When it comes to creating a rich storyline, Ubisoft's Assassins Creed has never fallen short in its ability to weave its plot with historical accuracy. One of Its major selling points that sets itself apart from others in the sandbox genre stems from the players' ability to explore both renaissance and medieval eras. In this respect, the game creates wonder as interesting as the history that created it. "Time travel" as it takes place in Assassins Creed is rationalized with the mysterious and ergonomic Animus. The technology behind this machine (as it is explained in the game) is derived from an ability to tap into hidden memories in a person's DNA and let them play out as waking "dreams" of ancestors past.
The truth is that there is a surprising amount of good science that can be fleshed out of this concept to make a rather believable (albeit still far fetched) piece of science fiction. Hopefully by introducing these ideas, one can see that the Animus can serve as more than a game developer's dream for tying level design to time travel, and underline the importance of good science in narrative.
What you should know about your DNA
Briefly, DNA is a chemical blueprint necessary to create life in every living organism in the form of four chemicals that form an alphabet capable of storing information. It is rather relevant to the story of Assassins Creed, because its nature for storing hereditary information is used to rationalize the exploration of Desmond Miles's ancestry. In truth, our genome (the collection of all our DNA and genetic information) encodes a wealth of information of which we understand very little. Interestingly, how your genome adapts and changes over centuries has created a factual basis to understand where in the world you are coming from and how your interactions with your environment tells a story about you and your ancestry.
Mapping an Assassins' journey across the world with DNA
Over the 100 thousand years we've been around we've moved around quite a bit around the world. As a result, populations of humans that have stuck around in one place long enough over several generations have collected their share of region specific mutations or changes to their DNA that form the basis of genetic markers for a given region of the world. This genetic variation has been mapped around the world by several groups and even implemented for those interested in their own history. Needless to say, with today's technology, it is possible to take Desmond Miles' DNA and let him know his lineage and the time his ancestors spent in the Middle East, Mediterranean and in the New World.
Epigenetics: The ghost in our DNA
The idea of genetic memories come into play rather often in Assassins Creed by playing levels as unexplored sequences of DNA. Truth be told the sequence of your DNA doesn't tell as deep as a story as Assassins Creed has led us to believe, after all you share at least 90% of that sequence with most primates and they haven't changed the course of our history. In fact, an even deeper story has recently revealed modifications that occur to DNA in response to environmental change.
The modifications that don't involve direct changes to sequence encompass a rather newer field known as epigenetics. In about the last 5 years alone epigenetic changes have been documented to show unique signatures that flag important changes in life history in one individual or across generations. These signatures can reflect how your parents raised you, if you were rich/poor, or even the type of diet your grandparents had. In 2010 scientists from Alabama even discovered evidence showing that these modifications may even form the basis of real molecular memories in your brain.
Needless to say if the animus is capable of physically monitoring your DNA for memories it would be monitoring epigenetic modifications to your DNA.
Televising recalled memories
When monitoring Desmond's lineage both you as the player and NPC companions follow each image seen through Desmond's eyes as he lives through his ancestry like a waking dream. The process itself required Desmond to actively recall a memory before it could be viewed by an audience in the present. In its essence it allowed for the real time monitoring of a dream or internal imagery.
The idea of projecting images has in fact been the focus of Berkeley researchers interested in communicating with patients in a coma, with stroke or other neurodegenerative diseases. Impressively, in the last year they successfully decoded visual information in the brain using fMRI (by monitoring blood flow and neural activity in the visual cortex of the brain) and computer algorithms to reconstruct images in the mind. In its essence, this study could replicate dynamic imagery from a library (From previous brain scans) and allow them to decode new images presented to a subject. it has opened the door to several other studies, which may bring us closer to our 'dreams'.
Imagining Desmond had been living his memories as vividly as reality, the visual cortex of his brain would be processing information that could be interpreted in a similar way by the animus, thus televising his lineage as it plays out for Desmond and friends.
By introducing the geographical and environmental imprint that can occur on DNA you can imagine the what and where of your personal history. Additionally with epigenetics playing a role in formation of memories in the brain and real time imaging of visual processes in your brain you can piece together the rational makings of a very expensive and likely slow Animus. Patrice Desilets of then-Ubisoft should be proud of his creation and the hidden nuggets of science that can make a fictional fantasy something closer to a reality. Maybe one day the animus can become a practical reality, but probably not.
That being said who knows what other secrets your DNA may be hiding from you?
Sebastian Alvarado is molecular biologist at McGill University and Science Media Consultant at Thwacke! Consulting. Follow him @ThwackeMontreal and Thwacke.com