As the level of immersion continues to deepen and our awareness and perception of the virtual worlds we inhabit and the environment around us unifies, we take a look at one cities digital and physical appearance. Gather the kindle, prepare the stones and take your place, around the bonfire as we take a personal look around the City of London using Assassin’s Creed Syndicate.
Ubisoft emerged as one of the forerunners of the open world genre with the release of its franchise launching title Assassins Creed, then a technical marvel and exploration of the Holy Lands and the eternal crusade between the Assassin Order and the Templars. Each subsequent chapter has shifted focus both usually of the protagonist but also on the location in which they are set.
With the release of Syndicate allowed me to indulge my sense of discovery in Victorian London and compare and contrast the city as envisioned by Ubisoft over a century ago and what remains today. London, like Rome, faces restrictions and challenges in its growth and development. Maintaining certain historical sites for prosperity whilst building outwards towards the future. With Syndicate principally based around the City of London with slight deviation at times, this allowed me to limit to a degree the area covered whilst comparing the key attractions so familiar to player and resident.
Once, residence to the gentry the transformation of Leicester Square into one of London’s smaller but prestigious parks and retail locations has been transformative over the course of the past three hundred years now a focal point for the West End and the associated entertainment and productions that precede its reputation. In the era and setting of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, by comparison the location had a somewhat diminished purpose and role although historically this was more in keeping with the time and its purpose at that point in history. Up until the start of the 19th century the area in London had seen a certain level of degradation however with the decision to change the role and purpose of the square into a retail and commercial venture, a concentrated investment program saw its fortunes begin to change.
Exploring the world of Victorian London through Syndicate gives inclinations of the trajectory from its historical roots to its present day fortunes. The fountain and square as depicted in the game hold certain parallels with the effort to maintain a central green space with the development of buildings and structures ever-present. Certainly there are some aspects that have been amended and changed to fit the games narrative but as before personally from a subjective standpoint it does capture the feel of the square and location, that odd sense of escapism before emerging into the urban sprawl of the West End. That our ancestors had the foresight to preserve and maintain a small green space for prosperity sake at the obvious expense of short-term profit is ever-present in London.
Leaving the square behind you being your approach towards Piccadilly Circus and here you begin to see the more obvious and recognizable parallels from the games historical settings and reconstruction to the modern-day buildings that stand in their presence. Whilst not instantly recognizable as a landmark in comparison to its more well-known peers having visited and explored by foot on many occasion the West End when I came upon this building in the virtual world, instantly my interest was piqued and astonished both at the similarity and the immersion between the digital facsimile and its real world counterpoint.
This view-point when exploring the Victorian world of Syndicate was one of the key inspirations to undertake this project causing me to pause and just take in the scope of the project to recreate London to such a fine level of detail. Whilst, certainly elements have changed in this period presumably based on historical research to the construction methods used and the color of the brick work and architecture the simple fact is, from an architectural and design perspective there is a striking similarity on evidence here. Even in the compressed open world format there is a concerted effort to capture key aspects of architecture and line of sight, standing on this specific corner, the opposite building for example at this angle blocking a proportion of the view. The corners and direction of the roads, the general finish of the building beyond the superficial colour scheme. When we discuss the immersion factor of the open world genre this is a key example of the design teams methodology to capture the spirit and aesthetic of London that is both recognisable and foreign to visitors and residents alike.
One of the central focal points when visiting the capital quite often is seen to be the advertising boards and bright lights of the West End, no better exemplified than Piccadilly Circus and the Eros Statue now present in this modern-day incarnation. Approaching the junction point from the east provides an instantly recognisable view of the advertising boards and the curved, road of Regent Street leading up towards Oxford Street. Despite some differences in the building and construction style there is certainly a level of similarity in the two presentations as depicted. The area serves no grand purpose in the central narrative of Syndicate but has been faithfully reproduced and serves to show the level to detail pursued and subjectively, from my perspective obtained.
There are certain aspects that have been modified either by design or necessity. Certainly the natural curve of Regent Street is straighter in the digital world. The opening towards Shaftesbury Avenue is more pronounced than its real world counterpoint. Quite intentionally, presumably the advertising lettering at the top of the building in Syndicate now home to the iconic digital display boards familiar and associated to the West End. This was my primary objective when I undertook this project to explore the similarities between the digital and real world architecture and surroundings and find these angles and view points. Here, the immersion between the two worlds in my opinion holds.
Walking up into Piccadilly Circus and looking back towards Leicester Square the immersion does break to a degree, the condensed design structure more evident as you look past Eros. In its digital incarnation the familiar statue from the perspective as depicted in the digital world is far smaller, and compared to its present day appeal certainly less populated. The curvature of the buildings equally is less pronounced with a more central and straight passage back towards the square. Whilst this didn’t immediately break the immersion between the digital and physical world certainly there were inconsistencies present.
Ubisoft has consistently made clear these digital worlds were never intended to be ‘one-to-one’ reproductions which is to say they worked to capture the key buildings and infrastructure of the city as shown with St Pauls and Covent Garden for example whilst the overall city is compressed down to a recognizable facsimile. Certainly when comparing views such as these the studio should be commended for capturing the general ‘feel’ of the city and the basic street design and layout associated with this area. But there are key differences regardless that whilst you appreciate the effort and work does break the experience. But this, as with Leicester Square captures the spirit and overall design of the area.
Emerging from St Martin’s Street and between the original and more recent addition to the National Gallery brings you into the instantly familiar and identifiable Trafalgar Square, one of the capitals landmark locations and as such what one would presume to be a certainty for focus and recreation on the digital platform. From the north a great degree of detail is instantly similar, reflecting the squares foundation and structure before the pedestrianization work that saw the road between the square and the National Gallery removed. Fittingly, on a clear day whether in the Victorian era or the 21st century footfall and civilian presence is a constant but looking at the physical structure reveals the buildings and structures that bare a similar representation.
First and foremost the central feature of the square, Nelson’s column that stands majestically looking down towards Parliament to the south of the square. Acting as synchronization location in the gaming world, and given its prestige and that it continues to be a focal point in the heart of Westminster it was perhaps a given factor this monument would be so faithfully reproduced. The buildings behind that now form Admiralty Arch don’t share a similar recreation, which to one familiar with the area does break the immersive experience as the main road towards Buckingham Palace is reduced to a single alleyway. From the south of the square at the base of the column and looking towards the National Gallery there is a fair degree of conformity to the inspirational source although in the present day the base of the column has been restricted as viewed below. In contrast the detail on the gallery beyond maintains a certain level of faithfulness. Specifically the domes, the main entrance way and the two pillared arches to the left and right. Strikingly, if not intentionally the studio has almost perfectly captured the great British sky’s above.
One of the more difficult aspects in undertaking this project has been capturing these set images without a dedicated photo capture mode that has now become prevalent in more recent open world titles and attempting to compare and contrast, mirroring them to their modern equivalents. The next image captured was an attempt to go for a wider image of the gallery, church and plinth that now hosts a temporary installation. The image captured from the west side of the square with your back to the wall surrounding the immediate area gave a good view of these familiar landmarks and overall seemed one of the more easier to capture images which in familiarity before the event seemed to be the case. On closer inspection and attempt whilst this viewpoint is accessible and resembles the digital world there are slight alterations or changes that were made in fitting with the games design and colour pallet but that do jar from the immersive experience.
The detail for example of the main plinth was the first aspect I picked up on when capturing the image, although evidence of a more recent finish perhaps give credence to these changes it does present a more basic style to the gaming’s representation. Equally, viewing the detail of the gallery there are several subtle changes that have taken place, the indention and detail of the main archway, the windows on the buildings exterior now a solid wall. Looking beyond to the church beyond the archway and pillars prevalent now reduced to a degree. In contrast, the spire and general finish of the roofline are almost identical. In truth these are largely subjective nuanced changes that have occurred and personally do represent a great effort to reproduce this general area but when contrasting the physical and digital world there are changes, omissions be they for time or creative reasoning is beyond my knowledge or awareness.
I wanted to take one more image of this area before I moved on to Parliament and Westminster where this brief tour of London concludes. With a compressed day and night cycle my journey time from Buckingham Palace to the main square had close to a day in transit and dusk was setting over London, the ethereal qualities evident and the city basking in the haze and stench of the mechanical era portrayed. The final image taken from the North West of the square see’s the Gallery and Church beyond presented in an elegant and illuminated fashion. This was one of those images when viewed playing Syndicate I immediately stopped my play through to marvel and realise how faithful a job they had performed in recreating the city. With the exception of the modern-day banners prevalent on the modern structure a great deal of detail has been captured although strangely, given the faithfulness to the pillars at St Paul’s the 8 support structures on the main entrance way has been reduced to 6. An odd detail to focus on but one where you’ve seen an effort to present the objective reality strikes as a creative decision as opposed to an error of omission.
London, in its history of conflict, destruction and rebirth maintains and preserves certain elements of its story of a developed evolution for prosperity sake, a great proportion of that as evidenced in our first tour of St Pauls but has been witnessed to in our journey to Trafalgar Square. When undertaking this endeavour there was a purposeful decision to omit a large proportion of the map and quest that transpires to the East of the city for the sole reason a far higher proportion of the historical buildings so familiar to those both at home and abroad reside in the Borough of Westminster. In our concluding chapter of this comparison series we will venture South down Whitehall and arrive at the home of British democracy in Parliament Square and Westminster.
As ever we continue to enjoy and discuss feedback on our reviews and experiences in the world of Gaming and Gaming culture.