Video games: Art with the power to rebuild a medieval cathedral

notre-dame - art - video games - assassin's creed unity

Last month, the world watched in awe as one of its great historical treasures and structural works of art suffered through a catastrophic fire. The architectural wonder Notre-Dame de Paris, or simply Notre-Dame for short, was set ablaze by a fire that began as the result of renovation efforts. Quickly, the unfortunate disaster claimed the nearly millennium-old cathedral’s iconic spire.

Photo credit: New York Times

Leaders from around the world commented on the tragedy, and the French President Emmanuel Macron vowed to rebuild. The importance of the cathedral to French (and world) history cannot be understated. The religious connotation of the structure almost comes secondary as the careful craftsmanship and artistic expression of France’s past placed a century of its heart and soul into building the structure. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel called the cathedral a “symbol of French and European culture.”

Despite damage incurred, it stood the test of time by surviving the French Revolution. It became the subject of Victor Hugo’s book commonly known in English as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. It was even the location of the coronation of Napoleon as he became Emperor of the French.  Now, nearly 13 million people visit the building every year, exceeding the number of visits received by the Eiffel Tower.

Virtual preservation through art

I could go on with the history lesson, but I think I’ve made my point regarding Notre-Dame’s standing in the world. As gamers, we’ve had the opportunity to visit the structure virtually through the lens of Assassin’s Creed Unity.  Recreating Notre-Dame within the game was no small task. Outlets such as Game Informer shared that the intricate mapping of the insides of the structure was so detailed that it rivaled anything that had been done by past historians. The senior artist for the game, Caroline Miousse, stated that she spent two years replicating the structure within the game. Two years for a solitary building is unheard of. But Notre-Dame was no simple building, and it deserved the care and respect that Ubisoft granted it.

Just following the fire, many outlets reported that Assassin’s Creed Unity could aid rebuilding efforts. The dedication of these game designers is going to potentially preserve the centuries-old design of a piece of history. I am in awe at the power behind that idea. I’ve always been a proponent for video games to be recognized as the art form that they are. As an industry, we’ve seen how dedicated developers can be.

What are games accomplishing now?

Despite fictional elements and characters, games like Red Dead RedemptionAssassin’s CreedBattlefield, and more don’t just provide entertainment. They help preserve and recreate a piece of history so that gamers can take a quick peek into the past. Other games like 2018’s God of War, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, or Celeste teach powerful human lessons about redemption, mental illness, depression, and anxiety. I even shared my story about video games last year and how they’ve helped me cope with my own depression and anxiety. Multiplayer games have the power to bond and unite players, just like the touching story of the police officers who joined a game of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate instead of reprimanding a few men for a potentially unwarranted noise complaint.

The future is bright

If you sit back a moment and think about the potential video games have in the world, it really is quite amazing. Video games have a massive platform at present. They rival the cinema, books, and other mediums for sharing art and ideas. The possibilities are endless.

I foresee a day when video games can do something as momentous as helping the injured heal through physical therapy. Perhaps a combination of motion controls and virtual reality could help a person get out of their own head while trying to meet the challenges of a colorful virtual world. Or, what if we dismissed Congress for an entire day so that they could get together and play Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, just like the story of the police officers.

It sounds ridiculous. But if you play the scenario out in your head, it’s easy to imagine how walls and animosity for many could drop as they shared in an exciting experience together. With the capabilities of video games realizing real-world physics, we could apply what we know to further advance technology in the realm of space exploration. Maybe these tools are already being used!

All of the scenarios may seem silly, but I no longer believe they are akin to holding weightless air. After the accomplishments that video games as a form of art have made in the world, and after seeing that a game designer’s two-year dedication could save a precious relic of ancient history, I believe any of these ideas for the future have substance. Anyone that knows me knows that I try very hard to keep an optimistic perspective. Living life in the opposite direction is simply a waste. And as I still deal with my own struggle with anxiety, maintaining a bright outlook is more important than ever. Because I love games, I can see their potential for doing some tangible good in the future — because they certainly are right now.

Chris Hinton
Accountant by day, video games enthusiast by night.  Somewhere in between all of that, I'm a husband, dad, and generally a giant man-child, too.  If a game is all about action, there's a safe bet I'm playing it.  I started laying waste to virtual worlds as a youngin' on the ol' Atari and haven't stopped since.