It's not perfect, but when so many games exoticize the culture, the latest Assassin's Creed gives it some life.
All Overwatch Images courtesy Activision-Blizzard
Egypt is a popular place. Well, that’s not quite right. Ancient Egypt is a popular place. Our fascination with this ancient civilization dates back centuries, and to this day it continues to be the subject of new discoveries and inspiration for countless stories. Yet these stories rarely offer a glimpse into the long history of the country. They’re more interested in mining the myth and aesthetics of it. This is also true of video games, which thrive on mystery, discovery and exoticism—concepts frequently appear in stories of Ancient Egyptian civilization.
These depictions of Egypt often fall into the realm of what scholar Edward Said called Orientalism, an ongoing project by Europe and America to divide the world into opposing traditions of East and West. Across several disciplines, consciously or not, Orientalism creates a canon that presents the West as a tradition that espouses progress, scientific thought, and civility, while the East trafficks in spirituality, mysticism and old traditions.
You can find Orientalism in our obsession with anime and the culture of Japan, in our modern practice of yoga, or people who take a trip to India to “find themselves.” You can find it in the “clash of culture” narrative that’s justified years of military intervention in the Middle East. The intention behind these actions is irrelevant—each contributes to the project that Orientalizes these cultures, and in turn informs the way we think of them.
A recent example of this sort of process can be seen in Cuphead. Cuphead attempts to draw from early 20th century animation, while sidestepping its blatantly racist imagery. But as Yussef Cole illustrates, the history of racism takes insidious forms, and in the process of trying to scrub those elements away, it unknowingly replicates the archetypes of the era, keeping allusions to those racist depictions while whitewashing their cultural origins.
Cole focuses on Cuphead’s relationship to Jazz and Black America, but Cuphead also has similar troubles when it comes to Ancient Egyptian motifs. The stage “Pyramid Peril” depicts a boss fight against a genie, set within a background of pyramids, palm trees and hieroglyphics. Genies themselves originate from jinn, figures from Arabic and Islamic mythology, but Cuphead’s depiction, turbaned and emanating from a set of oil laps, is commonly associated with the Arabian Nights.
Above: Pyramid Peril from Cuphead
The Arabian Nights themselves are collected folk tales from across the Middle East, and it was perhaps the broadness of these tales that helped it become a key part in reducing the Middle East to its popular image today. Elements like turbans, pointed shoes and scimitars return again and again, whether it’s in Mario, Shantae, Dragon Ball, Prince of Persia, or racist caricatures of Arabs in magazines like Charlie Hebdo.
Cuphead’s soundtrack also makes reference to this history. The opening bars of “Pyramid Peril” contain a reference to “the snake charmer’s song.” There aren’t any definitive records of its origins, but the song is commonly associated with “The Streets of Cairo,” a piece of music for a stage attraction depicting a deeply stereotypical street in the Middle East, complete with camels, snake charmers, and belly dancing.
It performs a similar function in pop culture to the Oriental Riff—think of any musical theme meant to evoke China and you’ll likely know exactly what I’m talking about. The Oriental Riff’s origins even trace back to stage acts like “The Grand Chinese Spectacle of Aladdin,” which adapts the Arabian Nights story from which the story of Aladdin and the Magic Lamp originates. (Despite Disney’s popular depiction, the original story casts Aladdin as a young Chinese boy, and was mostly set in Western China).
Ancient Egypt has little in common with the Arabian Nights or China. These are distinct cultures with their own histories. Its selection here is for the popular aesthetic qualities alone. The reason this mishmash of cultures can still appear artistically coherent is because of the Orientalist tradition that organizes each of these cultures together under a collective umbrella of “the East”, erasing distinctions between them. At one point, the genie can even be seen performing a yoga meditation pose, subsuming yet another “Eastern” culture.
Ancient Egypt has little in common with the Arabian Nights or China.
This is significant because as Said explains, Orientalism requires an image of the East that shares common values and culture, lending credibility to the Orientalist who claims to know the Eastern mind. To the Orientalist, to know one culture is to be an authority on the others, and in this way the cultures of the Orient become interchangeable. Cuphead doesn’t see its caricature and pan-Eastern combination of imagery as a problem, because in the animation traditions it’s working in, they’ve always been the same culture. It that way, perhaps it truly is an authentic throwback to the era.
A playful attitude can also mask the ways media traffics in stereotypes. Cuphead certainly approaches its art in a celebratory tone, and you can see a similar joy in Super Mario Odyssey and its desert town Tostarena. Tostarena, as David Shimomura points out at Unwinnable, is a town constructed from Mexican caricature. Its residents wear ponchos and sombreros, play mariachi music, and look like calaveras. Despite that, this went largely uncommented on in critical discussions of the game, even among outlets that typically concern themselves with issues of cultural representation.
If that wasn’t enough, the surrounding playgrounds incorporate elements of Native Central and South American cultures alongside Ancient Egyptian motifs. There are pyramids that alternate between the Aztec, Mayan and Egyptian styles, adorned with patterns that use each of the cultural motifs of each interchangeably. An Egyptian style sphinx also appears, asking riddles as depicted in Greek myth. Egypt, much like the American cultures it draws from, once again exists only for its aesthetics. There’s no connective tissue between these cultures aside from the desire to use them in the creation of a desert-themed playground.
Ancient Egypt’s architecture and mythology give video games in particular a lot to draw upon for those playgrounds. Thanks to its long history, and despite the troves of artifacts and records left behind, there’s plenty we don’t know about Ancient Egypt. This has inspired a tradition of storytelling around its perceived mysticism. Mummies came back to life, curses blighted those who excavated the sites, and pyramids became elaborate mazes of death traps that housed unknowable riches. It became fodder for horror and adventure serials. Given the medium’s propensity towards tombs and dungeons, it was only natural for them to follow suit.
Persona 5 continues the traditions of these adventure stories, presenting Ancient Egypt as a natural extension of its overarching heist theme. In-game, your party is tasked with infiltrating and stealing the hearts of others, and each heart manifests as a physical location representing the person’s deepest desires. The pyramid themed heist stands out not only for how clearly it illustrates the tropes of a tomb raiding adventure, but also because it fails to relate back to the character it supposedly represents.
Dungeons up to this point represented heist tropes, but there was some effort made to give insight to each character’s hidden desires. Aside from vague rumblings about the pyramid being a tomb, Persona’s pyramid area fails to justify its role as a representation of its owner’s psyche. It feels routine, even obligatory, and repeats the usual Egyptian imagery. It’s clear that it was chosen less for its thematic relevance, and more out of desire to see a cool heist in an exotic location.
Persona and Mario Odyssey don’t fall exactly in line with Said’s conception of Orientalism, but they show the how the stories we tell about places can ingrain our images of what that place is. Japan doesn’t have the same colonial history with Egypt that Britain and France do, and their status as an exotified nation complicates its relationship with the Orient, but it does manage to propagate the images popularized by Western depictions of Egypt. These images, of the mystic, mysterious, and dangerous, have been around since early Egyptological studies, and are arguably part of the reason behind our continued fascination with the area to this day.
You can see this obsession in books like Bob Brier’s Egyptomania, which chronicles the obsession with Ancient Egypt and its artifacts through centuries of history. From the start, Brier makes clear his obsession with the culture, launching into stories of his attempts to collect every Ancient Egypt-themed object he could find, citing his obsession as his reason for becoming an Egyptologist. His collection is expansive, with everything from books to advertisements and showtunes. Ancient Egypt shows up in Victorian jewelry, pins that combine scarab motifs with the American eagle, and even Kamut Flakes, a limited time cereal sold at Trader Joes apparently grown from wheat kernels found in an Egyptian tomb.
There’s clear appropriative and fetishistic elements to these objects, and it isn’t hard to draw a line from them to the imagery seen in media like the video for Katy Perry’s Dark Horse, or Hollywood films like The Mummy.
It’s when Brier recounts his quest to find documents belonging to Waynman Dixon, a British engineer who made a discovery within the pyramids by taking a sledgehammer—without permission—to one of their chambers, that I began to feel disturbed. Brier almost goes broke trying to get his hands on these documents at auction. It's the excitement for moments like this, which prize the discoveries in Egypt over their consequences, that it becomes clear that the same passion that fuels this Egyptological obsession is one that is willing to permit its destruction.
Even the most well-meaning depictions of Egypt aren’t free from this legacy. Overwatch, which has received praise for its diverse roster and representation, falls to this same obsession with the icons of Egypt’s past.
The city of Giza appears as a playable map, but instead of the modern city that exists today, Overwatch opts to return to the same tired iconography that’s been so popular. Instead of highways and apartments, there are the same sandy structures and pyramids. It’s extra disappointing given how Overwatch avoids the usual stereotypical depictions of the Middle East and Africa in its Oasis and Numbani maps.
The problem reappears when confronted with Pharah, Overwatch’s Egyptian hero. While Pharah manages to avoid the usual appropriative, gold adorned imagery, her costume still manages to be distinctly made in the mold of Ancient Egypt. Her eye sports a tattoo of the Eye of Horus, and her costumes are made in the style of Horus and Anubis, gods of Ancient Egypt.
Each of these examples is troublesome not because of their singular impact, but because, like Orientalism generally, they flatten the existence of an entire people to easily recognizable images. Depictions of modern Egyptians barely exist in media, and when they do they’re often depicted as backwards, or in racist caricature in line with Orientalist stereotypes of the region. All of this exists within a complicated battle of claims to the racial origins of Ancient Egyptians, motivated by desires to take credit for the civilization’s achievements. Ownership of Egypt is sought both to ingrain ideas of white superiority, and to contradict it. This is why casting white actors as Egyptians is so controversial. It erases Egypt’s living people, and muddies their history.
Overwatch continues to frustrate in that regard. For a moment, it seemed that Blizzard had taken steps towards addressing these issues. One of their first additional heroes, Ana, proved to be much better in representing a modern Egyptian. Ana is largely free of Ancient Egyptian imagery, barring the Eye of Horus eye tattoo that ties her to her daughter, Pharah. In addition, Ana is voiced by Aysha Selim, an actual Egyptian voice actress, and speaks Arabic—and not just when on the enemy team.
Listening to her friendly voice lines, you can hear that she’s using an Egyptian dialect. For me, this was momentous. For over a decade, Arabic has been the voice of the enemy, shouted in barks from cannon fodder out to kill you. Overwatch had, for once, allowed me to hear Arabic as I knew it. I didn’t even realize those phrases were specific to the Egyptian dialect at first, they were just the way I had always heard Arabic spoken.
Of course, this is Blizzard, so a good thing can’t go unanswered. They quickly undid any good will when they made Pharah’s father Native American, a detail confirmed within some throwaway text in an artbook. Since release, Blizzard had drawn fire for Pharah’s Thunderbird costume, which collected a mishmash of aesthetics from various Native American tribes, and was assigned to Pharah for seemingly no reason. Pharah’s Native father was retroactively introduced to justify this appropriative costume, and in the eyes of many fans it did, meaning they could go back to liking her without it being “problematic.”
It felt like Blizzard had personally spat in my eye.
Instead of owning up to their mistake and letting it lie, Blizzard had instead used the outside canon of the game to justify its folly. Nevermind the Native people who the skin continued to make uncomfortable, or the way this fact would be used to speak over their concerns. Forget about all the cosplayers who would be running around in the costume that erased the lines between the several distinct Native cultures it drew from. Not only had they given people ammo to dismiss arguments against, but they’d also used the ambiguity of mixed-race identity to do it.
It felt like Blizzard had personally spat in my eye.
I’m mixed race. I grew up in a household where I was Egyptian, Filipino, Muslim, Christian and American all at once. Like so many mixed-race children, I have plenty of stories of how this ambiguous identity caused me pain.
Being mixed race means not knowing who you belong with. It means feeling like you aren’t enough of one identity or the other. When you’re mixed race being told you have one of your parents’ eyes isn’t an observation, but evidence towards what you’re supposed to be. My racial ambiguity keeps me from being recognized as the race I actually am, and is something I’ve used to delude myself in my desperate need to find others to identify with. For Blizzard to use those experiences as a throwaway justification for their mediocre costume is an insult.
This frustration compounds with the knowledge that I’ll never be what people expect an Egyptian to look like. Even if I looked more like my father, or my other family, I’ll never be Egyptian enough. Not until I’m decked out in gold jewelry and eyeliner will I resemble what the people around me think of as Egyptians. This obsession with Egypt’s ancient past has overwritten the reality of its people today. Search for anything on Egypt and you’ll find it overwhelmingly made up of images of a past civilization.
There is no room for my images of Egypt, with its strict lines of poverty and wealth, of net cafes loaded with hacked versions of Grand Theft Auto 3. There’s no room for my memories of incredible street food, of eating halabessa and koshari during Ramadan. Memories of pita so hot out the oven my grandfather had to carry them home cradled in his galabeya.
There’s no space for the Egyptians who carry the history of French and British occupation and cultural theft. No room for the Egypt that organized efforts through social media to overthrow its corrupt president, Hosni Mubarak. The same Egypt that continues to be destabilized by that revolution, that exists in the region perpetually brought to ruin by US military intervention.
The Egyptian people who live today don’t exist here. Their lives have been overwritten by the image of an Egypt that never truly existed.
I once felt pride for my origins. I used to enjoy looking through oversized books full of facts and diagrams about the ancient world. Ancient Egypt just started to lose its luster when I heard the same tired jokes about Egypt, when people kept asking me if I Walk Like an Egyptian, read hieroglyphics or live in a pyramid. It becomes clear you aren’t a person but a concept when you’re told by a well meaning white man how beautiful Egypt is and how much he loves Lawrence of Arabia—all while you’re at work printing his book on being an American Poet in China.
Never had I felt more Oriental.
Curiously, it’s in the recent Assassin’s Creed Origins that I found some reprieve. Origins carries with it the heritage of Orientalism, of the mystic Egypt and the overzealous Egyptological obsession. As Christian Donlan explains in his Eurogamer review, by setting it during Ptolemaic Egypt, Origins can explore both a living Egypt and the one receding into myth.
Origins has fights with Ancient Egyptian gods and takes plenty of liberties, but it shows an image of a specific historical moment in the civilization. It gave me a sense not only of the myth, but of the people’s everyday existence, the way they lived, and the way they interacted. I could find the people fishing, witness the irrigation systems they used to pull water from the Nile, and see how pressures from the Roman Empire drove them to seek assimilation. There’s a real sense of society.
Then it returned me to the modern world, where I played as Layla Hassan, a modern Egyptian researcher. Layla is headstrong, passionate and if I’m honest, kind of unlikable. But she’s a far cry from the caricatures that I’m used to seeing. She has a real history. She was born in Cairo and immigrated to Queens, where she grew up. Her emails and photos give insight to her personal relationships and her attitude. Here, the Animus, Assassin’s Creed’s meta-narrative framing, finally hit home. Here was a modern Egyptian-American, playing in her own ancient history, the same way I was, here at home.
Origins makes it clear that these aren’t her direct descendants, and in a similar way, I still feel that disconnect of this Egypt not feeling like “my history.” That history has long been taken away and overwritten.
But for a moment, it gave me a glimpse back into the pride I felt as a kid, at the civilizations that came before me, and the way I continue to write the history of Egypt today.