Artists from all walks of life often draw upon history for inspiration, and video game creators are no exception. Games like Wolfenstein, Call of Duty, and Prince of Persia have been popular staples of the gaming world for decades. However, few video games commit to historical revelry quite like the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Diving deep into any historical period its developers choose, AC games have offered some of the most fantastical video game feats in representing these time periods. From including historical figures into the narrative or rendering immersive ancient cities, the AC games are a playground for top-tier historical fantasy. No other series makes a stronger case for the limitless benefits of taking real history and making new stories out of it.
From a textbook icon to a man
While all Assassin’s Creed games include some historical/mythological figures, few use as many — and as notable — icons as Assassin’s Creed 2. In Ezio’s fictional lifetime, he runs into dozens of game-changing historical figures like Machiavelli, Caterina Sforza, the Medici family, the Pazzi family — and most notably Leonardo da Vinci, the genius artist and inventor, as well as an uncontested ally to Ezio.
While the events of Assassin’s Creed 2 are clearly fictional, the writers took inspiration from Leonardo da Vinci’s real-life journals, accounts, and descriptions to craft a character with notes of the real human man — a man who traveled between several cities to learn new engineering methodologies, who rubbed elbows with many Italian nobles creating canals, bridges, and masterworks throughout the region, who became quite a severe perfectionist in his work where it years to finish each project. AC isn’t da Vinci’s story but the role he plays is still quite authentic to who da Vinci was.
Having these kinds of historical figures as characters is exciting and entertaining and dramatic, yes, but it also gives players a new angle and perspective into the people who made our history. Leonardo da Vinci and his Mona Lisa seem like such huge, almost herculean figures. That greatness feels legendary and otherworldly, not human. But stories like those in the Assassin’s Creed franchise give da Vinci’s personality and humanity a place to be more than just a figurehead. Yes he was great, but he was also just a man. This makes our history and the people who made it feel more tangible. More like living, breathing people instead of just another mythological hero from long ago. That’s when historical figures are their most powerful. Not as pillars, but as people.
To Baghdad and back
One of historical fiction’s greatest triumphs is immersing modern people in the locations of old. There are so many cities and monuments that have been lost to history — nothing but ruins to extrapolate upon. Assassin’s Creed games help give reality and weight to the people and cities from long ago. They aren’t dry information in a textbook or 2D drawings of a city layout. Assassin’s Creed games make cities — be it Ancient, Renaissance, Caliphate, or Victorian — immersive, realistic spaces begging to be explored.
This franchise’s greatest feats include its reconstruction of cities like Milan and Rome. While this city still currently exists, it is hard to experience it how it was during the height of the Renaissance. AC2 does a magnificent job of balancing the realism of the city as it exists in modern day and recontextualizing it to the world of 1500s Italy. The game does such a good job trying to properly emulate these cities that keen-eyed fans have been known to be able to navigate the streets of these modern metropolises based on their AC knowledge.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are Assassin’s Creed’s ancient cities. This is where the games’ historical imagination is at its finest. These recreations are their most effective with Valhalla’s Old England, Origin’s Cairo, and Odyssey’s Greece and Sparta. Many of these civilizations have left little behind but art, ruins, and stories. Using those clues, AC really helps flesh out their culture and immerse you into the lives of these people, showing how similar and how different they can be from our modern-day existence.
The Eagle-Bearer Arrives
Odyssey is arguably the pinnacle of Assassin’s Creed historical revelry, tying the ruins and records of our past to the fantastical stories our ancestors told to one another of heroes and monsters. Exploring history as if the myths and legends were real is a staple of the historical fantasy genre. It’s a way to explore the almost mythical way we see the past but also ground it in reality. Oh so human, but still fantastical.
In AC: Odyssey, Kassandra/Alexios stumbled through the very complicated love life of Alcibiades as well as the pigs of Circe. Socrates stood a mere city away from the threat of Medusa. The tragic fall of Pericles and his Athens became surrounded by a fittingly Herculean adventure. AC: Odyssey brings together what the Grecien people believed in and what they experienced, creating something that may not be real, but can help you understand the living, beating heart and mythos of these people.
Odyssey is not a work of facts. It is pure, unadulterated fiction. But it ties together the Grecian reality with its ideals in a way that emulates the wonderful chaos of what it’s like to be a living human in any age. The enduring myths that have survived for centuries are great reflections of what the people of that day and age are amused by, what they fear, what they aspire to be and what kind of fantasy world their society can inspire.
Hubris, History, and the Stories They Tell
Odyssey combines the great and terrible stories of hubris-leaden heroes and mercurial gods to reveal Ancient Greece’s people and their culture, which understood how flawed even the best of humanity could be. Their Heracles could harm his family, their Jason could abandon Medea for a princess, their Medea could kill her children. And much like their fictional heroes, their Pericles — their golden age leader — made war-time missteps which eventually led to his death via plague and the destabilization of the Athenian government. In Odyssey and real-life history, a great man became a greater tragedy for his people, incurring devastating losses throughout the Peloponnesian War until the eventual Athenian defeat in 404 BC. In Odyssey’s Kassandra and Alexios you experience this wonderfully, flawfully human story of heroism just like the people of Ancient Greece would’ve told it. And that ultimately is what makes historical fantasy as a genre so powerful.
Combining true history with mythos and fiction brings reflection and reality together to create a new, more vibrant way to look at history. It’s not for everyone, but for the people it does work for, it’s a magic unlike anything else. It makes history tangible, immersive, fantastical, sympathetic, and sentimental. And Odyssey fully embraced that, which is why so many of the AC fans who love the more historical exploration side of these games love this title so much, too.
The true beauty of historical fantasy is that it lets these cultures defy the laws of time and death to share their stories — real or mythical.