accounts, wasn't all that great a game: It was a placeholder installment in a franchise that has sometimes struggled to figure out its reason for being—a pulpy, crude, commercial product designed to make money by letting gamers run around a historical, funhouse version of Paris, occasionally stabbing people. And it certainly won't be the only external resource builders have to draw on; there's also a 3D map created by Vassar art historian Andrew Tallon, which is supposedly accurate to within five millimeters. But Unity is a small reminder that history doesn't always require a higher purpose, and that sometimes cultures preserve and extend themselves in ways that are less than sacred. If this game ends up helping restore Notre Dame to its former glory, it will have more than justified its existence.
In the meantime, Ubisoft, the developer behind Unity, announced today that it will give away the PC version of game for free this week, allowing anyone to experience its recreation of Notre Dame. The company will also donate €500,000 (or about $564,000) to the preservation effort. It's obviously not the same as the real thing, but I'm glad it exists anyway; thanks to a video game, some version of Notre Dame, or at least the cathedral's digital descendant, is still open for virtual tourism.