Contemporary French Civilization

Memory games: history, memory, and anachronism in the Paris of Assassin’s Creed Unity

Contemporary French Civilization (2019), 44, (1), 81–99.

Abstract

In 2014, Ubisoft’s videogame Assassin’s Creed Unity provoked considerable controversy in France for its reconstruction of revolutionary Paris. Critics have accused the game’s designers of both historical inaccuracy and bias, and its landscape has been criticized for its many perceived anachronisms. Yet the fact that the city is explored through the Animus (fictional technology that gives access to the past through genetic memory) suggests that a historically accurate reconstruction is in fact not what is attempted. In this article, I will argue instead that the game should be read as a medium of cultural memory that both captures and shapes a collective memory of the eighteenth-century city. Furthermore, by studying its depiction of the Cimetière des Saints-Innocents and of the Catacombes, neither of which existed at the time of the game’s setting, I will assert that it demonstrates “une certaine dynamique de la mémoire” that Didi-Huberman terms “l’anachronisme” itself, and that encourages us to embrace anachronisms as inevitable in the act of remembrance, rather than as problematic.

En 2014, le jeu vidéo Assassin’s Creed Unity (créé par Ubisoft) a donné lieu à une controverse majeure en France, à cause de sa reconstruction de Paris révolutionnaire. Des détracteurs ont accusé les créateurs du jeu d’inexactitude et de partis pris historique, et ils ont critiqué sa géographie urbaine, citant les plusieurs anachronismes y perçus. Pourtant, le fait qu’on explore la ville à travers l’Animus (une technologie fictive qui ouvre le passé au utilisateur au moyen de la mémoire génétique) indique qu’en réalité on ne vise pas une reconstruction historiquement fidèle. Dans cet article, je veux contrairement affirmer qu’on doit lire le jeu vidéo comme intermédiaire d’une mémoire culturelle, qui s’empare de la mémoire collective de la ville du XVIIe siècle, et la sculpte à la fois. De plus, en analysant son portrait de la Cimetière des Saints-Innocents et des Catacombes, qui n’existaient ni l’un ni l’autre au moment auquel se déroule le jeu, je soutiendrai qu’il démontre “une certaine dynamique de la mémoire” que Didi-Huberman nomme “l’anachronisme” soi-même, et qui nous encourage de acceuillir les anachronismes comme inévitables et non comme problématiques.

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Filmography

Assassin’s Creed, Justin Kurzel, Ubisoft Motion Pictures, 2016, USA. Google Scholar

Videogames cited

Assassin’s Creed Unity, Ubisoft Montréal, 2014. Google Scholar

Assassin’s Creed Unity: Dead Kings, Ubisoft Montréal, 2015. Google Scholar

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Author details

Leffler, Christopher