Time Travel Gets Closer to Reality

Ubisoft A rendering of Piazza San Marco, in Venice, from Assassin's Creed II.

We go to look at old cities and ancient buildings, in large part, for the visual glimpse they offer into the life of their time. But new buildings and tourist hordes often blur the experience. Seeing the past re-created in movies has a fatal flaw, too: The audience is a passive observer. While the advent of videogame technology gave us interactivity, videogames haven't labored to reproduce historical settings with great precision. Consumers were too young to care about details, and the programming technology had a way to go.

With the release of Assassin's Creed II in November, a lot changed. Ostensibly the story of a time traveler who journeys back to the Renaissance, becoming a hooded Florentine protagonist tasked with avenging the murder of his parents, the game is set in Florence, Venice and Rome over a number of decades leading up to the year 1499. The game's producer-authors chose those years as the most eventful of the era and labored lovingly to re-create the environs as exactly as possible. They hired Renaissance scholars to advise on period garb, architecture, urban planning, weaponry and the like. They took tens of thousands of photographs of interiors and streets. They used Google Earth liberally to piece together the ground-up and sky-down perspectives through which the action flows.

The previous episode, Assassin's Creed, launched in 2007, took place during the Crusades but lacked the obsessive authenticity of its successor. However, it did sell eight million copies which, even when discounted from the initial price of $60 a copy, amounts to a lot of revenue allowing the French parent company, Ubisoft, to fully indulge the developers in their love of history. The top three are in their 30s and based at Ubisoft's Montreal office, where the project was produced. They grew up with videogames and believe that their audience's tastes have matured along with theirs.

The game's creative director, a Montrealer named Patrice Desilets, lived in Italy for some years, where he acquired a feel for the vivid intrigues of the Renaissance. He grew fascinated, he says, with the notion that "finally people can control time, and relive the past, through games." The producer, Sebastien Puel, was born in the south of France, in the fortified medieval French town of Carcassonne, and grew up surrounded by history. The head writer, a Harvard graduate from Los Angeles and former screenwriter, Corey May, was driven, he says, by the challenge of "telling a story that feels real and is set among real people who existed."

The game's plot, boiled down to its bare essentials, serves up the standard, if glowingly visualized, perquisites of current pop-fiction narratives regression through genetic memory, Dan Brown-ish secrets of the Templars, and a central fictitious protagonist, Ezio, who traverses venerable Italian cities with great physical agility hunting Renaissance bad guys. In Florence, for example, Ezio leaps and climbs, in a manner that calls to mind the urban gymnastics of Parkour, over and through such familiar monuments as the Ponte Vecchio, the Duomo and the Palazzo Vecchio. That's when he's not crossing roofs or wading through streets inhabited by courtesans, brotherhoods of thieves and Florentine soldiers, all of whom come with little optional windows where you can learn about their customs. Even the faces of bystanders are based on portraits of the time.

Ezio's struggle takes him from his late teens to his late 30s, which allows the game to introduce the likes of Leonardo, Machiavelli and Savonarola through the decades. Leonardo's famous flying-machine designs, which never made it off the page in real life, finally get a tryout over the famed quadrants of Venice. Assassin's Creed II teems with such a host of meticulous contemporary touches that the player loses all sense of the present while the game flows.

The segment in Florence begins with a Guelfs and Ghibellines style gang fight on the Ponte Vecchio in early dawn light. The shops are shuttered. The hazy colors and the distant sound of river birds are uncannily correct. Nowadays, the tourist hordes can blot out all sense of history. Once you've navigated it on AC2, when you visit the Ponte Vecchio in person the illusion persists of a highly intensified sense of place. In other words, the video brings the place sharply back to life.

And so it is with Brunelleschi's Duomo, where Ezio climbs upward to the cupola, or the Palazzo Vecchio's facade and tower, where you get to know the stonework intimately. The authors do take some poetic licence where they have to. For example, the famous polygonal building opposite the Duomo, the San Giovanni Battistero, simply doesn't exist in the video due to technical obstacles of memory and programming space. As Mr. May puts it: "System memory is finite. Sometimes you have to choose between perfect representation and fun game play. When that happens, rarely we hope, the latter comes first."

Overall, though, Assassin's Creed II is as close as we've managed to get to real time travel. The grown-ups can lap it up as a kind of virtual tourism. For the high schoolers, still the main audience, the video offers a kind of education by stealth. History matters more if your life depends on it, even as Ezio, and even if you've got lives to spare.

We go to look at old cities and ancient buildings, in large part, for the visual glimpse they offer