Notre Dame between historical accuracy and game design

The conservation professionals estimate that restoring Notre Dame will take about ten years after it burned on April, 15. But thanks to the effort of level designer Caroline Miousse and her colleagues from Ubisoft gamers from all over the world can visit France’s iconic landmark and witness its magnificence. In October, 2014 published an article about recreating the ancient cathedral and other historic objects in Assassin's Creed Unity. It has once again become relevant, and we’re reprinting some of it for your reading pleasure.

It took 182 years to build the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, starting with the first bricks in 1163. For Caroline Miousse, a level artist on Assassin's Creed Unity, building a virtual likeness centuries later took considerably less time — she spent around two years modelling the landmark inside and out. "I made some other stuff in the game," she says, "but 80 percent of my time was spent on the Notre Dame."

Ensuring that base level of historical accuracy involves a lot of research. For Nicolas Guerin, whose job involved, among other things, the layout and design of the city, that meant a lot of maps. Over the course of three months or so he says he looked at more than 150 maps of the city, which provided information on the layout of Paris at the time, and how it changed over the years.

”We were lucky with Paris because it’s quite a well documented city,” Guerin explains. “Many of us are French or Quebecers, so it was easy to get the material right from the beginning.” Ubisoft also employs several staff historians to help dig up any extra details the development team might need.
In the case of the Notre Dame, easily the biggest structure in the game, it meant recreating a version of the cathedral that didn’t actually exist at the time. Level artist Miousse spent literally years fussing over the details of the building. She 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.

Designers and artists do much of their own research, using the web and other readily available resources, but Maxim Durand and the other historians on the team are there to help find those other, smaller details that really help make the city feel like a real place. That includes everything from the paintings hanging in a cathedral to the clothing worn by peasants in the streets. “We do a tremendous amount of work on small details that people will never notice,” Durand said. And those details help offset the creative liberties the designers take with other aspects of the city. “It’s a balance.”

Miousse knew that all of her work on the Notre Dame was worth it when she finally visited Paris and got to see the building in person for the very first time. After spending countless hours rendering the virtual version, seeing the real thing created a sense of deja vu — everything from the basic structure to the tiniest interior details looked the same. When she went inside, she waited until one of the guards wasn’t looking, and she gave the wall a little kiss.

“For me, it was a lot like visiting my home.”