When Ubisoft announced that the sequel in their Assassin’s Creed series would be based in ancient Egypt, Egyptophiles around the world heard the news with much delight, including the Nile Scribes. Assassin’s Creed: Origins was released in October 2017, and our colleague, Emily Hotton, has written a review of the game for our blog. In a second installment, she takes a closer look at a new feature only released last month: Discovery Mode, which allows the player to explore the world without any of the dangers you experience in regular gameplay.
Guest Scribe: Emily Hotton
The Assassin’s Creed Franchise
Assassin’s Creed: Origins is the latest installment – the 10th – in the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Developed and published by Ubisoft (a popular video game developer centred in France with a branch in Montréal), the Assassin’s Creed epic records a millennia-long battle between the Assassin’s Guild and the Templar Order. Throughout the majority of the games, the protagonist is modern-day Desmond Miles, a descendent of the Assassin’s Order and test subject for Abstergo, an organization covertly operated by the modern-day Templars. Desmond relives the memories of his ancestors, from the 12th Century Third Crusades to 18th century Colonial America, through the use of a virtual reality simulator, the Animus.
In Origins, Egyptian-born and former Abstergo employee Layla Hassan is reliving the memories of Bayek of Siwa, an assassin of the original order, self-proclaimed “Medjay,” and resident of Ptolemaic Egypt during the fall of the country to the Roman Empire. The game begins its journey in Siwa in 49 BCE, during the reigns of siblings Ptolemy XIII Theos Philopator and the famous Cleopatra VII.
Video Games, Entertainment, and Ancient Egypt
When I first began playing Origins in October, I was conflicted. A part of me was excited that a popular, widespread and accredited video game developer and game franchise had decided to delve into my passion for their newest addition. The other part of me was very worried that the game would completely and utterly misconstrue all parts of ancient Egyptian history and culture, further perpetuating the false nuances that the few popular culture sensations about ancient Egypt have started and reinforced repeatedly (I’m looking at you, The Mummy). I am pleased to say I was well and truly blown away by the attention to detail and mastery the developers devoted to making Assassin’s Creed: Origins.
It is important to say that while I am overwhelmed in my respect for the game developers and my enjoyment in playing the game itself, these types of things should be taken with a grain of salt. The entire premise of the Assassin’s Creed series is a modern-day protagonist reliving ancestral memories embedded in their DNA through a virtual reality simulator, to connect with a prehistoric, advanced, technologically futuristic ancient civilization that predated human existence. None of that is scientifically or historically accurate or even possible in reality.
As the game itself is huge—in both area and storyline—I‘ve narrowed my thoughts down to a few points, broken down into two sections: what was good and what could have been better.
What Was Done Well
(1) Landscape & Scenery
While graphics have more to do with the technological advancement of the video game industry, I feel the developers rendered the landscape of ancient Egypt, from the sandy deserts to the bustling metropolis, beautifully. The common perception of ancient Egypt is influenced by the modern country we know today—sandy, hot, with derelict monuments of times bygone made of plain, carved, stone. In the game, this is not so: temples were depicted beautiful painted from top to bottom, hieroglyphs cascading down every surface with white washed backgrounds to emphasize their shapes. The lushness of the Nile Delta was seamlessly depicted, and compared to the many desert included in the playable map, the contrast was breathtaking, something that is still true if you visit Egypt today.
(2) Egyptology “Easter Eggs”
There were some aspects—little pieces here and there—that most likely do not mean much to the average gamer playing Origins, but really made me appreciate the research that went into developing the game world. I like to think of these as “Easter eggs” – intentional inside jokes inserted by the developers that only the keenest eye will catch. Some things I could not capture physically, such as the first time a little merchant boy called me “good neb.” Neb means “lord” or “master” in ancient Egyptian, and to hear it thrown so casually into minor game dialogue was a true delight. I took many, many screen captures and photos of my little finds – below are some of the most interesting ones I came across during my quests.
Amarna-style art in the tomb of Smenkhare
While traversing the “Haeuris Nome” in the game, and particularly while exploring the Tomb of Smenkhkare, I stumbled across this representation of Amarna-style art. In the Eighteenth Dynasty (1,539-1,292 BC) king Akhenaten (born Amenhotep IV, r. 1353 – 1336 BC) transformed state religion from polytheism to a form of henotheism – an unprecedented change. Akhenaten worshipped the Aten, the sun disk, and moulded all Egyptian religion during his reign around the deity. During this time, art transformed tremendously. While traditional Egyptian art was rigid and orderly, art in the Amarna age had a tendency to be more fluid, generating a sense of movement previously unseen. You can see in the screenshot the peculiar curved lines, large, bulbous head, and the rays of the Aten shining down on the figure—all very recognizable Amarna features. Smenkhare lived during the Amarna period, so discovering these reliefs in his tomb was a charming level of accuracy I had not expected.
Experiencing a festival procession
While wandering the Faiyum, players can visit the Temple to Sobek-Re in the Ptolemaic Dionysias (modern Qasr Qarun). Sobek is the crocodile god, the lord of the Faiyum and his city, Krokopodolis. I stumbled across a wonderful activity while passing by the temple—a procession of priests, dancers, and musicians, carrying an adorned sacred barque (boat) towards the temple and holding a statue of a kneeling baboon wearing a crescent-moon headdress. While the temple is dedicated to Sobek-Re, Thoth—god of scribes and knowledge—sits in the barque heading towards the temple. Thoth is usually depicted as an ibis or an ibis-headed man, but as he is a moon god, he can at times be depicted as a baboon, which are associated with dawn due to their common chattering at the sunrise. I stayed in the area, watching the procession as a whole in amazement. Unfortunately, Bayek was randomly attacked by Greek soldiers and the priests, dancers, and musicians fled, so I was unable to see the ending of the procession—needless to say, I wasn’t pleased.
What Could Have Been Better
(1) The Medjay
Bayek of Siwa is allegedly a Medjay, and the last of them remaining in Egypt. Medjay were originally mercenaries as early as the Sixth Dynasty (2,305-2,118 BC) in the Old Kingdom. They had a comeuppance in the Second Intermediate Period (1,759-1,539 BC) as vital scouts and infantrymen for kings Kamose and Ahmose. While these Nubian men of the sword were effectively the state police of the New Kingdom, they are not mentioned in Egyptian sources past the 20th Dynasty (1,190-1,077 BC). The 20th Dynasty ended approximately 700 years before Alexander the Great’s conquest of Egypt.
To explain that Bayek could be a descent of the earlier Medjay of Egypt is a stretch as well; the Medjay were a Nubian Pan-Grave people, while Bayek hails from Siwa (an oasis in the eastern Libyan Desert), not in the south in the equivalent of modern-day Sudan. I think the Medjay were a vaguely recognizable ancient people, and somewhat fantasized as mysterious, desert-traversing men, that was used as an easy-out to explain Bayek’s above-average physical abilities and prowess in combat. Personally, I would have preferred they use a less stereotypical explanation and designation for our protagonist.
(2) Historical Setting
While not technically something that “needed improvement,” I feel the historical setting chosen for the game is very stereotypical. When the general audience thinks of ancient Egypt, they then think of a few common things: the Giza pyramids, Tutankhamun, Ramesses II, and Cleopatra. Yes, the time of Cleopatra and Mark Anthony is full of intrigue, treason, and plot (no gunpowder here!), but Egyptian history is so vast that I would have liked to see the game developers explore a lesser-known period. There are thousands of years of Egyptian history prior to Cleopatra VII, when the Egyptians reigned supreme over the known world and flourished at the height of their empire on both the military and artistic stages.
It would have been just as interesting, less stereotypical, and more educational, to have the game set during the Amarna period, or one of Egypt’s ‘intermediate periods.’ For example, setting the game in the Second Intermediate Period would still have the intrigue of a civil war—between the Theban 17th Dynasty Kings and the foreign Hyksos rulers in the Delta—but would end with Egypt triumphing over their oppressors and opening a new period of Egyptian history to general audiences that they may not have been familiar with before. While I admit the way they integrated ancient Egyptian history into the greater plot of the Assassin’s Creed storyline was well done, like with the Medjay debacle, I feel the developers relied on something vaguely recognizable instead of exploring more options and perhaps further educating players on other periods of ancient Egyptian history.
I really enjoyed Assassin’s Creed: Origins. For a game I was at first hesitant to delve into, I believe it translated ancient Egypt and all its splendours – even in the decline of its empire – beautifully. It is clear that the developers spent much time, effort, and funding into ensuring their product was as historically accurate as possible, and doing everyone’s favourite ancient civilization justice. While there are parts I would change, there is so much to praise about the content I couldn’t possibly list it all in one review. From the beautiful landscape, to those little “Egyptology Easter eggs,” I was blown away by the execution of this game set in my most beloved subject. If you’re an Egyptophile, I urge you to buy, borrow, or rent this game just for the experience of walking through an incredible imagining of ancient Egypt.
Emily Hotton has a Master of Arts in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations from the University of Toronto. She works in Student Life at the University of Toronto, is an avid video game player, and has volunteered at the Royal Ontario Museum. In 2016, she presented her research paper, “Divine Queenships and its Development in Dynasty I-VI” at the NMCGSA’s 20th Annual Graduate Students’ Symposium.