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In the Discovery Tour mode for Assassin’s Creed Origins, Cleopatra stands in front of a reflecting pool in Siwa where the real-life Cleopatra used to bathe. Image: Ubisoft Quebec/Ubisoft via Polygon

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The virtual museums I can still visit this summer

COVID-19 has me longing for guided educational experiences

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At the end of February, right before the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything about American society, my girlfriend and I went to the RISD Museum in Providence, Rhode Island. We spent a languid afternoon stumbling upon gems like this chair that blew people’s minds in 1959, or this collection of painted prints inspired by Indo-Persian illuminated manuscripts. A well-designed museum exhibit can feel a lot like a video game. Good pacing is paramount, but so is the sensation of discovery, of tripping over something new.

We couldn’t wait to spend all summer going to more museums. But now, the virtual and video game versions of museums are all we have. We’ve been trying to make it work, with mixed results.

These days, the museum we’ve each visited the most is Blathers’ natural history museum in Animal Crossing: New Horizons. As well-designed as it is, it just doesn’t feel as surprising or exciting as I want a museum to feel, probably because I collected everything that’s displayed there.

my Animal Crossing: New Horizons villager visits Blathers’ museum. Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo via Polygon

During one of my many mope sessions about the fact that we can’t go on “real” dates, my girlfriend booted up Google’s collection of virtual museum tours for me. We snuggled in bed while scrolling through exhibits from around the world.

Our favorite virtual excursion was the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Gwacheon-si, South Korea. One of the exhibits spotlighted the late Park Hyun-Ki, whose artwork often combined natural objects with artificial, human-made ones. For example, one display showed tube televisions situated among piles of rocks. Another showed a mirror placed in a river, reflecting back an image of the already-reflective water.

Still, I wanted the sensation of walking around a space and experiencing something that felt more guided, more physical. In yet another attempt to simulate that feeling, I booted up the Discovery Tour version of Assassin’s Creed Origins.

Both Assassin’s Creed Origins and Odyssey have Discovery Tour modes that invite you on a historical tour of ancient Egypt or ancient Greece, respectively. I still have Origins installed on my PlayStation 4 because I can’t let go of that game; I spent hours as Bayek climbing up tall structures and then moving the camera around him, bathing in the stunning environments. Discovery Tour leans into that impulse. It’s a combat-free version of ancient Egypt as it is depicted in the game. You can select from a number of characters, including Cleopatra, and wander the game’s world without having to worry about assassinating or questing. Instead, the “quests” you can complete are dozens of educational exhibits, which invite you to walk along a guided path and hear a voice-over describing, say, ancient Egyptian textiles, or the inner workings of the civilization’s education system, or the still-mysterious history of the Sphinx.

The Discovery Tour mode in Assassin’s Creed Origins shows the process behind modeling the Sphinx in-game. Image: Ubisoft Quebec/Ubisoft via Polygon

The Discovery Tour moves slow. You can summon a mount to ride instead of proceeding on foot, just like you can in regular Assassin’s Creed Origins, but when you’re in the midst of a guided tour, you have to take your time if you want to hear it all. Every step of the way, you’ll unlock and then listen to a new piece of information about the structure or setting nearby, and if you rush too far ahead, you’ll trigger the next piece of audio. The result is an exploration experience not unlike proceeding through a museum, whether you’re listening to an audio guided tour or just reading each and every plaque on your way through an exhibit.

At first, I found the pace boring, but over time, my stressed-out brain acclimated to it. I forced myself to listen with full attention, and as I did, I felt myself transported back to being 12 years old, researching and writing a history class report about Cleopatra. Even back then, I noticed that every children’s history book in the library cited Plutarch, and I also noticed how reductive his descriptions of Cleopatra seemed to be. I later learned the reason: Plutarch’s work echoed the Roman propaganda of the time. Our modern attempts to look back on Cleopatra’s time and know the truth will always be limited by the biases of the records that have survived. Like any good educational experience, Discovery Tour makes those limitations clear throughout, citing its sources as well as the gaps that still remain in our knowledge.

As I wandered through Egypt in Cleopatra’s form, learning more about what historians have pieced together about the time in which she lived, I felt both an intense connection to what once was, and also, the irrevocable sense that the truth of it all cannot be known, lost like so many texts in the ashes of the Library of Alexandria. I thought, unbidden, about the stories that people will tell about our society, thousands and thousands of years from now — what will be preserved, and what will be forgotten.

In other words, it felt a lot like going to a museum. It actually felt more intense than a museum, since Discovery Tour allows your avatar to walk through an approximation of an actual historical place while you learn about it. My soul’s hunger to “go somewhere, anywhere” remains. But at least I got to see a place that I can never go to, at least not in our world, and experience something new.


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