Under the Hood: The Art Behind the Game – The Ubisoft Experience
F*** tours the Ubisoft 'Assassin’s Creed' exhibit to learn what goes into making the games
As part of the Voilah! Singapore French Festival, game developer Ubisoft is holding an exhibition at the National Design Centre. F*** was at the media preview of the exhibit on the morning of Tuesday 18th April. Entitled The Art Behind the Game: The Ubisoft Experience, the exhibit showcases conceptual artwork, storyboards, sculptures and video segments to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the company’s blockbuster video game franchise, Assassin’s Creed.
The exhibit takes up the atrium of the National Design Centre, and is focused predominantly on Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, released in 2013 as the sixth major entry in the series. Ubisoft is headquartered in Rennes, France, with studios all over the world. Ubisoft Singapore was opened in 2008, and Black Flag is the Assassin’s Creed game which the local studio had the largest involvement in. Set during the Golden Age of Piracy, Black Flag centres on Welsh pirate Edward Kenway’s adventures in the Caribbean. Edward gets drawn into the ongoing conflict between the Assassins and the Templars. Historical figures Laureano de Torres y Ayala, Bartholomew Roberts and Edward Teach a.k.a. Blackbeard feature in the plot.
Walking in, the first thing that catches one’s eye is the life-sized statue of Connor a.k.a Ratonhnhaké:ton, the protagonist of Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation and the grandson of Edward Kenway. As we looked around the exhibit, the finishing touches were being added in time for the official opening that evening. We were guided by Ubisoft Singapore Communications Manager Sylviane Bähr, and WY-TO Architects co-founder Yann Follain, who curated and designed the exhibit.
Bähr explained that a collaboration with Voilah! had been in the works for some time. “This year, the theme of Voilah! is ‘imagination and innovation’, so we thought it [was] the right opportunity for us to show that we are a company and an industry that deals every day with imagination and innovation,” Bähr said. “It was a no-brainer for us that it was the right moment for us to do it, and we have a lot of content, as you can see,” she said, motioning to the artwork on display around her.
Follain’s guiding principle in designing the exhibit was to create an interactive experience for visitors, as well as emphasising the amount of work that goes into designing a game. “The whole idea of the exhibition is to put the visitor in the shoes of somebody playing the game,” Follain said, pointing to the curved walls printed inside and out. “Discovering, going around, looking behind the wall – this is what inspired us when we designed the exhibition.”
“The particularity of Assassin’s Creed is that it is heavily embedded into historical research and theoretical research,” Follain said, leading us to a wall with research photographs taken in Cuba pinned to it. A strip of storyboards ran from a pillar onto the floor, with a screen showcasing a comparison between the storyboards and the final cutscene as it appeared in the game’s demo. The Singapore studio oversaw the demo for E3, the annual massive game industry convention held in Los Angeles.
The section of the exhibit featuring character and costume design was based on the layout of a traditional portrait gallery. “We did some research on how a portrait gallery is done in the National Gallery, for instance,” Follain said. Gesturing to a schematic of the signature hidden blade, Follain remarked “the level of detail is fantastic, you can really feel how it works.” Follain added wistfully that he wished they could have had an actual functioning model of the blade on display as well.
Several of the concept paintings on display are by Kobe Sek, the Associate Art Director at Ubisoft Singapore. Sek’s sketchbook was also on show – Bähr explained that Sek would draw in it during his commute on the MRT. Sek’s work has been included in Assassin’s Creed exhibitions around the world. Bähr highlighted a piece of concept art that Sek created for Assassin’s Creed Rogue, which she described as “iconic”.
An often-overlooked part of video games, as it is in movies, is sound design. Ubisoft Singapore has its own Foley studio, where the sound effects for the game were created and recorded. Black Flag presented the team with the challenge of recording sounds underwater. At first, they tried waterproofing microphones with balloons and condoms, but that didn’t work, so proper hydrophones had to be acquired. Behind-the-scenes clips on the sound design for Black Flag and Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate will be screened as part of the exhibit.
Another part of the exhibit features cross-section schematics of pirate ships and diagrams comparing the scale of the various vessels featured in the game. “The Singapore studio owned the majority of the ocean technology, the naval battles, and this is really what puts the Singapore studio on the map for Assassin’s Creed,” Bähr said. In addition to environments and ships, ocean life featured in the game. “We may change a little bit with the animals, because we want [them] to have a personality, or have a goal in the game,” Bähr said. The great white shark was designed by Teo Yong Jin, who made the shark somewhat bulkier than it would be in real life, because the design closer to reality made the shark appear too friendly.
Finally, we were shown a wall celebrating the collaborative spirit and team synergy of the Ubisoft Singapore artists and technicians. The Singapore-based developers had decorated the wall with drawings and polaroid photos documenting their shared adventures working at the studio. “This tells a lot about our culture as a company. We always say ‘we’re serious about fun’,” Bähr said.
When asked about Singapore’s evolution as a hub for both tech and the arts, Bähr said “I have been here for only four years, but I can tell you it has changed dramatically.” Bähr first visited Singapore ten years ago, and remarked that she thinks the government is “pushing in the right direction” by bringing in artists and promoting creativity in schools. “We are working with the schools, we are trying to push that ecosystem for art, for tech. Our developers really have that sense of sharing and mentoring the people here in Singapore,” Bähr said. “Honestly, from what I’ve seen, I’m amazed at where the country has come from, it’s really cool to see that all coming together…it’s like a mini Silicon Valley here in Asia.”
Reassuring parents who have the misconception that video games are a frivolous enterprise, Bähr stated “you can have a serious career if you’re joining this industry. We’re using techniques that are being used in other industries, we’re using all the best practices and people from other industries actually end up with us. We learn all the time, because we are at the edge of technology. The industry is super-competitive, so we’re always on our toes.”
Ubisoft: The Art Behind the Game runs from 18 April to 25 May at the National Design Centre. Admission is free, and admission for workshops and panels is free upon registration. Workshops include a speed drawing session by Kobe Sek and Mohamed Gambouz and a talk about the technology behind water simulation and waves by Paul Fu. Please visit https://goo.gl/3Nydjk to register for the workshops.