Three years ago, Notre-Dame caught fire. This video game allows you to fight

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On April 15, 2019, when Notre Dame Cathedral in central Paris caught fire, a certain subset of people around the world couldn’t help but think of a 5-year-old video game. Assassin’s Creed Unity is a 2014 video game set in Paris in 1789 that includes an amazingly detailed digital model of the cathedral. In the game, players walk through the church and climb to its highest points – actions that gave players a deep familiarity with the building. Seeing it burn in social media reports and videos in 2019, some gamers recalled the hours spent climbing through the building in the video game. Some even wondered if the digital version of the cathedral could be useful in reconstructing the damaged structure.

[Image: Ubisoft]

The video game’s version of the cathedral wasn’t detailed enough for this kind of forensic research, but the game’s creators found a way to put their version of Notre Dame back to work. Today, Ubisoft is launching Save Notre-Dame on Fire, a virtual reality game that takes place inside the cathedral on the day of the fire.

“We’re almost on a one-to-one scale. We have all the vastness of the real Notre Dame,” says Deborah Papiernik, senior vice president at Ubisoft who led the game’s development.

The model may not be accurate enough to aid in the restoration of the building, but it is accurate enough to recreate the harrowing experience of firefighters rushing into the burning church. The game recreates this experience for virtual reality headsets. Players act as firefighters tasked with extinguishing the flames, as well as finding and saving a chest containing the famous crown of thorns believed to be placed on Jesus during his crucifixion.

The architecture of the building is a key part of the gameplay, in which players must navigate tight spaces and burn parts of the structure without falling. Players work side by side to extinguish the flames before they can bring down the belfry, a real challenge faced by firefighters trying to save the historic church bells and the wooden beams that support them. “We use real elements of the architecture to create something interesting for the player,” explains Papiernik. “We kind of play with the building.”

[Image: Ubisoft]

The game was produced as a companion to a French film which romanticized the fire, Our Lady Burnt. Co-written and directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, the film tells the story of the fire and the efforts to save the cathedral, based on detailed interviews with many key people involved. Annaud initially approached Ubisoft to create a video game to accompany his film, and his research was incorporated into the development of Ubisoft’s VR game. “He is the most informed person in the world about what happened minute by minute,” says Papiernik.

[Image: Ubisoft]

The game is one of several breakout-style VR games produced by Ubisoft, and each is meant to be played not alone at home, but in groups of two to four in dedicated VR rooms.

Papiernik says that the VR version of the Cathedral of Save Notre Dame on Fire is intended to give people a way to experience the space and understand the importance of rebuilding it, and is a sort of educational entertainment addition to the the company’s previous donation of approximately $565,000 for the restoration of a building that is so important to Assassin’s Creed Unity.

Still, astute Assassin’s Creed Unity players might have noticed that the version of Notre Dame featured in the game is not what the cathedral would have looked like in 1789. The game version was based on the cathedral as that it was remodeled in the mid-1800s, with the famous spire added to the top. This is the version of the church that still exists today, and the one that was badly damaged in the 2019 fire. “We wanted Notre Dame to be recognizable,” Papiernik says of this decision. “We know that without the spire, the gargoyles, Notre-Dame is not recognizable.”

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