‘Assassin’s Creed Mirage’ Art Director on Re-creating Ninth-Century Baghdad for the New Game

The 55-year-old comic artist Jean-Luc Sala is at the helm of the art department of Assassin’s Creed Mirage, the new installment of the blockbuster video game franchise, this time set in Baghdad in the ninth century, during the city’s Golden Age.

“To rebuild the city, we gathered writings of the scholars of that time,” Ubisoft Bordeaux’s art director told THR Roma. “Historians both inside and outside Ubisoft helped us. We wanted to get the authentic spirit of that Baghdad, with a parkour-oriented style of play.”

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“Video games allow you to live numerous lives and can open your mind about what it means to be someone else. We hope to help players open their minds about topics like diversity,” added Sala, speaking at last month’s Giffoni Good Games in Italy on a panel on inclusive and ethical gaming.

Jean-Luc Sala spoke to THR Roma ahead of this year’s video game conference Gamescom in Cologne (which runs through Aug. 27), where fans will be able to test out Assassin’s Creed Mirage ahead of its global rollout for PC, PlayStation and Xbox platforms on Oct. 5. Sala says the latest installment is “our love letter to the franchise” and a “back to the roots experience [we] hope players will enjoy.”

At Giffoni Good Games, you led a panel about the promotion of inclusive and ethical gaming. Given the fact that the gaming scene can sometimes be hostile to minorities, how do you think the industry should act in order to create a healthier environment?

Adventure and narrative games are educational for me. They allow you to live several lives and can open your mind to what it is to be someone else, a different character. We aim with the Assassin’s Creed series to open minds about living in different periods and different cultures, sometimes even different genders or orientations.

Giving this opportunity to players can perhaps open their minds on topics such as diversity. I don’t think a game can satisfy everyone or represent everyone, and there is no magical checklist. But at least including these topics in our games can be a good step forward.

Assassin’s Creed Mirage will take us back to the Middle East, centuries before the first chapter of the saga. How did the team decide on this particular period and the location of Baghdad? Were there any other historical settings you were taken to explore?

Assassin’s Creed Mirage is in a way a prequel to the previous game in which players discovered Basim as a Master Assassin with Levantine origins. In Mirage, we explore the younger years of Basim from a young street thief to a Master Assassin.

It’s a coming-of-age kind of story. Baghdad was indeed the obvious choice. At that time, it was the biggest city of the biggest empire. As it is also a return to the roots game. Of course, we considered cities from the first game as a potential playground. But every time we were digging up documentation about the Abbasid golden age, the name of Baghdad was there. So, we started to focus on the city and we really fell in love with the setting and quickly decided to rebuild Baghdad. You will see how big and vibrant the city is and how much it is the perfect playground for Parkour and Stealth.

How did you manage to create the look of this particular historic period?

The main goal was to achieve a beautiful world without bringing the usual (and wrong) cliché of the Arabian Nights fantasy. We worked hard to be accurate and creative while being respectful of the culture. We worked with experts about the culture, the religion to recreate the most vivid and living experience.

You will see typical gestures when characters talk, visit incredible locations and meet historical characters. That time was a golden age when science and knowledge were the true treasures of the city.

We know that in-depth research goes into every Assassin’s Creed historical reconstruction. How did the team work to recreate the Golden Era Baghdad? Is the Discovery Tour going to be in the game?

There is nothing left of ninth-century Baghdad. So, we gathered the writings of the scholars of that time and pinpointed where landmarks could be. We also based our Baghdad on Guy Lestrange’s works and maps. Historians inside and outside Ubisoft helped us, and we started to establish a map and urbanistic layout.

We made a lot of decisions to also have artistic freedom in our reconstruction to obtain “the spirit of Baghdad” within a game with parkour-oriented playgrounds … as well as having a feast for your eyes. But you will not have a discovery tour apart from the main game as was the case in previous games.

All the educational content is already dispatched on the main game and you will have to explore the world in order to collect new codex pages. Those collectibles are in specific areas where the topic of the page will make sense. Several museums helped us to illustrate this content.

Basim is Eivor’s mentor in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, making Mirage a coming-of-age story. How did you set his character development? What were your inspirations during the writing process and how did you arrive at the final look?

It was a nice twist to bring this Master Assassin and Mentor to his younger age. Now in Mirage he is an apprentice learning the Creed and the way of the Assassins. We kept some features of the older Basim and proposed a younger version of him.

As you may know, he is a very tormented character in Valhalla and for obvious reasons, if you played the game, you learned to fear him. We wanted to keep this side of him and in a way go deeper into this. Explaining parts of his background but also showing he can be a lovable character. Naïve a bit, cocky for sure, and uncertain about who he really is … but also willing to join the Creed and to give a goal to his life.

For his final look, it was a no-brainer situation: We wanted him to have a costume really close to the original game. We are a back-to-the-roots experience and really wanted to bring back the iconic look of the Levantine branch of the Assassins. So you can find some Altair vibes on his costume and also some Arabian notes such as the Shemagh and the traditional Pompons. As he is not a Master Assassin we decided to give him a blue belt and a small beaked hood. Keeping the red sash and the iconic beaked hood for Master Assassins as his Mentor, Roshan.

What about Roshan?

She is a wonderful character. She is Basim’s Mentor, a mature woman, a cunning warrior, and she is fully dedicated to the Creed. She is, in a way, the ideal and iconic Assassin. She will be key to Basim’s fate.

Assassin’s Creed Mirage launches on PC, PlayStation and Xbox platforms on Oct. 5.

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