Screenshot of Notre Dame cathedral in Assassin's Creed

Editors’ Choice: The Cathedral and the Simulacrum

I suddenly felt the urge to imagine Notre Dame as it had always stood: tall, splendid and unmoved. At the center of the Old City. Battered yet unscathed, as Victor Hugo had seen it, through so many troubles and troubling times.

Notre Dame had survived the French Revolution. How did I know this? I walked on its roof while playing Assassin’s Creed Unity!

Up close to Notre Dame. That is where I wanted to be. I wanted to creep on its gargoyles and parapets, and hear its bells, pealing darkly over the expanse of la Cité and the Seine.

In truth, my own memories of Notre Dame were faltering. I have visited Paris numerous times, and toured Notre Dame. Never a fan of taking photos, I don’t have anything to “show” for this.

But right now, there was only one thing left to do. Re-install AC:Unity on my PC. Boot up the game, and run to the heart of the city, by street or rooftop, to clamber once again upon the parapets of Notre Dame.

“Aux armes, citoyens!”

Game on. AC:Unity was spinning on my drive, and I immediately set my sights on Ubisoft senior level artist Caroline Miousse‘s masterpiece of historical reconstruction in a video game: the Notre Dame of AC:Unity.

As Andrew Webster wrote in Verge in 2014, Miousse had spent the better of two years reproducing a scale model of Notre Dame, for players to explore inside and out. Webster:

“[Miousse] pored over photos to get the architecture just right, and worked with texture artists to make sure that each brick was as it should be. She even had historians help her figure out the exact paintings that were hanging on the walls. But when testers started running around the game, something was missing. During the time ACU is set, the Notre Dame didn’t yet have its iconic spires, yet most people picture them when they think about the landmark — so Miousse added them to her creation, even if they technically shouldn’t be there.”

…the spires which collapsed in front of the world’s eyes on Monday, April 15, 2019.

Notre Dame in AC:Unity isn’t merely a scale replica, it lies at the heart of the “living, breathing” simulacrum of late 18th-century revolutionary Paris recreated in the game. Nicolas Guérin, under whom I had the pleasure of studying Level Design at l’INIS in Montreal, was, unbeknownst to me, also working at the time on AC:Unity as “world level design director”. While Miousse was modeling Notre Dame, Guérin and his team worked relentlessly with period maps on the layout of 18th-century, to match the AC:Unity’s open-world playground philosophy with historical accuracy and rigor.

Read the full piece here.

This content was selected for Digital Humanities Now by Editor-in-Chief Caitlin Hartnett based on nominations by Editors-at-Large: