Interview with Thierry Noël, Ubisoft’s in-house historian

Ubisoft loves making games set in our history, rather than making up a fantasy world for the action to take place in. But how does that all work? Most developers aren’t historians, and history is a lot more complicated than opening Wikipedia.

The latest game in the Assassin’s Creed franchise, Valhalla, is set in a time where very little records exist. After games set in places with strong historical records, like Origins and Odyssey, Valhalla dives into the Dark Ages, a time with large gaps and spotty records. So how does Ubisoft get the place feeling realistic and following cultures properly? Well, they have people like Thierry Noël on the team. Thierry works at Ubisoft Paris as an Inspirational Content Advisor as part of a dedicated studio research team. We got to chat to him ahead of the game’s launch.

What is your primary role in your job? What aspects of history do you advise the team on?

TN: I’m part of what we call the research unit in Ubisoft. I think it’s quite unique because it’s a permanent research unit dedicated to providing as much accurate information as possible about any subject to our production teams, and in my case and in the case of games such as Assassin’s Creed most of it is obviously a historical, archaeological type of information but about any subject. We do as a production team do our own research. We do most of the research because also it requires time it can be quite hard sometimes to find research, and we provide the information with all kind of ways possible. We write articles, we make films, we bring the team to scouting trips or field trips or longer field trips and to explore, and we also make contact with experts when we need and when a topic is a bit tough, we make contact with expert historians, archaeologists, linguists etc. to work directly with them and to bring the information to the team too.

While researching for Valhalla, was there any research that heavily influenced an element or development of the game?

TN: I think we actually provide all kinds. There are parts that we provide them when we find something interesting for inspiration for the teams to decide how to use it or not. But we also answer the questions and it ranges from how was a door locked during the 9th Century to relations between men and women at the time. I mean it can be material or immaterial, it can be a question of culture really sometimes details. So I think we provided many elements that appear in the game one but I think perhaps one of the first elements we discussed was to explore all the different cultural layers from Anglo-Saxon England at that time. I mean the pre-Church one the Celt element, the Roman one that was still present, the Anglo-Saxon one etc. and obviously the Viking input in it and with the idea that it was already presented that you call you can always perceive it at that time. I mean sites you could always see something like Stonehenge or for other elements that were there at the moment. It was sort of a layer cake of cultures, of vivid culture at the moment.

With this game being set in the Dark Ages, what challenges did you face?

TN: Oh that the main challenge was that it was the Dark Ages, I mean, I don’t know if rightfully or not it was perhaps not so dark in terms of culture but it’s dark in terms of documentation we have about it. It was definitely less compared to the other Assassin’s Creed such as Origins or Odyssey about Egypt and Greece. Definitely, this one was I think it was the one with less documentation directly available or easily available. So we had to dig, really dig deep to find all the information. For example, we definitely needed experts to explain to us when we couldn’t find how it was to explain to us how it must have been and to work from there. There was a lot of reconstruction from buildings to language to any element but always based on an authentic element we could find. 

As you said, you’re in a pretty unique department. How did you go about becoming basically a historian for video games?

TN: Oh it was rather easy: they found me actually. They found me at the time of Ghost Recon Wildlands. They went to ask me for a few things. I started to work as a consultant there as an expert myself and I found it great and I had a video game background too. I love to play video games and they wanted me to to make historical research and at the same time to work on a video game. It was great so I said, ‘Can I stay?’ and they let me stay.

What excites you most about there being a series that basically shines a spotlight on history and makes people question history and events from the past?

TN: I think, as you say, it’s a way of learning. It’s a really nice way of learning, and obviously of learning about history, about culture, about many authentic aspects. History has always been an inspiration or an element at least meant to understand that one needs to understand so it’s a video game that provides that. That can be with emotion, with entertainment but a way to learn history and it’s a good way to do it to through video games. And as an inspiration for video games as we say the realities are sometimes more inspiring or more complex than something one could imagine so also it’s always a good source of creativity. 

Was there anything interesting or unexpected that you found while you were researching the Vikings and the Viking Age and the Norse?

TN: I think there is so little information. Actually, we all know Vikings, we all heard about Vikings but when starting to study and you realise that we know very little about them. So I think the general idea that behind the Viking behind those fierce warriors that plundered was the idea that there was also culture, there was also life, there was also a people of explorers, of adventurers, of people making their life, and that was perhaps the most interesting part, the most surprising part actually. 

With all the history, Assassin’s Creed is also very famous for the mythology and then it has the story of the assassins and the Isu. Is there a correspondence between the historians and the narrative team for how you are going to bend things to fit in the different elements?

TN: Most of it is the responsibility of the narrative team but we obviously think about it when we’re doing research for the project. We always have this lore in mind have the easy assets with lore in mind in order to find elements that could fulfill also the fantasy of Assassin’s Creed. So yes we work together to find elements and the general idea of Assassin’s Creed is to fill the gaps, to find the grey zone. What was interesting actually in the Viking Age is that we know so little about it that there was a lot of crazy grey areas, a lot of gaps to fill where we could build the Assassin’s Creed stories, myths and stories. So in that part, it was perhaps easier than in previous periods and as you say it’s the Norse culture is so linked to myths, to legends, to story, I mean it was part of their everyday life, so it was perhaps easier than in other periods.

Personally what is your favourite time period?

TN: I really love history so I think the the ancient times would work, but I realised while working on Valhalla than Middle Ages is great too to discover many things.

I know in some movies when they show the history they shift the timelines of events for suspense or drama. Have you ever seen that in one of your projects?

TN: t’s a game that has to be emotional, that has to be entertaining, that provides learning: not just historical learning but all kinds of learning that a game can provide to the player but, and yes the idea is to to use the historical period to provide all this but I don’t think it’s necessarily contradictory to use history on one side and to be fun and emotional on the other. I think you can mix the both of them and as I said in that period, there are so many dark areas we don’t know that it was easy to put the liberties and creativity in those parts and at the same time to respect the the the historical timeline. At least what we know from it because it’s there’s very little that is authentically proved from the period.

When looking at the Dark Ages, what could society learn from it?

TN: I think what’s one of the challenges and one of the goals was really to establish what it could have been and what it must have been to be as authentic as possible while recreating the so-called Dark Ages and I think that one of the lessons would be to realise that it was not so dark. Obviously, we know that with it could be harsh times, but that it was a period finally like the others, yes with sometimes conflictual interactions, but also with all kind of cultural exchanges, that it was finally it was a period like the others with a really moving period. And Vikings have played a crucial role in creating that that cultural exchange, that huge area of cultural exchange or at least in all areas they visited so that could be something to see I mean that those dark ages were possibly not so dark.

Looking back now at the Assassin’s Creed franchise, how historically accurate do you feel it is? I know that there are creative liberties and what have you, but could someone use that as a way to get into learning about the history, like is what they see at least a mould of what they’re going to go out if they start reading history books or researching online?

TN: Well, I think the franchise is definitely one of the most historically grounded. It has given more space to authenticity in terms of history and culture. So yes I definitely think it’s a good tool to start learning about the period, to discover the period. Obviously, after that one may do his own research and go deeper and it’s always important to see what part is fun and entertainment and what part is about history. It’s always a good exercise actually to separate both, even if as I told you it’s not necessarily contradictory. You can be so equally accurate and at the same time you can be fun and entertaining, but it’s always a good attitude to try to separate both. I was a teacher for 10 years and it was always nice to work with kids on images of movies or series and to teach them to see what was historical, what was not, to make them understand how you recreate a period and how was that period. And in the case of Assassin’s Creed, we also have the Discovery Tours. The Discovery Tour about Valhalla has been confirmed now and I’m sure that will be a really nice tool to learn about the period.

What is your favourite aspect of the Viking lifestyle or culture? Something that you wish we had today perhaps?

TN: I think that the absolute capacity to adapt everywhere. They can go everywhere, they go everywhere, they go to the Byzantine Empire, they go to the Muslim worlds,  they go to Saxon England. They go deep in the east, into modern-day Ukraine or Russia, and they seem to adapt everywhere, to be able to have that great capacity to adapt everywhere, and to mix and to integrate elements of other culture. They have that cultural fluidity which is extremely strong. 

Do you have a favourite historical movie or book?

TN: I have plenty of them! Well, let’s say, regarding the Viking period, there was a book about Vikings by Anders Winroth which was definitely an inspiration for the game which provides a really nice overview and living portrait of the period. Its French title is so today king and I think the English title must not be so difficult to find [Book is called The Age of Vikings]. I don’t have it in mind now sorry. I like that kind of book that provides a living portrait: it starts with a feast in a Viking longhouse, a description of what must have been that kind of celebration and it’s really a nice work as a historian but also a nice literary work, I mean literally speaking, I think it’s very important for history to be accessible and to transmit something. 

And as a gamer, I wanted to ask: do you go in stealthy in Assassin’s Creed, or do you rush in?

TN: I would love to go stealthy, but I’m definitely not the generation – I think people of my generation can do it but I definitely can’t. I’m the kind to rush in because I grew up with things like Doom or Duke Nukem. I’m not the discreet guy. I would love to do it but I can’t.

If it has the letters RPG in it, I am there. Still battling with balancing trying to play every single game that grabs my interest, getting 100% in a JRPG, and devoting time to my second home in Azeroth.

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