History Channeled

If Video-Game Designers Can't Avoid Homework, Who Can?

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In the late 1990s, when Steven Spielberg began working on World War II shooter Medal Of Honor, he and the game’s developer, Dreamworks Interactive, contracted veteran Marine captain Dale Dye—who’d also consulted on Saving Private Ryan—to make sure the game was historically accurate. But while finding someone so knowledgeable about World War II is relatively easy (Tom Brokaw probably has a couple of Greatest Generation vets chilling in his living room this very second), locating someone well versed in the Third Crusade—which occurred from 1189 to 1192 A.D.—is somewhat trickier. Fortunately, the staff at Ubisoft Montreal—the developers of new stealth/action game Assassin’s Creed (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC), in which you play Altair, a white-robed assassin who must knock off slimy war profiteers during the Crusades and then vanish into the crowd without being caught—were lucky enough to find their man by simply kicking back and watching a movie. “We actually found Dr. Cobb on the DVD for [Ridley Scott’s 2005 Crusades-era epic] Kingdom Of Heaven,” admits Assassin producer Jade Raymond. “We wanted an academic expert to look at the game’s script, game-play footage and artwork to ensure that it was historically accurate, and Dr. Cobb provided great input on the script and helped us make sure the historical elements were authentic.” The good doctor to whom she is referring is Dr. Paul M. Cobb, an associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Notre Dame, and Fellow of the school’s Medieval Institute. Cobb’s expertise concerning the Islamic perspective on the Crusades led him to be interviewed for the historical documentary included with the Kingdom Of Heaven DVD. Even he admits that finding accurate info on the historical period isn’t as easy as renting a movie. “Like all pre-modern events,” he explains, “we rely mostly on what we would call ‘literary sources’—chronicles, narratives or accounts written by either participants or people who heard about these events and wrote about them in their own style. The Crusades have a kind of mythical quality to them because the sources are literary, and thus there’s room for storytelling.” DUSTING OFF THE DETAILS According to Cobb, there weren’t any gross historical inaccuracies in Assassin’s Creed when he began consulting; Altair wasn’t found ?eeing the Jerusalem guard in New Balance running shoes. “I was actually quite impressed [with the original script]. They had obviously done their research. Clearly there were people on the team who had put their noses into books. It wasn’t just Googled and thrown together.” “Dr. Cobb helped us on many different levels,” Raymond explains. “When reviewing the script, he suggested names of places and people we could include for more historical accuracy. And when reviewing the art of the cities, he pointed out details in the construction of particular buildings or the layout of the city that would’ve been different during the pre-Ottoman period.” “The level of criticism I had was one of detail and nuance,” Cobb says, “making sure they weren’t using hodge-podges of different periods. But then, I’m also not one of these people who goes to a historical movie and gets upset because the sandals aren’t the right style.” “I think where he helped us the most,” Raymond adds, “was his enthusiasm about our game and his willingness to answer all of our silly questions. For example, one day we were planning our casting session and there was a disagreement on the team about whether Richard The Lionheart had an English or French accent. All we had to do was call Dr. Cobb to get the answer and the argument was settled: Even though Richard was the king of England, his first language was French.” CONVINCING THE EXPERT Cobb may have ended up enthusiastic about Assassin’s Creed, but his first reaction to the idea was horror. When Ubisoft Montreal initially explained the game’s historical setting, he was miffed. “Frankly, when I first heard about it, I thought it was an appalling idea,” he admits with a slight chuckle. “I had visions of people playing a game that taught them how to, uh…religiously persecute people. But I was immediately relieved after seeing the script that the people behind the game are a very sophisticated crowd and have a bigger perspective on history.” “Dr. Cobb understood that we weren’t making an interactive documentary,” says Raymond. “We were making a game where fun always rules.” “I think this period is a cool one to set a game in,” Cobb adds, “because, as I said earlier, there are so many question marks about this period of history that it has the ?exibility you need for a game. In certain historical settings, you’re kind of locked into a narrative. That’s a problem I’ve noticed with some games—you already know what’s going to happen.” So the truth finally comes out. Dr. Cobb isn’t just an academic, but a closet gamer. “I’m more of an empire-creating/strategy kind of guy. Rome: Total War kind of stuff.” Which is more than he can say for his fellow history professors. When asked if anyone in his life was impressed that he was working on one of the most anticipated games of the year, Cobb laughs, “My students are incredibly impressed with me. My colleagues—less so.” His students’ impression does beg one final question: Will Dr. Cobb be using Assassin’s Creed as a study guide for Intro To The Crusades 101? “Absolutely not,” he says with a laugh. “But not because it’s historically inaccurate. I just happen to be one of these people who believes that nothing will ruin a game faster than making it educational. There’s nothing like a historian to ruin a good video game.”