Is Assassin's Creed Unity a better game now that the real-world cathedral Notre-Dame de Paris has been gutted by fire? That's the question I've had rolling around the back of my head for a few weeks. Ubisoft gave away their open-world murder simulator, which visits a virtual Paris circa 1789, for free in April after the fire and soon received a spike of positive player reviews on Steam. This caused store owners Valve to mutter about the idea of "positive review bombs" and how changing context can a game seem better. So, has Unity become a better game because it lets us visit a pristine Notre-Dame while the real one is caked in soot and scaffolding? What can we destroy to improve other games? And who can we MURDER?
"In this case, the Notre Dame tragedy has made it so that AC:Unity happens to now include the world's best virtual recreation of the undamaged monument," Valve said in May's blog post. "That's a context change that could be increasing the value players are getting from the game, so perhaps the game really is better than it was before? Or maybe that's unrelated, and it's actually players feeling good about Ubisoft's significant donation to rebuilding the monument?"
Unity's Notre-Dame is a remarkable virtuachurch, a vast and intricate recreation. Level artist Caroline Miousse spent over a year building the game's virtual copy, poring over photos for minute details and even consulting historians to hang the right paintings inside it. Technically including the cathedral's iconic spire is an anachronism, whacking it up a few years early to make it look players like expected, though a few years later it handily also gives us a better copy of what's now lost.
I liked that surprising nugget in Valve's business chat so it's been bouncing about the ol' brain, growing and integrating with other things I believe about games.
I often remember the words of interactive theatre company Coney (I think it's their director, Tassos Stevens): "The experience starts when you first hear about it, and only ends when you stop thinking and talking about it."
It's an attitude where all the contexts of every point in this experience can change a game, whether I'm playing it or not. Games which impress me more when I find they're made by one person. Games with great marketing, or terrible marketing. Games which feel grimy when I discover they were made in crappy conditions. Games which I don't like but someone I respect and like really digs. Games I've seen other play far more skilfully than me. Games which are ruined when I discover the creator's a right dickhead. Games which become awful when I discover oh no I was over-reading when I thought it was satire or subversion and but nope it's earnestly awful.
To me, yeah, with the real cathedral in ruins, Unity is better. Which is a bit of a grim way to look at it. Let's be more grim.
Which places in games would you adore more if their originals were trashed? Which games do you adore more because the studios which created them have closed and can make no more? Which games will you cling to when their designer dies? Which will you cherish more when a voice actor dies? Could a death even redeem a game for you?
Everyone dies and everything ends. Let's celebrate them now.