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History: It’s All in the Delivery

With a little research and a generous application of artistic licence, historical fiction is making history appealing and accessible to all.

I love history. I read about it, listen to it, and watch it – constantly. I even collect it. It is my one true obsession, my unreserved passion. When I see a date on a building, I want to know the structure's story. Wherever I find it, I absorb it. I'm sure you get the picture.

To my wife, this addiction of mine is puzzling. To quote her directly: “Listening to you talk about history is like when I was forced to go to church as a kid.” My enthusiasm for a bygone era isn’t reciprocated; it’s usually met with complete disinterest and eyes glazed from sheer boredom.

I once bought her a copy of Walter Lord's A Night to Remember – an enthralling account of Titanic's last 90 minutes afloat. My wife had previously expressed an interest in the topic, and I assumed this would stir a desire to learn more about the sinking than what had been detailed in Cameron's three hour-plus blockbuster. But the book lay on the bedside table for a month, attracting a thin layer of domestic dust, motionless like the Atlantic Ocean on that fateful April evening in 1912.

However, television drama and film is a completely different proposition altogether. Put on historical fiction like The Tudors, The Borgias or Vikings, and she'll sit transfixed for the entire duration.

Of course it's all in the delivery. History digested from a textbook is generally unpalatable to most. While I relished history at school (and often taught the teacher something in the process), the majority of my classmates would find any excuse to avoid it. But when you add a twist of compelling fiction, big production values and a beguiling roster of actors, history becomes less pedagogic and more entertaining.

The same can be said for the Assassin's Creed franchise. Using history as a backdrop, publisher Ubisoft tapped a rich vein of opportunity and developed it into a lucrative annual franchise. It all began in the 12th Century, with the story of an assassin's struggle with the Templars during the Third Crusade.

Stunning reproductions of crusader cities Acre and Jerusalem provided a rich environment for an assassin to hunt. Careful research led to the addition of historical figures – that had actually died in the year 1191 – as principal targets for the assassin's blade within the game. Assassin's Creed was critically and commercially well-received, confirming there was a market for video games based on historical events.

The Renaissance was next, once again blending key figures from the era (like Leonardo Da Vinci and the Medici family) into the narrative. From there the series visited the American War of Independence, as part of a North American trilogy that concludes with Assassin's Creed: Rogue. And now we are joining the French Revolution in Assassin's Creed: Unity.

Any student of history worth their weight in scrolls could pull the game’s historical accuracy to pieces. The technology, the weaponry… it's all stuff of fantasy, but it all comes together remarkably well under the broad description of ‘historical fiction’. Does it matter? For the purposes of entertainment, of course it doesn't.

Utilising the broad canvas of history might encourage the player to dig a little deeper to acquire a better understanding of the era in which the game is set. What the teacher in the corduroy jacket with elbow patches couldn't achieve in seven years of high school, Ubisoft can potentially pull off in eighteen hours – inspire an interest in history.

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