How a video game helped the British Library bring lost history to life

Entertainment

From a Disney comic book starring Scrooge McDuck to a never-ending reel of scenes from India’s most expensive TV series, the British Library’s latest exhibition is eclectic to say the least.

Billed as a tribute to Alexander the Great’s legacy, this is as much an exhibition about storytelling as it is one man, culminating in a display of how technology can bring such legends to life.

Born in Macedon in 356BC, in reality Alexander travelled so far as northwest India, his vast empire from Greece to Egypt recorded here across paintings, tablets, and scriptures that would look right at home in any of the world’s greatest museums.

His legend, though, knew no such geographical limits. Whether the son of a serpent magician (Nectanebo, not Voldemort), or a brave warrior who stared down a mighty dragon, George-style, mythical stories starring Alexander began during his lifetime and have survived throughout the years since.

Bringing such adventures together is the Ebstorf map. First made in Germany around 1300, it was the largest world map in existence from the Middle Ages until it was destroyed during the Second World War.

It boasted more than 2,000 entries across more than 30 parchment sheets, hundreds of which were illustrated, including more than a dozen explicitly related to Alexander – including some of his fictional escapades.

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A reproduction of the lost map on display at the library. Pic: Kloster Ebstorf/British Library

A new interactive version has been created for the library by students from visual effects school Escape Studios, the producer of young talent which has worked on films including Star Wars and games like Assassin’s Creed.

Displayed akin to an opening credits sequence from Game Of Thrones, it presents landmarks and milestones from Alexander’s real and imagined lives, just as the original map did, but now in 3D.

“A mix of real places, physical locations, and sheer fantasy,” is how Yrja Thorsdottir, the library’s digital content exhibition curator, describes it.

She tells Sky News that the new map is a case of how technology is allowing curators to “bring lost things to life”.

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The digital version of the map is fully interactive. Pics: British Library

‘Technology allows us to bring lost history back’

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Perhaps the most striking example of that is saved for last.

Upon his death aged 32, the likely cause of which continues to divide historians, Alexander’s body was transported from Babylon to Egypt and placed inside a long-lost mausoleum at Alexandria.

The exhibition – unafraid to jump from ancient manuscripts to films and even anime – culminates with a detailed reconstruction of the tomb from the video game Assassin’s Creed Origins, scaled up and projected on to the walls.

“We’ve lost the tomb, we’ve lost the map, technology allows us to sort of bring them back,” says Ms Thorsdottir.

Assassin’s Creed has made its recreations of history’s great cities something of a calling card since it debuted, way back in what now feels positively ancient 2007.

From Constantinople to Athens, each choice has required a world larger in scope – yet still greater in detail – than any that came before.

“Our colleagues who made the first Assassin’s Creed (set in the Holy Land during the Crusades) did an excellent job and paved the way for what it has become,” Thierry Noel, in-house historian at developer Ubisoft, tells Sky News.

“But as it became such a well known franchise, it became obvious there would be more and more need to recreate bigger worlds, to be more accurate, to find more information, and that’s why the team I lead was born.”

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Greek puppets depicting Alexander fighting a dragon. Pic: British Library
Pic: British Library
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Alexander depicted on an Ethiopian scroll. Pic: British Library

‘It’s about creating an experience’

Origins, released in 2017 and set in Egypt from 49 to 43BC, was the first entry to benefit from Mr Noel’s team, who scour museums, libraries and historical locations around the world to bring them to life digitally.

“We used everything we had to imagine how the tomb could have been,” he says.

Such research is what led to the collaboration with the library, as his team took inspiration from a prior exhibition of Anglo-Saxon art during development of 2020’s Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, set in England during the time of Vikings.

For some players, such locales may only ever act as a sandbox within which to carry out brutal murder. The idea of such a game being leveraged at an institution like the British Library may sound to some – like many of the stories passed on about Alexander – like fantasy.

But to those behind this exhibition, they present opportunities for storytelling that are here to stay.

“It’s about engaging people in different ways,” says Adrian Edwards, head of printed collections.

“An element of an exhibition like this is theatre, it’s about creating an experience.

“The level of detail they invest in now to visualise these places from history, it gives you a real sense of what it might have been like.”

Alexander the Great: The Making Of A Myth is open at the British Library until 19 February 2023.

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