College of Liberal Arts | Spring 2021

Gaming with historical context

Scott Phillips
Alumnus and video game designer Scott Phillips visited campus on Sept. 24. (Photo by Mark Simons/Purdue University)

As a young gamer, Scott Phillips loved to program, assemble computers, and complete other technical tasks. However, Phillips knew he needed to develop his artistic side if he wanted to achieve his career goal of working in the video game industry.

It turned out to be a brilliant strategy. After graduating from Purdue in 2001 with a degree in fine arts, Phillips went on to become a game director at Ubisoft, creating popular titles like “Assassin’s Creed Syndicate” and “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey.”

When he visited campus on Sept. 24, Phillips discussed how his video game work allows him to engage interests in the technical aspects of his work, as well as in subjects like history and literature. Before sharing stories from the industry with a Fowler Hall audience during “At the Intersection of Liberal Arts + STEM, Creating Assassin’s Creed Odyssey,” Phillips spoke with THiNK Magazine editor David Ching about his career and experiences at Purdue. Here are excerpts from their conversation:

Q: Was working in the video game industry always your goal when you were a student at Purdue?

A: Yes, even before Purdue I knew I wanted to do video games. Long-term, I knew that was the career I wanted to pursue. I came to Purdue and focused on the liberal arts, and fine arts specifically, because I wanted to have a broader background in arts. I felt that was the best way for me to get into the industry as an animator. I wanted to do design ultimately, but I knew animation was going to be a much easier way to get in. So I think what I got at Purdue, and the degree I got at Purdue, really helped me prove that I had that base to get into the video game industry.

Q: Would you say having gone through a liberal arts curriculum and being exposed to the humanities in college influenced the way you incorporate historical figures and events in the “Assassin’s Creed” games?

A: I took art history and a bunch of different things at Purdue that gave me a wider base, and I really like that. I don’t know when because I didn’t really like history so much in school – especially early on – but now I really love history and love learning about it. So for me, working on “Assassin’s Creed” is fantastic because I get paid to go visit Greece and take tours and learn about Olympia and Sparta and all these famous sites.

Q: What is that research process like?

A: We have a historian on staff who we can pepper with questions anytime we want. She also goes out to other historians to ask further detailed questions if we need them. Initially we didn’t have a historian on staff, so we basically raided the internet, went to Google and Wikipedia and bought tons of stuff off Amazon: books, movies, and all sorts of stuff to try and learn as much as we could, early on. We also have a team that does research for us, and they built a mini-internet of interconnected websites with information about super-detailed stuff, as well as super-broad stuff.

We learn about how the columns were built, what exactly the Parthenon would have looked like, or the best historical representation. We learn about how people lived, what they ate, what were the products of a certain city. Just every single thing that we can to give ourselves the strongest base from which to then build the game. Because once we start building the game, we weave our path to make the game fun. In the end, we’re making an entertainment product, so we need to have a game that’s fun.

Q: While these games are fictionalized stories, a real character like Socrates might appear in the narrative. Does your staff get some enjoyment out of exposing a teen-aged gamer to these famous people and events?

A: I think it’s fantastic. Even us on the team, we learn quite a bit. When we started on ancient Greece, I felt like, ‘Oh man, I don’t know anything about ancient Greece. Nothing.’ And then we started reading about it and it’s, ‘Oh, OK, Socrates. Oh, Hippocrates, too. Oh OK, the Minotaur and Zeus.’ All of these major characters that we know are from ancient Greece. The style of architecture. So many things come from there.

Then for the game I’m working on now, it’s called “Gods and Monsters,” and we’ve taken essentially the Greek mythology – so we didn’t focus on history, we focused on mythology – and now when I have my son play test that for me, he’s 5 years old, he now knows who Homer is and he knows who other historical characters are. ‘Oh, the Minotaur. Oh, Cyclops. Oh cool.’ He’s going to have this base, I think, when he goes to school himself, and that will remind him of having played the game years before.

Q: “The Odyssey” is the book the English department is using for “The Big Read” project this year. How does that work link with what you have done in your game?

A: Obviously our game is named “Odyssey.” We took that broadly from the dictionary definition of odyssey: an epic journey, a series of adventures, an exploration. But then because we’re set in ancient Greece it’s even more. It’s about “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” read together are sort of the story of the epic awesomeness of war, and “The Odyssey” is about trying to return home and get back to a simpler life after having gone through these insane trials. And so our game is about that same thing where you start the game and your family is sort of destroyed by this one event. You spend most of the game doing these awesome adventures and doing these great things and meeting these cool people, but the whole time your goal is to get back to your family. You want to return to something that you knew as a child. You feel it will complete your life to come back to returning your family all together.