Game Design as Historical Authorship: Interview with Julien Bazile, part 2

Dec 17, 19

This interview is the part three of a three-part series on teaching historical game studies at the undergraduate level, and the second half of our interview with Julien Bazile. In this interview, we discuss with Julien his research into Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed franchise, the use of historical sources in game development, and game design as a form of historical writing, or “authorship”.

Julien Bazile is a PhD student, contract researcher (University of Lorraine) and teaching assistant (Université de Sherbrooke). At the crossroads between historiography and game studies, his doctoral research focuses on the design of video games in terms of historical authorship, and the mobilization of historical sources in the development process in Assassin’s Creed games.

N.B. The interview that follows was conducted in French, then transcribed and translated into English by the interviewer. You can also read part 1 of our interview with Julien by clicking on this link.

Julien Bazile – Interview, part 2

I would now like to take the opportunity to discuss your research … You are currently engaged in your doctoral studies at the Université de Sherbrooke. Could you tell us about your research on Unisoft’s Assassin’s Creed franchise? 

As you said, I am a researcher at the doctoral level. I am in my fourth and final year, I am enrolled in a “cotutelle” (joint PhD degrees) in history at the University of Sherbrooke and in information sciences and communication at the University of Lorraine, France. I am writing my thesis, finishing up my introduction, and my plan of sources. My work focuses specifically on two related Assassin’s Creed titles, on the design of historical video games, and the analysis of sources used in the design process at Ubisoft, based from interviews with game designers, art directors, creative directors at Ubisoft Montreal. So: interviews, and design documents, source documents that the development team have used during production. 

I am working specifically on two games, Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag and Assassin’s Creed: Freedom Cry – the latter being the DLC of the former, before it was made into a stand-alone title. Each of these AC opuses is thought in the thematic and mechanical continuity of the other. It’s more or less the same characters, the same environments, and both games’ themes are historically related. The story of Black Flag takes place during the golden age of piracy, roughly between 1717 to 1725; Freedom Cry around 1735, in (French) colonial Saint-Domingue (Haiti), and is based on the history slavery, and resistance to slavery – which eventually will culminate in the Haitian revolt and political revolution of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century.   

My research director is a specialist of the golden age of piracy, and historical slavery in the West Indies. As for me, I am working on sources in the video game design process. Around this issue of sources, I try to analyze the structures of the industry and the dominant identity models in the industry, for example, the iconic characters of entrepreneurs, explorers, warriors, soldiers, etc. in relation to historical narratives of slavery and piracy. Basically, what are the sources that the developers mobilize for their project, and why they mobilize these specific sources.  

Then, there is the theme that is at the heart of my research: how do sources themselves “resist” industry formatting and dominant narratives. Not so much in relation to developers’ intentionality to sources, but that what specifically, in the materiality of “making history”, with the sources that are given. How do the sources “resist” these dominant identity models, of militarized masculinity, of the accumulation of resources, the classic figures of the citizen-soldier, the entrepreneur, etc. How can the materiality of sources allow for an alternative point of view to emerge, within the discourse of the game? I want to go beyond this debate of “appropriation of history by games”, historical propaganda, whatnot. There are facts that emerge from the sources themselves, that resist historical distortion. I’ve seen that in the process of putting historical material into story (or gameplay) form, developers will push their adaptation in one direction or in another. The role of the screenwriter has been fascinating to study, to see how AC writers tried to push narrative in certain directions… 

Finally, I’m trying to understand how the developers worked from multiple sources: did they take only sources on the internet, did they take movies, TV series? If they delved into primary sources, how were these choices made? What were their expectations, and in what form or shape did they have to adapt their findings? In a nutshell, by research focuses on the use of sources in the design of Assassin’s Creed Black Flag and Freedom Cry.

And why these two games of the series in particular …?

Firstly, I decided to study these two games because I had an interest in them. I suggested these titles to my research director because he worked on AC: Freedom Cry. Ubisoft devs also told me, that starting around 2013, they really started really made source documentation a priority, researching primary and secondary literature, and working with a team of independent experts. And they had a team of historians that they started consulting with a little bit more solidly. So, this more concerted or systematized use of historical sources at Ubisoft started around the time of Black FlagFreedom Cry. Compare it with the latest, i.e. Origins or Odyssey, and you can see there has been an inflation of historical sources in the production process. Materials for entire PhD theses! But in actuality this inflation in sources, this concerted effort to reference historical sources really began with AC: Black Flag.  

Adéwalé overlooking a slave auction in Port-au-Prince

I’m also interested in Black Flag because of the historical theme of piracy and slavery; themes that are subject to much historical interpretation, and coverage by media and in popular culture. The theme of piracy seems well suited to historical fiction. Aside from issues of historical representation in games, what interests me with Black Flag is seeing whether the developers (and AC fans) are more interested in fictional or historical pirates. And that’s the question: who is a pirate for Ubisoft, and how are slaves presented in Freedom Cry? Is a pirate a character who vaguely resists arbitrary rule? An adventurer type who indulges in “recreational crime”? I had to wonder, because the developers cited to me Point Break (the movie) as a reference! In the film there are scenes of crime, and of violence … on the beach. [laughs]  

So, in my research, I ask: does Black Flag somehow carry a vision of piracy that is a little closer to lesser-known historical authors, who have researched the social history of piracy. Can historical piracy be likened to a movement of proletarians who resist, a “radicalized maritime proletariat”? In my research, I make reference to the concept of hydra, put forward by Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh. These two historians make piracy and slavery related, or “twin” phenomena. This interpretation also poses the question from the point of view of the production of history, and political uses of history: what source materials resist the video game form, which historical facts make the cut, and which are ultimately rejected? Video game characters in this industry always seem to be cut from the same cloth, militarized masculinity, entrepreneurs, soldiers, etc. Will players always end up being served with the same set of characters in the end, regardless of the historical context represented in a game? Or is there, on the contrary, a head of this “hydra” (of the maritime proletariat, in our example) that will subsist in production, disrupting this rehashing of generic “badass” heroes in video games, and their super-agency? And if developers try to “slice that head” of this unruly hydra [by resorting to the dominant tropes of the industry], won’t the “hydra head” of material sources survive, and continue to push against industry formulae? 

So, I try to articulate this notion of the “resistance of sources”. If I put Rediker and Linebaugh’s notion of “hydra” in my conceptual toolbox, it’s because I want to shed light on how these discourses on the past that present themselves in video games take shape in the design process.

The Assassin’s Creed franchise comes with a background story the surfaces and shapes each AC opus. In return, each new AC entry has to bend its historico-realistic setting to the narrative requirements of the series. Every major AC title also privileges a certain set of historical interpretations, as for example Lemisch or Reddiker in AC: Black Flag. How have production teams selected their sources and historiography to suit the narrative requirements of the AC franchise?  

To a limited extent, I was given access by the developers to a lot of information about how these choices are made. I’m interested in the decision-making process that actually governs those choices. During the interviews, I invited dev team members to introduce me to sources used during the production, as they rediscovered them. So, I really got to see what they tried to do, what concepts were common currency, what the historical subject meant to them, and what kind of production problems led them to select or neglect certain historical sources. I got a glimpse of what the developers wanted to pull off, from the ground up. First, they said to themselves, “We’re going to focus on this time period because it’s ‘the golden age of piracy’. What comes before or after, is less relevant to us. Since we’re looking for something iconic and emblematic, we need to pick the golden age our starting point, since these themes are more evocative for the public”. Basically, why were some historical elements cut, and why were others featured.  

The production process also poses its own constraints. For example, the developers planned to offer to players many different environments, what they called an “ecological concept”. They reused many of the events they had used before, because time and budget constraints did not allow them to go into more detail. On the other hand, they also went on an exploratory trip to the Caribbean, in which they took a lot of pictures of the surroundings. This is because they wanted to convey specific emotions. So, they went on their fact-finding trip to photograph and record environments, atmospheres, colors, environmental densities, etc. A historian might ask: “why was such a building included in the game, and this one not?” To be sure, there are also mechanical constraints involved. The urban environments essential to the series have to be highlighted; height effects in AC, for example, are enhanced to ensure that the player can find her way around. Developers regularly employ concepts of urban planning theory, including the notion of visibility and visual space.   

Finally, why certain character, or name choices? These are things I found answers to during interviews, i.e. “that’s how this idea came to us”. Or, “here, we wanted to use a mechanic that was used in one of our other games”. What has been told me over and over again in the origin story of these games, comes down to the question “here’s why we chose pirates”. Dev team members told me that there was already discussion going on this historical theme, based on what had been new and fun in Assassin’s Creed III, namely the naval gameplay. The main challenge seemed to be therefore how to reconcile the fantasy of the assassin of the urban environment to an adventure game taking place on the seas based on the theme of the golden age of piracy.   

I have also been able to study other source documents, for example PowerPoint presentations that circulate within the production teams. You come to see recurring design concepts, for example ” bright, lush environments”. At the same time: “avoid dense environments that could break movement fluidity”. The thing is, lush and dense natural environments were a historical reality. But they were made parkour-friendly in the game. Also, when the team went to record in the jungle, in Haiti and in the Dominican Republic, the jungle was simply too noisy for Black Flag’s simulated natural environments.

And I could go on. Each example shows that the design process is quite iterative. With a variety of sources as their starting point, the development team tweaked a little bit here, a little bit there. For economic reasons, cultural reasons, or budget or time constraints. Assassin’s Creed: Freedom Cry, which takes place in Saint-Domingue, had been designed to be included in Black Flag. But having Saint-Domingue geography included in the main game would have made a map too big and would have created what the devs called the “bathtub effect” – meaning, you have everything in one corner of the map, and Saint-Domingue in the opposite corner. The devs said to themselves: “OK, we’re going to take away this content from the game and put it somewhere else”. As an afterthought, they also reconsidered the narrative possibilities of colonial Saint-Domingue, i.e. “perhaps we should further explore the issue of slavery, a few decades after the period covered in Black Flag“.  

In my research, the question arose: how are decisions taken during production? I started to do on-site interviews around 2017-2018. I benefited from a time window in which the members of the original Black Flag design team were still present in the studio and had kept many production documents. But here the problem came to this: how does one engage in a critique of sources with production documents that are constantly being modified? In certain moments of production, many key decisions are being taken simultaneously. So as a researcher, you ask “is it because of X decision that such element appears (or does not appear) in the game? How do the developers reduce the range of possibilities to a series of manageable choices?” In some cases, there are developers who say, “this idea – that was my decision, or input. I did this for X reason…” Choices of names, characters, historical events. All choices that can happen at the drop of a hat. And so, it is necessary to relativize the content choices that have made it into the final product.  

Your research seems to link in novel ways the issue of video game production constraints to the study of the materiality of the sources. What types of contributions do you hope to bring to the nascent field of “Historical Game Studies”? 

What I would really try to put forward – and this is the link to my contribution to the HST 287 course, my thesis research, and an additional creative research component – is to try to think, in general, game design as a form of historical writing, or authorship. 

“Historical authorship”… not to relativize the many forms that historical discourse can take, but rather to propose that game design can be as valid and relevant as academic writing for the production of historical narrative. I suggest this in the continuity of Adam Chapman, who published his book the year I began my thesis. That is, there are different “vehicles” or “media” for conveying history. Academic writing, literary prose, linear, text, is one. Video games and interactive media are another. Each medium has its possibilities and constraints. 

This perspective invites us to pay attention to the writing and / or design process, how game and narrative design make use of historical sources. Including also sources that are not historical sources per se, for example contemporary perspectives that also impact production processes. Do devs understand players and the amateur historian public, and their expectations? Adding to this a creative research component, where I ask to what extent can a designer / researcher, who uses a historian’s approach can analyze how video games produce historical discourse? “Historical discourse” defined here as speech that is not totally fanciful and participates in history as a public debate. In short, game mechanics and gameplay at the service of historical discourse.  

So, these are the different angles and approaches that I try to synthesize: try to think about design and play as a species of historical authorship, and discourse. And study, in comparative fashion, the stances of historians and game designers. 

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