Assassin’s Creed Origins is a reinvention and modernisation of the Assassin’s Creed experience in more than just gameplay. It also mixes up the franchise’s formula in terms of its protagonists and their characterisation.
Historically, the Assassin’s Creed games have done a relatively decent job in this regard. There’s been slow but steady progress in terms of representational diversity. Apart from a game director’s notorious comment that women were too difficult to animate – and therefore include as playable characters – in Assassin’s Creed Unity, the third-person action adventure franchise has broken the “white(-looking) twenty-something guy hero” mould several times before.
We can’t forget that Altair in the very first Assassin’s Creed had both European and Arabic heritage, and that in Assassin’s Creed III, a half-English-half-Mohawk hero called Connor / Ratonhnhaké:ton helped along American Independence. Then, of course, there’s Evie Frye in 2014’s Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, set in Victorian London. Evie shared protagonist status with her twin brother Jacob, but the Master Assassin is notable for being the first playable female character in the main AC series. In spin-off games, French-African Aveline de Grandpré and Chinese Shao Jun actually preceded Evie. Meanwhile, tough guy Trinidad slave-turned-pirate-assassin Adéwalé got a starring role in the Black Flag DLC, Freedom Cry.
Assassin’s Creed Origins – out next Friday, 27 October – is also shaking things up. Even though Origins chronicles the beginnings of the Assassin Brotherhood in Ancient Egypt, the game’s protagonist Bayek isn’t another young adult just starting to embrace his violent life’s work. He’s a surprisingly complex figure, made that way through age and experience. An actual grown-up!
From the far-flung desert oasis of Siwa, Bayek is a native Egyptian already in his thirties. He’s a seasoned, scarred, somewhat jaded warrior – the last of an ancient order of paramilitary protectors known as Medjays. In an Egypt where the old ways are being replaced by newer customs (thanks to Greek and growing Roman influence), Bayek is a dinosaur. Or, more accurately, he’s as much a relic as an Old Kingdom pyramid.
Unsure of his place in this changing world, Bayek still performs his duty, essentially acting as a sheriff as he keeps the peace, helps the community, and generally defends the powerless from the cruel and corrupt. And did I mention he likes cats? Bayek is a good guy, who does the right, responsible thing. But that doesn’t mean he’s not world-weary. Kudos to the writers and voice actor Abubakar Salim for running a strain of cynicism through much of Bayek’s dialogue in the demo builds.
With Bayek, Assassin’s Creed Origins consciously aligns character and game tone for a new player experience, as Origins director Ashraf Ismail explains.
“This was very purposeful. We wanted to treat the tone of the game slightly differently. We wanted something a bit more mature; not necessarily to mean that it’s somehow more violent. It’s actually to say that we wanted a treatment that was more mature and adult in a sense.”
A big part of that maturity comes through in another interesting difference about Bayek: he’s married. This makes him pretty unique as far as video game heroes go, although there’s more to his marital status than simple novelty. Central to the story of Assassin’s Creed Origins is the conflict of opinion between Bayek and his wife Aya. Half-Greek-half-Egyptian Aya has been trained in Medjay ways by Bayek since her teens. But while she is an ardent supporter of exiled queen Cleopatra (at war with her brother Ptolemy XIII), cautious Bayek is much more hesitant to declare his loyalty.
Ismail describes the dynamic between Bayek and Aya, and what it brings to Assassin’s Creed Origins:
“We saw the value of including relationships that are complicated, and that you can connect with. What we wanted to play with is the idea that these are two people with love and passion for one another, with a similar objective, but who have slightly different points of view.
How do people who respect one another, love one another while looking at the world slightly differently, approach the same objective? The idea was giving us a lot of drama and friction, at the same time as compassion and love. And this creates a really wonderful, deep dynamic.”
Crucially, it’s also Bayek and Aya’s marriage that “gives birth” to the Brotherhood of Assassins, a secret global organisation that defends the principle of free will, and is central to the entire Assassin’s Creed franchise (as the Assassins oppose the control-obsessed Templars). In fact, Ismail says that the development team “started with a couple, and went from there.”
“That was the whole goal; that it was adding to the tone and the signature of the narrative. We wanted really two powerful characters who can show this journey of two people leading to the birth of something powerful in the end. A husband and wife giving birth to something – we sort of romanticised that idea a little bit.”
It may not be subtle symbolism, but it demonstrates another way that Assassin’s Creed Origins is attempting something new and ambitious with its series refresh. From top to bottom, the game looks meaty, well-thought-out and character strong.
For the record, there will be two other playable characters in Assassin’s Creed Origins besides Bayek. Fierce Aya (who’s getting her own collectible statuette) seems like a logical choice, although the identities (including genders) of these secondary leads remain a secret at this point – less than two weeks to worldwide release.
Last Updated: October 18, 2017