Forget the baguettes, berets and charming cafés. Paris during the French Revolution is not the setting we all know from those picture-perfect postcards. During that tumultuous time, the City of Light was a place of unbridled terror, where obscene extravagance flourished in the face of abject squalor. The French Revolution was bloody. It was brutal. But it was also full of big ideas and grandiose notions. It was a time of change – and a time that changed everything. In other words, the ultimate setting for Assassin’s Creed Unity, this year’s next-gen-only offering in the fabled franchise.
If you’re anything like us, though, you’ve long-since forgotten your high school history lessons. So to get caught up on the French Revolution, we got a full refresher course from Creative Director Alex Amancio, Writer Russell Lees, and Team Historian Maxime Durand. Here are five essential insights into the French Revolution and Assassin’s Creed Unity.
1. Neither Simple Nor Clean
The French Revolution was a period of tremendous change that had an impact on world history for the next two centuries. But these changes didn’t come quick or easy. “It’s not one event that lasted for days,” says Durand. Instead, the French Revolution was a series of events and changes that people had been trying (and failing) to accomplish for an entire century during the Enlightenment. “Then everything changes in the span of 15 years after the start of the French Revolution.”
The chaos during the era also makes Paris a perfect backdrop for the conflict between the Assassins and Templars. “The actual history of the revolution is quite complex,” says Lees. “People’s loyalties are shifting. It’s dangerous for everybody. There’s a high level of paranoia amongst everyone.”
This confusion spills over into the battle between the Assassins and the Templars. “Nobody is in charge here,” Lees says. “Both the Assassins and Templars are finding their feet in this big cataclysm, this maelstrom of revolution. There are these huge forces at work. How can we best advance our interest in that situation? What are our interests? They might not even agree amongst themselves what their plans should be.”
2. Stuck in the Middle (Class)
“One could argue that the French Revolution is the beginning of the modern world because, up until that point, Europe was pretty much dominated by monarchies,” Amancio says. What’s more, this ruling class was pretty much one extended family, because they had all been marrying each other since the Middle Ages. But while the European monarchs had power and land, they were flat broke. And though they knew how to spend money, they had no idea how to make money.
‘One day you’re an extremist, the next day you’re a moderate, and the day after that you’re dead’
Enter the bourgeoisie, a new class that emerged during this era. This merchant class knew how to make money, and had plenty of it – but had no real power. Meanwhile, the masses were extremely impoverished, going hungry due to the ineptitude of the ruling class. “So the revolution is instigated by the bourgeois – these people that are educated but have no power,” Amancio says.
While pop historians have a tendency to oversimplify the French Revolution as an analogue to the 99% Movement from a few years ago, that’s not quite the case. Instead, it’s more like the 4% (the bourgeoisie) who incited the 95% (the starving masses) to rise up against the 1% (the ruling class) in order change the way the world works. Of course, with so many players involved in such a convoluted state of affairs, there was ample opportunity for others to manipulate the events behind the scenes.
“There’s always somebody in the shadows – murky threats that are trying to use this as a way to catapult their own vision,” Amancio says. “So our main villain in the game is that character who’s sort of pulling the strings because he’s trying to change society toward something that he believes is the right way to go for the Templars.”
The Templars have always been very autocratic. For them it’s all about control, about setting and obeying clear rules. “But this guy believes that control is best held over people if people believe they’re free,” Amancio says. Which means that, as with previous Assassins games, the world is not nearly as simple as it seems, and the allegiances of the players – on all sides – might surprise you.
3. Information Is Powerful
Whereas the Templars are all about rules and order, the Assassins strive to deliver the opposite. “The whole goal of the Assassins is for people to have information so they can be free,” Durand says. And during the French Revolution, the flow of information had never been freer. “Press was something quite new during the French Revolution,” Durand continues. “People who could read would read what was going on, and information was transferred very quickly.”
This led to all kinds of abuses from the “new media” of the time – including the infamous “Let them eat cake” quote that historians now agree was never said by Marie Antoinette. The line, which was supposedly uttered as a dismissive response to the lack of bread (and food in general), became a rallying cry for the masses, and for good reason. Grain prices were at a low for years and bread had been very affordable, but in the time before the French Revolution grain prices skyrocketed due to a few bad crops, forcing people to spend half a day’s salary just for a single loaf. “If we compare this to today, just imagine if in a couple days’ time, half your salary is going toward buying food,” Durand says.
Word of mouth also played a big role during the French Revolution. “Gossip that would start somewhere would end up being a massive story,” Durand says. He points to the storming of the Bastille. Prior to that key event, King Louis XVI had sent troops to patrol around Paris because he was worried that something was going on, but he didn’t know exactly what. But by the time he got his troops close to Paris, everyone was afraid that the king was planning to attack them – which wasn’t at all his intent – and that’s why they stormed the Bastille.
“It’s hard to imagine today that a little gossip would get spread and people would go a bit crazy and riot just because the information that started somewhere would get twisted,” Durand says. At the same time, it’s easy to imagine how both the Assassins and the Templars might be working in the shadows, manipulating the masses, pulling the strings, and using information in powerful new ways during the French Revolution.
4. Off With Their Heads
During the French Revolution, death lurked around every corner – and it wasn’t just hidden in shadows. Thanks to the guillotine – originally built as a “humane” way to execute nobility (as opposed to hanging, which had been reserved for commoners) – killings were carried out daily, right out in the open air. “The guillotine became a tool of terror,” Durand says. “People were afraid. At some points they were afraid to talk and show their position. The further into the Revolution it got, if you had a different opinion than the majority, you went to the guillotine.”
As he continued his own research into the French Revolution, Lees confesses that he was “surprised” at just how bad it really got. “There’s a reason they call it The Terror,” he says. “People genuinely were terrorized. Everybody was fighting for their life on some level. If your belief went out of fashion, you were done. At the drop of a hat, you got condemned to death.”
“One day you’re an extremist, the next day you’re a moderate, and the day after that you’re dead,” Amancio adds, further illustrating the rapidly changing political tides.
Indeed, most of the major players during the French Revolution died – including Robespierre, the man who’s often credited as the “father of the revolution.” But this was an era of great men and women who stood by their beliefs even in the face of death. “I don’t know how many people today would speak out if they knew their lives were in danger,” Durand says. “We take freedom of speech for granted.”
Naturally, the infamous deaths of all these major figures has us wondering: How many of them might have been surreptitiously at the hands of the Assassins or the Templars?
5. Unclear Endgame
“Everyone had very different ideas about where the revolution was supposed to go,” Durand says. For the first two years, many believed the best path to change was with the king still on the throne. Only when the king tried to flee did they put him in jail and later execute him. And once the king was out of the way, all kinds of shifts and turns occurred during the next dozen years. “It was totally insane,” Durand adds.
Rich material for an Assassin’s Creed game – and one that should be as unpredictable as the French Revolution itself. “It won’t be easy for fans to say tomorrow morning: This is what’s going to happen in Assassin’s Creed,” Durand smiles. “There are so many different possibilities. The fans will probably try to predict what we’re going to do with the game, but it’s going to be really hard for them.”
For Lees, Paris is a “great gift to me because there are just so many personalities and events and interesting things.” Along with the history that suffuses (but doesn’t fully drive) the main path, the open-world missions are full of interesting tales with genuine historical relevance. “They’re not just generic missions,” Lees says about the open-world gameplay. “Every single one has a very specific thing that actually happened during that period or a person who actually existed.” Same goes for the co-op Brotherhood missions, which all center on well-known moments and/or figures from the French Revolution.
And then there’s Paris itself. Yes, the revolution was bloody and brutal, and the streets were awash with the unwashed masses, but it’s still one of the world’s greatest cities, and a perfect playground for Assassin’s Creed. “Paris, even at the time, is one of the nicest, most beautiful cities in the world,” Durand says. “It has landmarks that are hundreds of years old and are very impressive. The architecture is just great.”
To see how history comes alive in Assassin’s Creed Unity, check out these UbiBlog features: