Culture + Style

Tour London Without Getting on a Plane in ‘Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate’

(Photo courtesy of Ubisoft)

When Jonathan Dumont started recreating a meticulously detailed version of London for “Assassins’ Creed: Syndicate,” the designer knew he would have to tackle the city’s popular landmarks like Big Ben and Westminster Abbey. What he didn’t expect were the city’s pubs.

“We underestimated how many pubs there were,” he says, recalling the research trips he made to London for the game. “There’s a culture of getting together that we didn’t expect. At 5 o’clock, it’s pub time everywhere.”

Capturing the culture of London was key in bringing the city to life for gamers playing Ubisoft’s “Syndicate,” available now on Microsoft’s Xbox One and Sony’s PlayStation 4.

“There is quite a bit of research to make each game as realistic as it can be,” says Dumont, who served as “Syndicate’s” world director for Ubisoft Quebec, based in Quebec City, Canada.

In each “Assassin’s Creed” game, players go back in time to take the role of a covert assassin during a notable period of history. While other installments have taken place during the French and American revolutions, “Syndicate” is set during London’s Industrial Revolution, where gamers take the role of master assassins Jacob and Evie Frye as they form a crime syndicate in 1868, and take over London’s boroughs.

“When you travel through ‘Assassin’s Creed,’ you get a sense of how things are or were,” Dumont says, with characters meeting notable figures like Benjamin Franklin, Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, Alexander Graham Bell and Jack the Ripper, of course, helping bring to life the iconic landmarks of London that players encounter.

A wireframe of the digital version of Westminster Abbey in 'Syndicate' (Photo courtesy of Ubisoft)
A wireframe of the digital version of Westminster Abbey in ‘Syndicate’ (Photo courtesy of Ubisoft)
The final version of Westminster Abbey in 'Syndicate' (Photo courtesy of Ubisoft)
The final version of Westminster Abbey in ‘Syndicate’ (Photo courtesy of Ubisoft)

Recreating Victorian London

Ubisoft Quebec started working on “Syndicate” two-and-a-half years ago — a Ubisoft team releases an “Assassin’s Creed” game each year, making it one of the French publisher’s biggest franchises. It’s also behind the “Far Cry,” “Watch Dogs,” “Rayman” and “Rabbids” games. “Assassin’s Creed” will get its first feature film, starring Michael Fassbender, in theaters next year.

Developing the latest game meant making frequent trips to London to capture photos and video of the city’s streets and iconic buildings. Dumont took three of those trips himself, spending several weeks roaming the city.

“When we focused on making Victorian London as the focus of the game, we wanted to try to get to know the city, the setting and era as much as possible,” Dumont says.

Playing Tourist

Altogether, more than 4,000 photos were taken back to the Quebec studio — taken while walking throughout the city and getting lost on multiple occasions, Dumont admits.

What also helped the research process was the countless paintings and books about Victorian London, but also photographs from the era.

“Photography was invented during our time period, so we had a lot of reference material to base our designs on,” Dumont says.

Dumont notes the layers of history that can still be seen throughout modern London — from the Tower of London’s medieval heritage on through the gritty Industrial Revolution. “There is a lot of history to see when you walk the city that you don’t expect,” he says.

Dumont made three trips to London for his research. “We walked 70 to 80 kilometers,” he says. “We walked it all.”

By doing so, he was able to notice how “surprisingly quiet” it is when you stand in the middle of St. James Park. “We were right in the middle of downtown London in front of Buckingham Palace and it was peaceful. Those are things you can’t reference when you’re watching a movie.”

Capturing the Essence

While the physical aspects of the city were important for the “Syndicate” team to recreate — including how buildings are geographically juxtaposed to one another — so too, was the essence of the city.

That meant capturing the personality of London through its citizens. Conversations in the game and crowd sequences were influenced by Dumont’s research.

“We tried to grasp the texture of the city and see what the people are like,” Dumont says. “I find Londonians to be really friendly, nice and warm and polite. I didn’t expect that. I was very surprised by that for a very large city.”

As for those pubs, “we stopped at quite a few to do some beer tasting, which was quite important,” Dumont says. “When we came back, we said, ‘We need to put pubs in the game. That’s part of the culture. We wanted Londoners to feel at home.”

The end result is a very dynamic game — and playground for both gamers and history buffs, Dumont says, citing the ability to race horse-drawn carriages through London’s streets and the contrasts of the vibes of the various boroughs — from the industrial Southwark to the peaceful parts of Westminster — as his favorite parts of “Syndicate.”

“We don’t have a defined angle of the city,” he says. “We tell a different story from borough to borough when traveling through the city.”
Jonathan Dumont
The final version of Trafalgar Square in "Assassin's Creed: Syndicate" (Photo courtesy of Ubisoft)
The final version of Trafalgar Square in “Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate” (Photo courtesy of Ubisoft)
The final version of St. Paul's Cathedral in "Assassin's Creed: Syndicate" (Photo courtesy of Ubisoft)
The final version of St. Paul’s Cathedral in “Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate” (Photo courtesy of Ubisoft)

Topping Itself

With each “Assassin’s Creed,” Ubisoft looks to top the previous game. With “Syndicate” that was going to be tough, given that last year’s “Assassin’s Creed: Unity” was set in Paris and featured a highly detailed version of the city during the French Revolution complete with playable versions of Notre Dame.

“Syndicate’s” London “is the biggest city we’ve built, for sure,” Dumont says. “It’s pretty massive,” spanning three kilometers, and featuring taller buildings and wider streets.

“We tried to recreate the known landmarks, then we condensed all the parts in between,” Dumont says. “We get to see as much as you would expect: Trafalgar Square, St. James Park, Big Ben, St. Charles Cathedral.” Even some train stations. There are actually seven in the game, including Charing Cross, Waterloo and Victoria stations.

Dumont wasn’t able to create everything he wanted, however.

Plans for a prison were left out of the final game because “I couldn’t find a good narrative.” Its location on the outskirts of the city also wouldn’t have worked, which also proved a reason for nixing plans the London Zoo.

Still, Dumont is “happy how it turned out. We executed the plan with very little compromise.”

Future Travels

Dumont, a Quebec City native, has “traveled all over the planet,” citing Las Vegas and Shanghai as some of his favorite cities, and notes that “everything in the Caribbean always sounds amazing since I’m a little bit of a beach person.”

He describes his hometown of Quebec City as “a blend of Europe and North America. It’s cool because there’s a lot of history here; it’s the first big city in North America.”

“It’s a city with the most restaurants per person in Canada, so I really encourage anyone to go out and try everything,” Dumont says. “I’m a burger guy so I’m a pretty easy guy to please. Any good burger joint is good for me.”

While Dumont can’t disclose future locations for “Assassin’s Creed” games, “I’d like to recreate everything,” he says. “That’s the cool thing about history. There’s alway something interesting in every setting or era. My part is to make a plausible, credible environment. Once the team latches onto a setting, we start exploring.”

About the Author: Marc Graser is Marriott International’s Editorial Director who previously covered the video game industry for Variety. After the summer movie season, fall is his favorite time of year for entertainment given all of the tentpole games that are released and just need to be played. Follow him @marcgraser.