Back to the era of the Caliphs
In the first title of the series, players travelled back to the 12th century and explored Jerusalem. In other games, they sailed through the Caribbean on impressive ships; experienced the social upheaval in Paris caused by the French Revolution; explored pyramids in ancient Egypt; fought against the Athenians and Spartans in Ancient Greece; and finally slipped into the role of a Viking – with the option of selecting a female Viking – to conquer England.
Even though the locations and epochs depicted in the game series are exotic, they were generally chosen for their popularity among the fan base.
The setting of the new game, "Assassin's Creed Mirage", is not an obvious pop culture trend: the action takes place in Baghdad in the 9th century. The city, which its residents then also called Madinat-al-Salam, the City of Peace, was a thriving metropolis under the rule of the Abbasid Caliphate.
It was the centre of powerful secular and religious rulers, contemporary artists, traders, philosophers and scientists. At the time, at least 500,000 people of various religious faiths lived in what is now the capital of Iraq on the banks of the Tigris.
Golden Age of the Abbasid Empire
When recreating historical settings for the games, the "Assassin's Creed" developers have always aimed to achieve a high level of authenticity. Players are led to discover particular historical locations in the game world, and also get to learn about how people lived during that period and meet important historical figures. In "Assassin's Creed Mirage", for example, they meet scholar Ali ibn Muhammad, an opponent of the ruling Abbasids, or the Banu Musa brothers, three gifted scientists and inventors.
The games are not 100% historically accurate – but they don't have to be, says historian Lucas Haasis, who researches games and history and introduces such video games as educational tools in universities and schools.
What is crucial, he points out, is that the games are credible. They give players an "impression of an era that couldn't be obtained in any other way. No other medium can do that," said Haasis. "You can immerse yourself in the atmosphere of an era, and that leads you to become curious about it; you might not have developed that interest otherwise."
He reports that many students have chosen to study history because they wanted to learn more about the past after playing "Assassin's Creed". Games also offer the opportunity to integrate historians' latest findings and contribute to remembrance culture by sharing history in a more colourful way.
Historians involved in game development
Historians have been involved in the development of "Assassin's Creed Mirage" since 2021. The team includes renowned experts such as Glaire Anderson from the University of Edinburgh, who researches Islamic art and architecture in the age of the Caliphs (650-1250), and Vanessa van Renterghem, who is specialised in the social and urban history of Baghdad's early era.
The studio also worked closely with museums. "I think it's very important that more and more historians open up about games," says Lucas Haasis. "Because games are here to stay and are becoming more and more important."
For many young people, games are simply part of their lives. Haasis therefore sees a great opportunity in games that are based on history: "We should encourage young people to be interested in history. At the same time, we should train their critical perspective." Students need to learn how to deal with games in a competent and media-critical way, so that they can recognise the differences between fact and fiction.
Of course, they should all be aware that "what is being presented is an illusion, a reconstruction by the developers," adds the historian.
Almost nothing remains of the original city, which was founded on 30 July 762, and grew up out of the desert sand within a few decades. What is known is that it had a circular layout, with the caliph's palace standing in the centre. The sparse documentation related to the city during that era allowed developers to be more creative in the depiction of the location. They used as sources of inspiration a book about Baghdad during the Abbasid Caliphate by English scholar Guy Le Strange (1854-1933), as well as contemporary travel reports and archaeological finds.
Explore historical Baghdad
Players are now free to explore this magnificent city, riding a horse or a camel, or walking through its busy streets, and marvelling at its mosques with turquoise domes shining in the sun. Items are collected throughout the game, including in recreated historical locations, and they offer more information about the history of Baghdad.
The sometimes confusing story in the "Assassin's Creed" games always revolves around the conflict between Templars and Assassins or their predecessor organisations, the Order of the Elders and the Hidden Ones. This is also part of the narrative in "Assassin's Creed Mirage". The games have always featured solid gameplay, without, however, revolutionising the genre. It can therefore be assumed that the historical settings are the main draw in the "Assassin's Creed" series, which counts 155 million fans worldwide, according to the games' developing company, Ubisoft.
So what is the appeal of time travel? "I think there is a basic interest in us as humans to think about where we come from. At the same time what appeals to us about history is the strangeness of the past era; there's an almost constant interplay between this familiarity and strangeness," says historian Lucas Haasis.
"Time travel in a video game combines both levels at the same time. And these virtual journeys naturally take place in a protected space; you have nothing to fear. That's what makes diving into the past in games so appealing."
Intrigue and daring
Anyone who – like the author of these lines – has played every title in the series will feel immediately taken by "Assassin's Creed Mirage", which was released for all gaming platforms on 5 October 2023. Basim, a supporting character in "Assassin's Creed Valhalla" (2020), takes on the main role in the new game.
Many tasks and game mechanics from the beginning of the series have been implemented, such as following or eavesdropping on characters, observing guards' paths, or the useful eagle eye that highlights enemies and treasure chests. If danger is imminent, it is advisable to go into hiding or tear wanted posters from the walls.
Since he is not a tough guy, Basim has to act from the shadows – or more specifically, from a haystack or the bushes – in order to sneak into palaces or enemy areas. If he is discovered, escape is his best option. He practices parkour to make his way over the roofs of the city, using the countless wall ledges, wooden beams, pulleys, stacked boxes and taut ropes to quickly get away. The city's dense development is ideal for urban parkour interludes.
The story typically revolves around the eternal conflict between powerful secret societies and the quest for the shards of Eden, powerful artefacts that can rob people of their free will. But the storyline is admittedly secondary to the thrill of immersing yourself in another era and drifting through a bustling and opulent city – from the comfort of your own home.
© Deutsche Welle 2023