Ubisoft historian says company's 3D Notre Dame a reminder of beauty during rebuild

MONTREAL — As the fire-gutted Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris faces years of reconstruction, a Montreal-made video game may provide some comfort for those longing to revisit every inch of the church, from the soaring spire and towers to the cavernous vault.

Artists and historians working to create the 2014 game "Assassin's Creed Unity" spent 14 months combing through photos, videos, and architectural plans to create a digital model so realistic that some have speculated it could help to guide the reconstruction of the 12th century cathedral.

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Ubisoft historian Maxime Durand said that while he doubts the company's digital plans will be needed, he hopes the game can still help the renovation in a small way, if only by reminding people of the structure's beauty.

"I believe the architects won't need our digital plans to rebuild the cathedral," he said in a phone interview.

"But if the reconstruction we did for the game can help to enthuse people for the reconstruction, or if it allows people to visit (virtually) while they're waiting to go one day ... that will already be our contribution."

Durand pointed out it wouldn't be the first time that art helped inspire the refurbishment of Notre Dame.

He said Victor Hugo's 1831 novel "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" raised awareness of the long-neglected Gothic cathedral, which led to a major restoration project and construction of the spire that toppled Monday.

Hugo hoped his novel would "get people excited about the monument, and this helped in part to revitalize the monument, renovate it to how we see it in the modern day," Durand said.

Ubisoft did not respond to a question about whether it had offered its digital plans to aid the rebuilding effort. But on Wednesday, the French game-maker announced it would donate 500,000 euros, or just over $750,000, to the reconstruction effort and would allow people to download its Unity game for free on PC for one week.

"Video games can enable us to explore places in ways we never could have otherwise imagined," the company said in a statement. "We hope, with this small gesture, we can provide everyone an opportunity to appreciate our virtual homage to this monumental piece of architecture."

The cathedral forms the centrepiece of the game, which is set during the French Revolution. Recreating it fell mainly to artist Caroline Miousse, who worked with a team including Durand and a texture artist for 14 months.

Together, they combed through photos, videos, and modern and historical architectural plans to create a 3-dimensional version of the structure that could be examined from all angles.

Durand said the game's "homage" to the cathedral is largely accurate, with a few exceptions. For example, the artists chose to include the church's famous spire, despite the fact that it wasn't rebuilt until decades after the period in which the game is set.

Durand said that due to the upheaval of the time, the cathedral's 18th-century interior had a darker feel than recent visitors would have experienced.

"At first it was still a cathedral, but it became a state cathedral, then it was abandoned and used to store cannons and wares," he said. After the revolution, he said thieves pillaged the interior, and it was eventually abandoned for a short time.

"Nowadays, people don't feel that oppression when they go inside the monument."

Durand said it would be "very pleasing" if Ubisoft's work could help to rebuild the cathedral but reiterated that he doubted the mapping was needed.

As evidence, he pointed out that Miousse's realistic depiction of the cathedral was built without her having seen it in person. He said her first visit came shortly after her work on the game had been completed.

"I think it's proof they can rebuild without the help of the game, but in the meantime it's there for people to explore," he said.

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