Patrice Désilets wanted to be an actor. In the early ’90s, the future creative director of Assassin’s Creed sat in classes at Collège Édouard-Montpetit in Quebec, Canada, and listened carefully to his teachers as they spoke about legendary ‘method’ guru Stanislavski, the Actors Studio and the difficulties of French speakers performing Shakespeare. One day, he decided he was wasting his time.
“I suddenly realised, at just the right time, that there were people more talented than myself,” the seasoned creative director, who now works for THQ, tells us in his mellow French-Canadian accent. So instead of stepping in front of the camera, he studied for a BA in film studies at the city’s prestigious university. And when the videogame industry beckoned, he joined Ubisoft. Little did he realise that the skills he’d honed on the stage would prove useful in his new job.
At the end of 2003, Désilets had just finished working on Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time as its creative director. Ubisoft had earmarked him for making the next instalment, but even after a month off recharging his batteries, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was ploughing barren earth. “The problem is that a prince isn’t an action figure,” he explains. “A prince is someone who’s waiting to become king.”
Frustrated, Désilets remembered a book he’d read about the history of secret societies. His favourite chapter was about Hassan-i-Sabbah, a Muslim missionary in the 11th century who founded the Asasiyun, later known simply as the assassins. They had a fearsome reputation for delivering swift death to their master’s political and religious enemies. For Désilets, it was the start of an idea: what if you were an assassin, not a prince?
“For a year in preproduction, the game was called Prince Of Persia: Assassin,” he explains. The objective revolved around an AI-controlled, childlike prince who had to be rescued by the player, an assassin in Jerusalem, and escorted to safety. “It’s funny when I talk about it, because I know it would have been a good game. You were an assassin, so a killer and a fighter, and you had to save the princess. Only the princess was really a boy – a prince with special powers.”
What became Assassin’s Creed evolved from that point on, as the assassin slowly squeezed the prince out of the frame. “I never suggested a new IP per se,” says Désilets. “All the time I was saying to them, ‘It’s a Prince Of Persia game and you’re an assassin.’” He laughs: “I’m a bad employee, if you think about it. I was asked to do a Prince Of Persia game and I didn’t. Ubisoft were like, ‘That’s not what we want. We still need our prince!’”
Now, of course, Assassin’s Creed is a multibillion-dollar IP with a string of games, as well as novels, comics and perhaps even movies. Yet the transformation into one of the biggest gaming series of this generation didn’t run as smoothly as its fleet-footed protagonists. Indeed, it was an arduous development that saw Ubisoft Montreal craft both a new engine and a new story. It also reintroduced Désilets to his love of acting. Playing Altaïr wasn’t just a game for him. It was also the lead role that the 30-year-old creative director had been waiting for.
The studio where the game was made is housed in a renovated textiles factory in the Mile End district of Montreal. In 2004, it was home to Désilets’ team, all Sands Of Time veterans, half of whom were engineers. By the end of Assassin’s Creed’s three-year development, the team had swelled to around 120 people on PC alone. But in the early days it was just 20.
Those engineers were tasked with building a new engine that would facilitate the game’s ambitious design aims: a sandbox world in the Middle East during the Crusades; a free-running protagonist who could seamlessly traverse his environment; and an AI system that would enable enemies to detect what the player was up to and pursue them through alleyways and over roofs. Ubisoft also wanted to make the most of the leap in processing power offered by the incoming generation of consoles – the 360 and PS3.
The team aimed to recreate the world of the Third Crusade in 1191 as a place that the player would not just visit, but inhabit. Immersion was key, with the team aiming to give you the sense that you were part of a living, breathing city in the Holy Land, and provide the freedom to choose how to carry out your mission to assassinate nine leading Templars. The challenge would lie in blending into the environment, using ‘social stealth’ to become part of the crowd, and in using Altaïr’s athletic parkour abilities to scale buildings, dodge guards and track down your targets.