Ubisoft, the French video-game powerhouse behind franchises like “Assassin’s Creed,” “Far Cry” and “Watch Dogs,” has partnered with Pathé to develop a location-based VR escape game based on Jean-Jacques Annaud’s upcoming IMAX-shot docudrama “Notre-Dame on Fire.”
The one-hour experience – which shares the title of Annaud’s blockbuster – will put players into the boots and flameproof uniforms of the Parisian fire brigade on that fateful night of April 15 2019, when flames nearly claimed the world-famous cathedral.
This licensing project marks the video-game studio’s third item showcasing the French landmark. In-house engineers initially built a detailed model of Notre-Dame ahead of 2014’s “Assassin’s Creed Unity,” an action-adventure game set in 18th century France.
Responding to public sentiment – and to the user-made videos taken from inside the game that spread online throughout the spring of 2019 – Ubisoft repurposed its model for “Notre-Dame de Paris: Journey Back in Time,” a short immersive experience the company released free-of-charge in September 2020.
At least one of those items seems to have caught the attention of director Jean-Jacques Annaud, who reached out to studio during production of his upcoming film. “He knew that we had a special attachment to Notre Dame,” says Deborah Papiernik, Ubisoft senior VP new business and strategic alliances. “I guess that’s why he came to us. I don’t think he went to see [anyone else].”
The filmmaker and interactive studio begin preliminary talks in early 2021, informally looking to see what kind of tie-in made the most sense for both parties. With the film fixed to a March 2022 release date, Papiernik and her team knew such a timeline was too tight to allow for a full-fledged game, and instead opted to wed the company’s proprietary models with its growing network of location-based partners for a one-hour escape experience.
“Like any escape game, it’s a question of puzzles and co-operating with your teammates,” Papiernik explains. “The idea is to make your way through the cathedral to find relics and to fight the fire, because you have to save Notre Dame [before the clock runs out].”
The Ubisoft designers worked in close collaboration with Annaud and his team, using the film’s screenplay – written by the director and Thomas Bidegain (“A Prophet”) – as a kind of launching off point. “The fact that we had that access really nourished our team,” says Papiernik. “That doesn’t mean we translated everything to gameplay; rather, it offered our team food for thought for our adaptation.”
Produced by Pathé – which will also handle domestic distribution and international sales – Annaud’s film is slated to hit French theaters this coming March, with Ubisoft’s tie-in due out the very same month. But in a move that speaks to some fundamental difference between the two industries, the latter project will receive an instantaneous release in partner locations across the globe.
“It’s Notre Dame, so it’s Paris, and it’s a French movie, but this is a worldwide product,” says Papiernik, who notes that Ubisoft has upcoming licensing projects with titles such as “Avatar” and “Star Wars.”
“We have 630 international partner locations that all have access to our games,” she adds. “[In March] they’ll have access to this latest one as soon as we push the button.”