The Halle au Blé recreated for video game “Assassin’s Creed Unity”

The Halle au Blé in Assassin's Creed
January 11, 2021

The Halle au Blé recreated for video game “Assassin’s Creed Unity”

“Assassin’s Creed” is one of Ubisoft’s biggest hits. The eighth volume takes place in Paris during the French Revolution and leads the hero across a virtually reconstructed city to the Halle au Blé, the Bourse de Commerce’s previous incarnation. A technical, historical, and playful challenge.

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10 mn
By Vincent Manilève,
Editor at Ubisoft

What is the role of the artistic director in designing a videogame such as Assassin’s Creed Unity?

Mohamed Gambouz, artistic director of Assassin’s Creed Unity — His main role is to define an intention or vision, to orient artistic choices, whether in terms of color palette, atmosphere—joyful or sinister?—clothing and architectural styles… Once this vision has been defined, the artistic director oversees the work of the artistic team implementing this vision in the game. In the case of Assassin’s Creed Unity, we were very inspired by nineteenth-century paintings: for example, we looked to Eugène Delacroix’s atmospheric treatment in his paintings of the Revolution, that heavy atmosphere, where clouds mix with the smoke of guns and cannons.


Why work with a historian to design a videogame?

MG — The historian makes it possible for us to project ourselves into the chosen universe, to understand why certain events took place, to visualize how they unfolded, to imagine the daily life of individuals… In a word, to frame the ideas of the developers! He is also able to feed them anecdotes to enrich the plot.

Maxime Durand, historian — Videogames are made primarily for entertainment; the historian brings a crucial coherence to the game: what we suggest has an impact on the social, political, urban, architectural universe of the game… The historian is a source of support and inspiration for the developers. He helps them to define the key moments, the currents of thought, the key places, as well as the characters who marked the era—preferably characters who die, in this case, given that the main character in this game is an assassin. Over the years, I have also worked on franchise products, particularly books, to ensure historical consistency across all our projects.


How does the historian participate in the creation of the game? What sources did you use?

MD — Depending on the project, the sources can be very different. They are all increasingly available in the digital age. We start with a surface search, using encyclopedias, films, series, novels… that helps us to get into the ambiance. Then we go into the details. Before attempting to reconstruct the Halle au Blé as it was, we had to understand the French Revolution, the Ancien Regime, the September massacres, the three estates, etc. Having studied all of that, we turned to the archaeology and architecture of the places we wanted to include in the game. So we created the game’s universe, in this case Paris, placing buildings and streets… As development progresses, we refine those initial sketches.


Paris and its buildings are recomposed for the needs of the game. Some elements are exaggerated, and others simplified. How do developers rely on historical research to reinvent a building like the Halle au Blé?

MD — We were able to transcribe the Halle au Blé very accurately, thanks in particular to the many archives available through the Réunion des musées nationaux. But also because it is the subject of a wide artistic treatment. In addition, I refer to the work of Michel Huard, an architect and urban planner who has published atlases of Paris over the centuries, in which he compiled different sources. His plans allow us to better understand how the buildings were located in relation to one another. The Halle au Blé in the game becomes a living place, filled with sacks of grain, as it once was.

MG — The role of the developer is to create a stimulating universe for the player of the game. For the Halle au Blé, we had to ensure that the building was interesting to infiltrate, climb, observe, understand… The rotunda of this circular building was empty and we had to add scaffolding and wooden elements so the player could reach it. On the ground, barricades, broken objects, rubbish, and a whole host of other elements contribute to restoring the atmosphere.


The role of the developer is to create a stimulating universe for the player of the game. For the Halle au Blé, we had to ensure that the building was interesting to infiltrate, climb, observe, understand.

Image issue du jeu Assassin's Creed

How much freedom can you take with historical and architectural reality? How does you strike a balance between historical precision and the narrative and fictional requirements of the game?

MD — Let’s take Notre-Dame, the first building we started recreating for the game. At the time of the Revolution, its condition had deteriorated enormously, with one of the spires already dismantled due to bad weather. But the developers found it unfortunate that it was not accessible to the player, and we decided to include it anyway. It was an artistic choice, not a choice made out of ignorance. We must keep in mind that we are developing a videogame that speaks to the player, whose objective is not to faithfully restore every detail accurately.

MG — Sometimes we focus on the historical dimension, sometimes on the player’s experience. These decisions are made on a case-by-case basis as we develop the game, it’s a conversation. For the Halle au Blé, we started with a purely historical representation, but as we played, we decided to add elements to make it easier for the player to get around the building.


Are there unavoidable technical or technological constraints when recreating a historic building?

MG — There are always constraints, but they are less and less insurmountable with each new technological advance. In Assassin’s Creed Unity, most buildings are reduced by half or a third to enhance the player’s experience. Notre-Dame was one of the exceptions, with a scale closer to one to one. We also try to build each structure with repeating modules. And then there are the metrics: the height of jumps and climbs must match the character’s abilities. This may require, for example, changing the distances between two windows. This type of game makes players want to learn about the buildings and the historical period they are exploring.


To what extent can these videogame reconstructions be of pedagogical or cultural interest?

MD — With Assassin’s Creed, we have something very special, connected to world historical culture. By playing these games, you discover with more depth ancient cultures, you interact with historical characters… Each time we announce a new Assassin’s Creed, players study the historical period we’ve chosen, to try to anticipate the stakes of the plot of the game. The game’s universe offers a kind of entertainment, but also invites players to discover things they would not otherwise have the opportunity to learn. We know that teachers have found a real pedagogical value in these games.