In April 2019, the world watched as Notre-Dame de Paris caught fire - and thanks to the actions of firefighters, the blaze ended with most of the cathedral intact, and no loss of life. The French film "Notre-Dame Brûle" ("Notre-Dame on Fire"), directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, re-creates the events of the fire and the mission to save the cathedral - and Ubisoft, in partnership with Annaud and production company Pathé Films, developed Save Notre-Dame on Fire, a multiplayer VR escape-room experience that casts players as firefighters, and challenges them to rescue holy relics and extinguish the flames before time runs out.
Available now at escape-game partner locations, Save Notre-Dame on Fire was created with input from firefighters who were deployed to the cathedral. During the sessions - which are meant to be played in an hour or less - players work together to keep the flames at bay, solve puzzles to find the Crown of Thorns, escape the cathedral after the collapse of its spire, and put out the fire in its bell tower. To find out more about how Save Notre-Dame on Fire came together, we spoke with SVP, New Business & Strategic Alliances Deborah Papiernik and World-Design Director Maxime Durand about working with filmmakers and firefighters, Ubisoft's own history with Notre-Dame, and why Ubisoft made an escape game to help tell this story.
How did you first partner with the filmmakers, and what was that collaboration like?
Deborah Papiernik: ["Notre-Dame Brûle" director] Jean-Jacques Annaud knew about Ubisoft's involvement with Notre-Dame, its rendering of Notre-Dame in Assassin's Creed Unity, and its donation toward Notre-Dame's reconstruction, which is why he contacted us to make a game. Because we already had Notre-Dame in VR, extracted from the model for Assassin's Creed Unity, and three virtual-reality escape games operated by a network of about 600 escape rooms worldwide, we decided to use this model and create a virtual-reality escape game inside Notre-Dame that tells the story of the fire, that shines a light on stories from the firefighting efforts.
Pathé Films, which is producing the film, and Annaud were immediately onboard, and that's how this adventure began.
Why is Save Notre-Dame on Fire a VR escape room, as opposed to a home VR experience?
DP: Home VR is still growing, and we wanted to do something for the larger public. When you look at games that are successful in VR - except for maybe Beat Saber - the games that are working in VR right now are games for core players, who are early adopters of this kind of technology.
We wanted more people to be able to play, so we decided to go for location-based VR, where people don’t have to own the VR equipment, can just go and pay for the hour they're going to play. You can go with friends and play in pairs; the social aspect is central to the experience. It pays tribute to the work of firefighters, in which collaboration and communication are essential.
You mentioned Ubisoft's creation of a highly detailed model of Notre-Dame for Assassin's Creed Unity. How did that model need to be updated for Save Notre-Dame on Fire?
DP: It was great to have this model, which is very close to the Notre-Dame that everybody knows, which is the Notre-Dame that was created at the end of the 19th century, the one with the spire. But for the escape game, we had to add some elements that were not in that model of Notre-Dame. We had to add the north belfry and the Virgin holding the baby, which is a central figure in the film as well. We also added scaffolding - because there was scaffolding around Notre-Dame when it was burning - and the modern altar as well. Elements like that are very important, because we're telling the story of the fire, but those did not exist in the model that we had.
Maxime Durand: Assassin's Creed Unity takes place in 1789 during the French Revolution, and the game's representation is a mix of that and also the way that the cathedral looked in the 1860s, after it was revamped. Long story short, following the end of the French Revolution, it was not in a good state. And for the following 60 years, it went into decay. The spire was gone, and statues were disfigured. A lot of the artifacts were looted or taken away to be protected, to the point where they even thought about taking down the cathedral in the early 1800s.
Then, some people rose and tried to make a difference, saying that Notre-Dame was an important landmark for the history of France. The intention of the book that would become "The Hunchback of Notre-Dame" was originally to bring attention to the fact that that monument was important. Thankfully, public attention saved the cathedral from demolition, and the restoration started in the 1840s. Builders used this opportunity to add new architectural elements, some of which ultimately ended in Assassin's Creed Unity, while others were left out. However, these new elements - as pointed out by Deborah - are all important to the story of the fire, and, in turn, to the movie and VR experience.
DP: We are lucky, because the model is absolutely beautiful and because my VR production team had already done the work of putting it into VR. They've done quite a few VR experiences in the last six years, so they already know how to optimize between what you see up close and what's further away.
MD: And maybe I can add that that the scaffoldings present in the VR and movie were the additional part that wouldn't have made any sense in previous Ubisoft projects. Because they relate to the causes of the fire, they're super-important in the VR experience and of course in being faithful to the events, which is that work was being done on the cathedral when it burned. They're also super useful in the VR experience as a level-design tool.
DP: Because it's a virtual-reality escape game, you want to be able to climb, and you have to find elements that make sense. We're using things that could have been in the cathedral at that very point. Things that the firefighters are using regularly, such as ropes or lifting platforms. It's trying to be smart, so that it's realistic.
What parts of Notre-Dame do you visit in Save Notre-Dame On Fire?
DB: You have the choir with the ancient altar, where there are also the relics – namely the Crown of Thorns, which is the most important relic that you have to save. There's this unbelievable story where there were two crowns: the real one that was hidden, and the copy that was shown to the public. When the real firefighters went inside, their first mission was to retrieve the precious treasure, and they came back with the Crown of Thorns that was exhibited. And then people from cathedral told them, “That's not the real one, that's the copy!” The real one was in a hidden safe, unknown to most people, and retrieving it proved to be a puzzle worthy of an escape game, which of course inspired our design!
You also see the transept, and then you go outside on the gallery of Chimeras, then inside the bell tower. So you definitely see a lot of the cathedral.
The firefighters who were fighting the fire on that very day came to test our game while it was in development, and they gave us a few indications on things we could change to make it more realistic. For example, they talked about the smoke; there was a lot of smoke. So we tried to add as much as we could, knowing there are limitations in VR if we want to maintain a good framerate. They also talked about the water; they said, “We were walking in water!” People were pouring water everywhere to try and kill the fire.
The monument and the movie also inspired the cooperative gameplay: there are classic escape-game puzzles where you have to find hints and trigger mechanisms; there are more action-oriented moments where you must fight the flames as a pair; and there are situations in which the solution will come from helping each other and communicating, because in order for one player to reach the exit by climbing across the cathedral, the other one has to stay on the ground to activate mechanisms and put off the flames. We’re adapting the mechanics of the escape game to the circumstances to make them realistic. We're also using a little vehicle that the firefighters used to fight the fire in zones that they couldn’t access themselves. It was very, very interesting to be able to talk to the firefighters, because they showed us the complexity of the situation and gave us elements of gameplay.
When you do an escape game – any escape game – you always have the timer, and you have like 60 minutes sharp to finish, to get out. Here, we don’t use a clock to time the adventure, it is the real chain of events – spire collapsing, wind pushing fire towards the towers – that gives the timing of the game and the feeling of emergency.
What was the audience's reaction when you previewed Save Notre-Dame on Fire at South By Southwest?
DP: We presented a talk with Maxime called Notre-Dame: Bringing Heritage to New Audiences. We started with the fact that we, Ubisoft, were very surprised that so many players used [Assassin's Creed Unity's] Notre-Dame to honor the real-life cathedral. And then Maxime explained how we work so much with historians, and how we work to reproduce history and to make environments and worlds that are immersive and emotional that you connect with.
I also explained that we previously made a short VR experience - it's an immersive visit, very emotional. Then we spoke about the game, and we gave a few more examples of things that we do. Using games, we can bring heritage, architecture, and history to anyone looking for an immersive experience.
Does Save Notre-Dame on Fire try to directly reflect the events of the film and/or reality? Or does the escape game exercise artistic license to better adapt the events to gameplay?
DP: It takes a few important moments from the story of the fire – for example, the fact that there are two reliquary crowns that are safekept in the cathedral; one that you see, and then one that you have to find. This was a well-kept secret and only a few people knew what it looked like, so in the game, we invented a safe that you don't even know is a safe, and then you find it, and that's where the crown is. And the story of the firefighters being trapped inside the cathedral after the spire collapsed is based on reality, only in the game the exit route is more complex and puzzle-based.. We also added realism by checking with the firefighters – the language that they use when they talk among themselves, even how they salute, their uniforms, their helmets, etc.
MD: In a way, it's the kind of treatment that we're used to with our games, putting immersion at the core of players' experience. That relates also to the gameplay, and the user experience that Deborah's team has decided to go with. We want to allow the narrative to give these steps in the escape room procedure, instead of having a hard timer on moments, and to let the immersion breathe to give that sense of belonging there. I think it tells a very moving story, and it lets the players be part of it, even if it's adapted.
DP: Yeah. And because it's an escape game, even though it's in virtual reality, you communicate with your partner all the time. You have the mic, and you can talk and help each other to solve the puzzles, just like you would do in traditional escape games that are not in VR. So it's as social as a traditional escape game.
Creating a game around a recent catastrophe seems like a delicate undertaking. How did you ensure that it's handled tastefully?
DP: It’s really paying tribute to the firefighters; we listened to their testimonies, asked for their feedback. They were heroes, like real heroes, in this story. No one was killed during this tragedy, and Notre-Dame is still here. We're also giving a portion of the proceeds to the reconstruction.
Some people ask us, "is there a risk that it's going to be seen as something opportunistic?" And I don't think so, because Ubisoft's involvement with the cathedral is not new. It's been 10 years since the development of Assassin's Creed Unity, which released in 2014. Since then, Ubisoft created that link with Notre-Dame, and we've given money for the reconstruction. We also made the first Notre-Dame VR experience; we made it free, we gave it to the world. It's presented in museums and in many, many places, so it's just logical to be able to do something else with the cathedral.
MD: We've been working hand in hand, also, with the archbishop, and with the team of reconstructors. Being involved in the whole process, I think, is also a very clear demonstration of the will to do it correctly.
DP: Actually, I also had a chance to show the short VR experience to the people in charge of the reconstruction, not only the archbishop, but the general in charge, who was nominated by the President of the Republic to be in charge of the reconstruction, as well as the architect-in-chief, the stonemason, the stained-glass window makers - they all tried the experience. And before they tried the experience, I told them all, "our model is not 100% correct, and in terms of history, it's anachronistic." Because we're representing, as Maxime explained, Notre-Dame as it was 70 years after the French Revolution. But once I said that, they were so blown away by the emotion that it didn't matter. It's like a painting; it's not as exact as photography, but very often it brings more emotion.
Save Notre-Dame on Fire is available now at partner escape-room locations worldwide. For a list of locations, visit www.ubisoftescapegames.com/notre_dame_vr. Find out more about how Ubisoft uses VR to re-create historical landmarks, and check out our dedicated news hub for more on Ubisoft's VR projects.