Ahead of the launch of Assassin’s Creed Mirage, I was extremely lucky to sit down (in the same room!) with the wonderful Sarah Beaulieu, the game’s narrative director, to talk about the process of crafting Mirage’s story, authentic representation in storytelling, and more.
Jess: Just to start broad, tell me a little bit about the story of Assassin’s Creed Mirage.
Sarah: The story of Mirage is the story of Basim. It’s very focused on him and on how he grows up from being a street thief to a master assassin. So as a player, you do experience the whole journey and you start with Basim at around 17 years old encountering and meeting Roshan – his mentor – for the first time, and then growing slowly. The thing about Basim is that he has issues, I would say – identity issues. He’s really struggling with what he is and he doesn’t know anything about it. And tries to actually contain a lot of his thoughts.
Around Basim, you have a cast of characters starting from Roshan, but also his street friend Nehal – she’s the one who actually tries to push him into discovering the truth about himself. So he’s a little bit moved between Roshan and the Hidden Ones, and his past and Nehal. That’s what internally we liked to call the tragedy of Basim, it’s definitely not a funny story but a tragedy.
Jess: So, Basim of course is a character that was introduced in Valhalla. What was it like to take a character that had already been sort of introduced and make him your own?
Sarah: We were lucky. If you’ve played Valhalla, you’ll know Basim and who he is and what he becomes. So, we had this, this point in Basim’s life but everything before that was very much up in the air. So we had a blank page to fill to make sure that we wouldn’t make any mistakes. I had some conversations with Darby McDevitt – the narrative director of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla – and Darby and I, we had a few chats about Basim and making sure that I wouldn’t do something inconsistent with the character. So we had these discussions and starting from there, it was pretty easy. We had a few elements, for example, he’s born in Samarra – his father was an architect and he grew up there. So we had this information and started from there.
I like to say that it’s not the same character that is in Valhalla – and if you’ve seen previews, you can hear that in his voice. It’s a different actor playing Basim for that reason – and he’s also very young compared to the Basim in Valhalla. It’s actually not the same character, and you get to understand how that evolves to what you see in Valhalla.
Jess: Yeah! I mean, without trying to spoil anything – he played kind of a key role in the ending of Valhalla. Are we going to tie back into what happened at the end of Mirage?
Sarah: Actually you’re gonna have some links between the ending of, of Mirage and – let’s say yeah, the ending and the story of Basim and Valhalla for sure, but it’s not going to be tied to the ending of Valhalla.
Jess: So, Basim – you’ve talked a little bit about how the story is his tragedy and he’s got some demons. What sets him apart from other protagonists of the series, do you think?
Sarah: [laughs] That’s always a tricky question because, I mean, that’s my character. It’s a character I’ve been writing about for so long that I always want to say he’s the best. But, I mean, what, what is important about Basim? I’d say that Ezio, Altair and the others, they all had pretty difficult lives. But the story of Basim I think is – you know, he’s a man from the 9th century, he’s not someone I’d identify with. But in the end, the story of Basim is something that I’ve put a lot of personal things into, and I think the character of Basim has this specific aspect of living something that we all live, which is struggling with our identity and what people think of us. We tried to have a character that would have these universal feelings and that would be compelling in that way. So that was the main focus – and Basim, he tries to talk about his feelings to people who actually don’t understand – Roshan and Nehal and even Ali, and he’s struggling with that too.
He’s different. He’s not the cocky – [laughs] I mean, at the beginning of the game, he’s a bit cocky, you know, he’s a teenager – but he’s mostly a tragic character. One of the pillars of narrative was Shakespearean tragedy from the beginning of the production. So that meant we wanted characters to have a fate. It’s all about fate, Shakespeare – tragic fate. So that’s maybe what makes Basim a bit different from the others.
Jess: You also mentioned Roshan – I’m super interested in her and her character, because I feel like it’s a character that you don’t really see that often. She’s this kind of… accomplished older woman who is completely badass, voiced by an amazing actress. How did she come to be, as a character?
Sarah: So when we started working on a younger Basim, we were talking with the creative director, Stéphane Boundon and he said he should have a mentor, and I said “yes, he should have a mentor – but I would like the mentor to be a woman – a 50 year old woman.” As a personal story, I’m coming from the movie industry and a lot of my friends are actors. I love working with them and I know that starting from a certain age female actresses struggle getting some interesting roles – or it’s just ‘mum’ roles. So we had this focus, and Stefan was on board right away.
So we started working on that aspect, but also we wanted to avoid at all cost having a mother son relationship. That’s why she also is a bit tough, you know, we wanted to avoid the more loving aspect of her – even though she loves Basim, that’s for sure, and he loves her back. So she started very easily around a table that was like, yeah, we need a mentor and she has to be 50. And then someone in the team – our producer on the narrative side, Laura – she mentioned Shohreh (Agdashloo). Roshan was not called Roshan at the beginning of production because she was supposed to be Turkish. But when we talked about it, the name of Shohreh came up and so we changed the names that would fit her accent to be a Persian woman. And she became Roshan, and it was exciting because Shohreh said yes very fast. We had the first conversation and she had read the script and she was just talking about the character and it was like, OK – she got everything. I remember we closed the conversation – we talked for an hour – and she said “well, I’m so glad we’re on the same page.” And yes, it’s pretty rare having that kind of conversation right away with the actors and, you know, seeing that they understand the character, they understand the story and they’re really into it – she’s great.
Jess: Obviously historical characters play a big role in all of the Assassin’s Creed games. How do you decide who is going to play a role in the story?
Sarah: Well, it always starts with the political figures because you know, Assassin’s Creed is all about politics. So you start working on those with the power at the time, for example. In Assassin’s it’s always about an external conflict – about something political – at that point in time. The historical rebellion, it happened a few years after our game, so we actually decided to tell the beginning of it as it could have happened. So that part is all imagination. But we also wanted this character Ali [Ibn Muhammad] to become very important. I remember there were a few lines in a book about him, and I thought ‘that’s so cool!’. So we also started working with him as a character because he was so interesting.
And then after that… Baghdad was the center of knowledge, and very famous scholars were there, so soon enough, we discovered the three Musa brothers. They are a bit like Da Vinci, but everybody knows about Da Vinci and the crazy stuff is worked on, and nobody knows about them. You can actually see on the internet, they have a whole book with a lot of crazy devices that actually work very well. So we thought OK, that’s our Da Vinci, we’re going to use them to work with and create some crazy stuff for the Hidden Ones..
There’s a lot of what feels like playing with toys. You have different characters here and there and historians would give us some names here and there, and you’d think ‘this one could be interesting’. And as you dive into them and you know that, for example, you have a quest that you want to set in the House of Wisdom – because that’s a major setting in Baghdad – you think ‘who could we use as the scholars we have?’ So we play with them like toys. ‘This one could fit this quest’, or ‘this one could be good here’.
It’s also about learning for the player, – them actually learning history and discovering these new figures. So how can we put them in the game in a compelling way so that people will actually want to dive more into the character afterwards and learn more?
Jess: So, thinking about the world of Baghdad and the time period it’s set in. As has been mentioned in some of the trailers and preview content, there’s a lot of consultancy – a lot of experts who you talk to, to really be able to recreate a world like this. What kind of practical role do those experts sort of play in the way the story is developed?
Sarah: At the very beginning of the production, we have some historians internally at Ubisoft who we’re working with, and we have some calls with them like, OK, we would like to do this and this, that’s the setting we want – could you maybe dig into, you know, stuff for us and make sure that what we have is accurate because you have different sources. With Baghdad, it was a bit different because you don’t have many sources, so we had two very specific books that we knew were actually compelling and we were studying them. And then any time we would come across, for example, when I came across the character of Ali Ibn Muhammad – the leader of the rebellion – I actually asked one of our historians to dig into this character because I felt like he was character material. So we know that they’re actually good sources because they’re coming from historians. That’s the first step.
And – as our art director likes to say – we did our own work, we really read a lot, but Baghdad from the 9th century has completely disappeared. You have nothing left of it now, not even a stone, because it was destroyed by the Mongols – so it was a big project. I mean, when we started working on it, especially on the world side, we realised it wasn’t like working on Rome, for example, or big cities that still exist – you have nothing. So we had to at many points in the production call some external historians or experts on different subjects like the architecture, for example, or also the slavery aspect. Because we have slavery in the game and Ali Ibn Muhammad is all about the rebellion and the slaves rebelling against the Caliphate, we had an expert come in – a specialist of the period and this specific Caliphate.
And of course, you have some freedom when you’re working on a work of fiction, but still we wanted to make sure that everything that was in the world was as accurate as possible – authenticity was a key pillar. We also had our internal Diversity and Inclusion team, and I mean, we couldn’t have done anything without them – because for example, we had two of them who were actually native Arabic speakers, and they would check the language and make sure that we wouldn’t make any mistakes any time we would use Arabic in the game. As you’ve seen from the trailers, they all have accurate accents, and that was a choice from the beginning. So yeah, they definitely helped in that aspect too, and we also had them for any religious aspects. For example we have the Adhan – the Muslim call to prayer – in the game and we wanted to make sure that we would use it correctly and at the right power, etc. So these kinds of details are actually very important to us.
Jess: In the preview trailers you talk about the Tales of Baghdad and the way that they flesh out the world. What sort of stories are they telling? How do you decide what’s going to supplement the main story?
Sarah: Well, it’s either stories that would feed Basim’s characterization or the world. So for example, some of the historical characters that we couldn’t use in the main story because we didn’t have any room for them show up in the Tales of Baghdad. I won’t say too much about it, but you have some that are actually bridges with all the Assassins Creed games – and just things that show a different side to Baghdad in some way.