Interview: Piecing together the art and story of Assassin’s Creed 3
Assassin’s Creed 3, which released across multiple platforms in October and November, is one of the biggest titles of the year. It’s also a product of historical reimagining and a major leap for a series that’s largely been grounded in foreign events like the Third Crusade and Italian Renaissance. The setting of this game is more familiar: the American Revolution.
We spoke with The Art of Assassin’s Creed 3 author Andy McVittie, concept artist Gilles Beloeil, art director The Chinh Ngo, and scriptwriter Matt Turner about the game’s unique reflections of history and what it means for the series.
Documenting the experience
Andy McVittie — who has worked in the games industry for Official Nintendo Magazine, Yahoo!, Microsoft, and other companies and publications — turned to several sources while putting together The Art of Assassin’s Creed 3 for Titan Books.
“We started out with a useful Q&A [question-and-answer] from Matt Turner, the lead writer, and art director Tri Nguyen, which gave us plenty to go on in terms of detail and contexts,” he told GameZone. “Then, the artists involved each supplied a few words about most of the pictures we'd used. I also had to do a bit of research to provide background for some of the historical characters and events.
“Once the running order of the book had been agreed and we had all the written and artistic resources in place, the actual process of writing the book was relatively painless. But then, this was definitely a team effort, and I doubt it would have gone quite so smoothly without the help of the designer Martin, Laura at Titan, and the guys at Ubisoft. My thanks are certainly due to all since the Assassin’s Creed 3 art book is indeed a thing a beauty.”
McVittie says the games are special because they’re “as wide as they are deep,” and "massively" so. “I've always been impressed with the series’ artistic vision and fastidious attention to detail,” he said.
A keen vision
Concept artist Gilles Beloeil resided in Ubisoft Montreal’s cinematic department before joining the Assassin’s Creed team as a concept artist for AC2. He’s stayed there since. He also provides special effects for movies (like Fantastic Four and Alone in the Dark) and serves as a lighting technical director and digital matte painter.
Most of his work on Assassin’s Creed 3 was on New York and the Frontier. We asked him about the first piece of concept art he turned in, which focused on a street in Boston. In the art book, Beloeil points to it as the moment where he introduced the main character, Connor, and his tomahawk.
“All of this was asked by The Chinh Ngo, the art director,” said Beloeil. “He gave me a screenshot to show me the angle he wanted, and I started from there. I used the backlighting to emphasize more on the silhouettes of the crowd because it is very different from the other Assassin’s games now since Assassin's Creed 3 has animals involved. I also wanted to show that Connor is a killing machine and scare a lot his enemies. I had trouble with the composition on this one because of the strong lines I had with the arm and the tomahawk. I wanted the viewer’s eye to go to the soldier on the right, but I don’t think it really worked at this point. I wanted [it so] we could smell fear and violence when looking at this piece, and the very warm palette and the face of the front soldier helped for that. I also had to detail Connor to show his weapons and the feather that are very important for the silhouette of the character.”
Different areas presented their own tasks. “For New York and Boston, the big challenge was to make interesting and epic cities with streets of squared houses,” he said. “It was difficult, especially compared to Venice, Rome, or Constantinople, where the silhouettes were epic already.”
Although the games take place during different time periods, the goal is to have a “coherent whole,” he said — not only with the various events in-game but also with previous installments. That’s one of the biggest challenges.
One example of this appears in the art book in the section called “Shoot the Breeze,” which shows a parallel between trees in the 18th-century and windmills in the present, which replace them.
“When you compare the tree roots and the electric wires, they have the same vertical structure, the same underground visual,” said art director The Chinh Ngo. “But one draws its energy from the ground and the other one from the air.”
Another connection is made through Connor’s unusual heritage. His character design shows the markings of both an assassin and Native American, keeping him rooted in both worlds.
“Each assassin has his own style and unique personality,” said The Chinh Ngo. “Actually, there is no right middle, but since Connor has an obvious dual heritage, we had to go back and forth until we found the right balance. One thing about Connor’s style that really differentiates him from previous assassins is the rigidity of the clothes he wears. Because of the setting, the cold makes the cloth very stiff. It also reminds [you of] the military presence in the game, something very structured. Altair’s and Ezio’s clothes were more ruffled, so it’s a nice contrast. But although Connor’s look is structured, grounded, the Native influence on it prevents it from being stiff and gives it movement and dynamics. Also, when you look at the silhouettes of Altair and Ezio, they are in clear, flowing lines. Connor’s silhouette has these lines, but we broke it with the bow and by, for instance, adding feathers. It really shows his action-oriented nature.”
Attending to these differences and similarities takes work, but Beloeil cited the Frontier as the hardest challenge for the designers and the biggest deviation from past games.
The Chinh Ngo directed the artists to transform this location from “dirty and used” to a “pure, virgin, clean forest,” according to the art book. Beloeil says they accomplished this most frequently through snow.
“To be able to show this in an interesting way, a white character and white trees against snow, was something we had to think a lot about for sure” he said. “I think the idea was to make the player feels he was definitely on a new continent, comparing to the other Assassin's Creeds. It works pretty well on the final result, in my opinion.”
The Temple of the First Civilization required the most work of any set piece “because it is a world in itself, without any real life visual reference,” said Beloeil. “So everything had to be carefully thought and designed.”
Another major design change from previous games is the weather system, which helps make the environments more dynamic by allowing players to return to the same spot in different seasons, said Beloeil. Creating an organic environment that’s functional for gameplay is important, but he said that concept artists get “to show what the game should look like in a perfect world where there is no technical difficulty.”
Before the gameplay happens, the world needs to be shaped through art as well as writing.
Attention to history and detail
The many parts of Assassin’s Creed are interconnected through time, and that requires a strong sense of flow.
“We were careful to pick periods in history that not only were interesting but would makes sense in the context of our protagonist’s development,” said scriptwriter Matt Turner. “It was our intention every beat in the game to give depth and background to Connor as a man living in a period of historical transition.”
Connor is only one character, and Assassin’s Creed 3 is filled with plenty of historical figures like any entry before it. They require a slightly different approach.
“We always tried to find the most widely agreed upon likenesses in the historical community and remain as true to those as technologically possible,” said Turner. “Men like Washington and Franklin had extremely detailed portraits painted of them, so it was relatively easy to adhere to those. Some of the more obscure historical figures took some digging, but in keeping with Assassin’s Creed tradition, we did our best to model them as accurately as we could.”
What you won’t see, though, are real historical characters who inspire fictional ones. For Ubisoft, those just don’t mix.
“We try to either re-create real characters or build completely fictional ones and stay away from ‘inspired’ characters or hybrids,” said Turner. “It’s just a philosophy of ours, and it’s respected by the members of the team involved in character creation.”
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