la notre dame di assassin's creed unity (credit: ubisoft)

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France in shock after the disastrous fire that affected one of the country’s symbols: the Gothic cathedral of Notre Dame, in Paris, one of the most visited attractions in the world, a must-see for anyone travelling to the French capital.

The initial dismay gave way to a reaction in the aftermath of the arson: a widespread desire to recover a monument whose symbolic value certainly surpasses its architectural value in the memory and the collective perception of the French people. There will be no shortage of funds: in addition to the aid from the French government, the Arnault and Pinault families, French luxury tycoons, have already granted full support for the restoration. Many other brands will certainly not miss such a great opportunity for nationalist patronage.

What to do, then? As far as science is concerned, most likely the restoration principle “where it was, as it was” will be used. On these premises, the preliminary plans for the new project will find ample documentation in the recent initiatives of mapping and digital reconstruction achieved with advanced 3D scanning and 3D modelling technologies, which produced a perfect digital replica of the Paris Cathedral.

The 3D model by Professor Andrew Tallon

A digital replica of the Notre Dame Cathedral was obtained in 2015 by a research group headed by recently deceased Professor Andrew Tallon, who surveyed both the exterior and interior of the monumental Parisian complex using 3D laser scanner technologies. The collected data helped to create a full 3D model, extremely valuable for the reconstruction work that is awaiting. Furthermore, National Geographic produced a documentary about the making of the Notre Dame digital reconstruction.

3D laser scanning – the model of Notre Dame Cathedral – featuring an interview with Professor Andrew Tallon (credit: National Geographic)
The pre-revolutionary Paris of Assassin’s Creed: Unity

Though less rigorous from a scientific point of view, the research work carried out to reconstruct the 3D model of Notre Dame in Assassin’s Creed: Unity, is certainly equally relevant in terms of documentary value. In this chapter of the famous video game saga, assassins and templars confront each other at the beginning of the French Revolution. The stories of Arno, Elise and the other protagonists of Unity take place in a very different Paris from the one we know today. To recreate the city in 3D, a team of historians carried out enormous research work on archive documents and directly surveyed the monuments still preserved.

The 3D model of Notre Dame in Assassin’s Creed: Unity, the setting of several crucial moments of the game depicts the cathedral as it was before the revolutionary pillage. These were dark years for the cathedral, which will see a new light only during the Napoleonic era. Thanks to a production budget typical of a triple-A video game, Ubisoft developers took about two years to survey the current Notre Dame, stone by stone, and to reinterpret it, especially the interiors. Part of them was lost, or the artwork was protected by impregnable copyrights, as in the case of artistic decorations of the stained-glass windows.

When interviewed by Destructoid, Caroline Miousse, Ubisoft’s senior-level artist, said: “Modelling Notre Dame was initially stressful, because of the enormous responsibility that comes with the task of recreating such a well-known monument, for all to see. Our approach was to create it in 3D as if we had to build it on a 1:1 scale”. The result was a modelling process similar to that of a LEGO construction, “brick by brick”. Caroline Miousse worked over two years to recreate Notre Dame in 3D, without ever visiting the real Notre Dame: “I visited the cathedral only after finishing the work for Unity, and I literally felt like I was at home. I had known every detail of that place and then I saw it my eyes. Creating the environment of a video game means to offer an emotion to the player, and it is the same emotion I felt when I entered Notre Dame”.

According to an official note, Ubisoft donated 500,000 Euro in favour of the reconstruction, besides releasing the PC version of Assassin’s Creed: Unity for free for a limited time (17-25 April) on the official Uplay and UBI Store channels.

The spectacular cinematic trailer of Assassin’s Creed: Unity shows the skyline of pre-revolutionary Paris, in which monuments such as Notre Dame and the Bastille stand out boldly upon the medieval-style urban framework, very different from the one we know today. The nineteenth-century plan was later redesigned with the famous boulevards that completely modified the morphology of the French capital, giving it wider and healthier spaces, as well as making it more suitable for contemporary traffic (credit: Ubisoft)
From the Assassin’s Creed research to the creation of new educational experiences: the Discovery Tour

This is not the first time that the research carried out by Ubisoft’s historical consultants in the making of Assassin’s Creed series has received well-deserved media attention for its accuracy. We will mention just a few cases. A few years ago, in Rome, some excavations were stopped because an ancient wall complex came to surface. The construction was well represented in the fabulous Rome of the Risorgimento era, in which the second chapter of the trilogy is set: Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, featuring Ezio Auditore as the main protagonist. In substance, if the designers had played Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, they would have been well aware of what was expecting them underground in that precise point, and they could have projected an alternative route.

In more recent times, the production of Assassin’s Creed: Origins, entailed an intense research work to recreate the setting for the main Egyptian cities in the years of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, when monuments like the pyramids and the Sphinx were already findings with over 3000 years of history. In this context, the reconstruction of Alexandria is a true masterpiece. The same approach was used to represent the legendary Valley of the Kings in the temporal flashback necessary to set one of the expansions of the game.

The Discovery Tour, an interactive educational experience completely independent of the main game, benefited from the enormous research work carried out by the team of historians directed by Maxime Durand. This time it’s not about killing the Templars or the Roman oppressors. It’s not even about slaughtering the enemy in the gladiatorial arenas or running chariot races. The Discovery Tour mode allows the player to impersonate their favourite character and visit all the places of the game in a parallel experience through guided mini-tours that reveal the secrets of architecture, historical events and the typical uses and customs of the Egyptian people throughout its millenary history.

The work carried out by Durand and his team has earned the deserved recognition of both the public and critics, as shown by the numerous conferences held by the young Canadian historian at important scientific institutions, including the Egyptian Museum of Turin. The director Christian Greco embraced the cause of Durand showing enthusiasm for a media that can involve so effectively a very diverse range of audiences, as long as the contents are based on rigorous scientific research, as in the case of the work of the Ubisoft team. Interactive 3D, which uses the same technology conventionally used for the development of video games, begins to be regarded also by the experts as a great opportunity to attract the public towards the themes of ancient Egypt.

A brief review of Assassin’s Creed Discovery Tour, one of the most successful interactive educational experiences published so far about ancient Egypt (credit: Outside Extra and Ubisoft)

3D technologies are therefore fundamental and are finally becoming more and more popular in the Heritage field, both as regards the acquisition of useful digital data for the conservation of a cultural asset, and for the edutainment initiatives that can be promoted thanks to recreational and interactive experiences.

For more in-depth information on Notre Dame in 3D, we suggest reading National Geographic’s Historian uses lasers to unlock mysteries of Gothic cathedrals

For further information on the use of 3D technologies in the Heritage field we suggest the following articles, previously published on 3D STORIES:

3D, Archeology and Landscape: the vision of Siponto

3D Digital Heritage – Material Speculation: ISIS

Notes – the cover image depicts the main façade of Notre Dame in Assassin’s Creed: Unity (2014, credit: Ubisoft)

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Francesco La Trofa

Architect and journalist with 20 years’ experience in 3D technologies.
Consultant to public entities and 3D businesses for aspects relating to design and communications.
Head of editorial content at and co-founder of Digital Drawing Days, the only event of its kind in Italy.
Actively involved in research and teaching at Milan Polytechnic.
Edits 3D STORIES for Protocube Reply.