The Best Part of 'Assassin's Creed Origins' Has Nothing to Do With Killing
The cycle of violence and vengeance is alive and well in 'Origins,' but its best moments are quieter.
All images courtesy Ubisof
Assassin’s Creed Origins wants to end. It is a quest for vengeance, after all, and vengeance itself is the yearning for an ending, a putting to rest, a knife in a heart. Yet the protagonist of the game, Bayek of Siwa, does not seem to immediately match up to the demands of a vengeance plot. He’s a Medjay, a sort of anachronistic sheriff in Ptolemaic Egypt (circa 43 BCE). He likes to laugh, and he’s the friendliest main character we’ve had in an Assassin’s Creed game.
He’s also someone who unerringly, and with unimaginable violence, pursues the vengeance that the plot requires. He’s also a brutal political operator, taking Cleopatra’s side in the ongoing Egyptian civil war between her and her brother, the enthroned Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII.
History is the playground of the Assassin’s Creed games, and Origins adheres to the series’s primary conceit: you, the player, are the most important figure in history. Our historical understanding of what happened during the time period of the game was really moved and shaken by the powerful protagonist of the game, and so Bayek seamlessly moves between political dealings and his own ruthless goal of hunting those who have wronged him.
The familiar narrative beats appear early on, of course. There is an incitement to violence; a list of targets is developed; Bayek carves his way through those people in order to find those who are truly to blame, and ultimately murders his way to the top of the food chain. Origins seems to know that this eternal repetition has been exhausting, and so the beginning of that repetition is brought to light so that we can understand what exactly has been repeating in the waves of vengeance over all of these years.
Players have been foiling the same plots for a decade. We’ve been killing reskinned arch villains so long that it becomes unclear where one plot begins and another ends. Being an Assassin’s Creed fan—which I am—means living in a cycle of sameness that is either frustrating or incredibly comforting (depending on the player).
As a franchise, Assassin’s Creed often sells itself as meta-textual historical intrigue, but the games themselves are more like soap operas. It’s easy to make a lot of assumptions around that statement, so let me be as clear in saying that this is a positive thing. Assassin’s Creed does the same work for us that soap operas do. It gives us a familiar world with characters and character types who repeat over time. It rewards time investment in the entire franchise, but also every entry is accessible to a casual fan who just happens to be around for one game. And, most like the soap opera, Assassin’s Creed games use a limited set of narrative tropes to power its stories. For Days of Our Lives, it is the two prime motivators of seduction and betrayal; for our Assassins and Templars, it is murder and revenge.
What makes Origins different from the other games in the series is the shape of its revenge. It is the specificity, after all, that might make you play this game instead of another. In Assassin’s Creed II, a Templar attack on his family drives Ezio to vengeance; Ratonhnhaké:ton’s village is burned to the ground by Templar colonists in Assassin’s Creed III; Black Flag’s Edward Kenway sets out on a recreation of The Count of Monte Cristo after being betrayed and left for dead. Ubisoft is clear that personal tragedy is what drives the plot of an Assassin’s Creed game.
Bayek is no different, but his tragedy is sharper. This is the scene: He is being interrogated at swordpoint. His son is there, captured. Bayek is able to turn a knife around on his enemies, and it becomes a contest of strength. Bayek is pushing the blade with all of his might, and his enemy is blocking it in that classic action film way. At the last second, his opponent simply turns the blade. It glides to the side of its intended target and into his son Khemu. Bayek becomes a filicide. It is a crime that is unimaginably horrible, and an accident that one might never be able to recover from.
Bayek’s journey is one of vengeance fueled by grief and rage. It is also one that puts him at the center of history. And, further, it presents us with a complicated picture of its time period. This is a difficult balancing act of narrative finesse and gameplay design, and I would be lying if I said that it worked consistently through the game. It works more often than it doesn’t, though, and much of that has to do with the developments in Ubisoft’s school of game design that have happened between 2015’s Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate and 2017’s Origins. The Division, Ghost Recon Wildlands, and Watch Dogs 2 all have a clear design presence in this game.
I think that this might be the root of some of the claims that have been floating around that Origins is a “reboot” (it isn’t). Like all of the previous games in the franchise, the player is meant to move from location to location hunting all of the members of the Order, Bayek’s sworn enemies. The major cities of ancient Egypt, from Alexandria to Memphis, are represented here, and each of them has their own set of side missions and main plot content that helps tease out how their particular member of the Order is oppressing them in a unique way.
The open world presented here is not significantly different from a game like Assassin’s Creed II in anything other than scale, but the mode of engagement with that world is radically new for the franchise. Despite having a fairly limited set of gameplay mechanics, Origins requires the player to interact with its world in unique, even touching, ways—and the already striking world of classical Egypt is more beautiful for it.
There is a mission in the first third of the game where some people are standing on the side of a dusty road by a cart. A woman is weeping, and a man hails Bayek. Bandits recently entered the area, and they disturbed a group of hippos. These hippos rampaged through the fields of the local village, and they ended up killing several farmers and villagers who were attempting to flee. In many games, this would be a mission to kill the hippos and exact vengeance. In Origins, we are tasked with finding the bodies of the dead, lifting them over our shoulders, and returning them to the cart so that they can be identified. Ultimately, this launches a significant side quest to rescue someone and defend the village, but this introductory quest has stuck with me. I’ve never been given such a mundane and yet communally important quest in a video game.
There is another mission, near the end of the game this time, that is about raising political awareness. The average Egyptian in Bayek’s time in multiply oppressed beneath class, religious difference, race, ethnicity, and a complex interrelation between Greek and Roman economics and social dynamics that aren’t accurately accounted for in the qualities at the beginning of this sentence.
We see this play out dozens of times in as many ways over the course of the game, but in this one particular mission it is up to Bayek to go recruit some farmers to help put political pressure on the ruling order. When he arrives to spread the good news, the farmer in question isn’t having any of it. He needs to burn his crops to fertilize his field; no matter what is happening now, he’s in trouble if he can’t grow anything and feed himself a year from now. So Bayek has to take out his torch and put it to the large flammable piles of detritus. Only then, when the work of daily life is done, is it possible to rise up. Bayek’s infinite free time as a Medjay, a protector, means that he can pitch in and do his share to help everyone in the long run.
There are more moments like those, but it would be stealing something special to go through them all. I constantly mourn the fact that contemporary blockbuster games have very few ways for players to interact with the world around them. For the most part, we can choose to kill things or not kill them (or, maybe, throw things at people or not throw those things).It’s in this context that Assassin’s Creed Origins asks me to help care for the dead, to aid a farmer. The world of this game radically expands and becomes more engaging when the actions that a player can perform move beyond stalking and killing over and over again.
And, to be clear, that is still the majority of the game, and a retooled combat system with counters, light attacks, heavy attacks, and all of the other things you might want from an action game, is here. You can fight in gladiatorial arenas. You can kill to your heart’s content. But the dominance of one kind of action is being nudged out of the way, a little, and with a great amount of care.
These novel, mundane tasks are wrapped inside of the familiar repetition of the series. You go to a major city, talk to your informant there, and then murder your way up the ladder until you find your Order target. This is, again, the fundamental rhythm of the soap opera. Instead of falling in love, it is doing an investigation. Instead of romantic betrayal, it is a murder. But then you do it again, with the same amount of familiarity, and you find comfort in that familiarity.
More than any other game series, Assassin’s Creed is a balancing act. It’s impossible to get right 100% of the time, but Origins gets close to a perfect experience. This is a game that knows what it is. It knows your expectations of it, and it delivers. You get the terrible tragedy and the revenge tale. You get the soap opera format that has made this franchise so successful at entry after entry for an entire decade. But you also get an attempt at a portrait of a time and a place, with its fields and flowers and markets and livestock, and the scale and level of care in presentation is, frankly, unmatched across games today.
There was a joke, at one point, about Ubisoft’s design ideals. In its various forms, the joke was about how Ubisoft continues to deliver the same maps crammed with content, the same stories, and the same characters. And yet it is precisely this repetition that has delivered Origins to us. The reflexivity of this franchise, and its recognition of the power of the logic of the soap opera, has managed to deliver something greater than the sum of its parts.