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Virtually Exploring Renaissance Italy

The view from the top of the duomo, in the late summer Florence sunlight, couldn’t be more bewitching. Rolling Tuscan hills stretch away beyond the famed overlook point. That pale spectral haze in the air will fade away at noontime. Down and to the right, the river Arno glitters and snakes underneath the Ponte Vecchio, which seems to appear exactly as it did in the 15th century. Back the other way, just below eye level, I get a clear look at the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence’s seat of government during the Renaissance.

Suddenly, a hooded figure intrudes on the scene, clambering down a jutting wooden beam, jumping into a hay pile, and then quickly disappearing into the streets crowded with lifelike courtesans and haggling tradesmen. The year is 1477, and this is a video game.

Renaissance Italy, it turns out, is blockbuster material in the world of crypto-historical adventure games. The new Assassin’s Creed II (for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, $59.99) is a multimillion-dollar production from the French company Ubisoft, and it is set in vividly reproduced, highly detailed simulations of both Florence and Venice. For the traveler, exploring these places inside a video game is a perspective-shifting experience, one in which the familiar is rendered strange and vice versa.

Ubisoft went to unprecedented lengths to re-create the historic and architectural environs as precisely as possible: the producers hired Renaissance scholars as consultants. They used old maps liberally to shape the streets and consulted Google Earth. They took tens of thousands of photographs of interiors and exteriors from all angles: long views, close-ups, verticals, and the like. The angles were crucial because the game’s players spend a great deal of time climbing up and around Florence and Venice’s famous monuments, over rooftops and along streets, all the while seeing façades, views, and even shifting light that are as close to reality as possible. Players mingle “virtually” with the local folk of the time, including groups of aristocrats and brotherhoods of thieves whose facial types and dress are inspired by period paintings and illustrations.

Here and there, of course, true-to-life details get sacrificed. The game takes liberties with the dimensions inside the Duomo, in Florence, for example, which has been shrunk to make game play and navigation easier. But overall, the experience delivers a startling—and exhilarating—level of verisimilitude. When I went to visit the Duomo after playing the game, it felt intimate and familiar, as if I had encountered it in another life.

Something similar happened when I returned to the sepia-toned Palazzo Vecchio. I’d visited the place—a kind of civilian castle with a very high tower—several times in the past and always admired it, but had never quite unlocked the secret door in my imagination that brought it to life. In the game, as I came into close virtual contact with the building’s stone texture and grappled up the great campanile, I realized: This only happens in dreams. Otherwise, a building’s upper façade is known exclusively to birds and window washers—and the original builders. I could hear voices from far down on the street; I could feel the vertiginous drop. When I stopped to rest halfway up, Florence reeled around me, teeming with life, with stories and adventure, and I sensed, however briefly, that the essence of travel—the thrill of discovery, the resonance of place—had made its way into this virtual world.

Melik Kaylan writes for Forbes and the Wall Street Journal.

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