Assassin’s Creed Origins and the fantasy of history
Yes, you can stab people, but the appeal for Assassin’s Creed has always seemed to be how it offers up a tangible vision of Western history that can be grasped, mastered and beaten. It’s a world built of comprehensive systems that make complex, culturally incongruous times seem understandable. It’s the fantasy of knitting together Charles Dickens, Leonardo Da Vinci and Robespierre into a simple knot.
For the next game in the series, Ubisoft is dialing the clock back to Ptolemaic Egypt, to tell a story that promises to elucidate the foundations of the series’ Assassin’s brotherhood, and in doing so add another piece of twine to its rolled-up ball of history. Not only this, but the game will be the first Assassin’s Creed title to come with its own non-combat “Discovery Tour” mode, purely dedicated to facilitating educational tours of its virtual sprawl, curated by actual historians.
Indeed, Assassin’s Creed Origins sees Ubisoft making more of its historical source material compared to recent periods approached by the series, which is interesting given the relative scarcity of information on Ancient Egypt. Jean Guesdon, the game’s creative director, tells me that focusing on a remote time period brought challenges in finding proper documentation to guide the storytelling, but that the dearth of records also brought benefits in terms of writing a story: “One being that grey zones of history allow for more interpretation and creative narrative expression.”
“This is why we picked the ascension to the throne of Queen Cleopatra,” he explains. “It is a moment that is not known by many people, so we had room to tell our Origins story without being too constrained by events that took place after and were more documented.”
Ancient Egypt is an empty room for the game’s writers, then. Or at least, an emptier room than 18th-century France or 19th-century England, both of which are laden with reams of historical documents, newspapers and literature. The relative lack of records gives Origins’ creators more liberty to weave their own version of reality; peppering recognisable names and places amongst an origin-tale for the series’ own mythology.
“By doing that we’re providing what longtime fans were craving for – explanations of some iconic elements like the feather ritual, the importance of the eagle or the creation of the tenets – while sending the signal to newcomers, who might potentially be reluctant to dive in a franchise with an already established lore, that the game will welcome them warmly,” says Guesdon.
The game’s allure, then, deep beneath the blades and slit throats, is comprehension. Players will be able to explore and uncover the birthplace of Assassin’s Creed’s story, and along the way learn about the roots of Western civilisation. You could go so far as to say that Ubisoft has long been allying one with the other; weaving Assassin’s Creed’s own mythology with that of the real-world societies we inhabit, from the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution. The distant past, its reverberations across the subsequent millennia, are made lucid. And you get to stab people while you’re at it.
An impression of reality
All of this is pushed along in Origins by what Guesdon describes as an “AI framework”, where non-player characters (NPCs) work, socialise, eat, go to the bathroom and sleep based on their experiences in the world. If a player upsets an NPC, it will even affect how well they sleep.
“If NPCs get in conflict with the player, with other NPCs or wild animals, they will remain stressed even after the event and that might even change their agenda, so, instead of sleeping, they will stay in alert and patrol,” says Guesdon. “This is one of the examples of how we revamped our AI so it feels much more organic and credible.”
He adds that this will hopefully make their recreation of Ancient Egypt “much more realistic”, which is an intriguing idea when you consider the possibility of turning all the combat off, and treating Origins like a historical simulation of an ancient society. It’s suddenly quite a lot of responsibility for a game to have; to profess to be an accurate reflection of people’s lives in the past, but one that is ultimately built from the ground up around the power fantasy of role-playing an assassin.
A sleepless NPC, anxious at the thought of crocodiles, is a fine detail, but is there ultimately too much death in Assassin’s Creed’s DNA to simulate life?
Are those two ambitions incompatible? The “Discovery Tour” mode is a nice gesture towards the series allure, not only as a murder-filled sandbox but as a site for making sense of history’s cause and effect. And yet, even with combat removed, are the systems of Assassin’s Creed too inherently based around the viewpoint of a killer? Systems are rarely neutral, and while the series’ rendition of history is a satisfying fantasy, what happens if its version of Ancient Egypt is reframed as a museum piece? A sleepless NPC, anxious at the thought of crocodiles, is a fine detail, but is there ultimately too much death in Assassin’s Creed’s DNA to simulate life?
Regardless of how it pans out as an educational tool, Origins’ version of Ancient Egypt will ultimately remain a quasi-historical reverie. The Assassin’s Creed series has spent much of its ten-year existence connecting pieces of string between different historical periods, from the Third Crusades to Victorian England, via Renaissance Italy and Colonial America. These are games that present the player with expansive exoticisms; virtual sprawls that buoy pulpy fiction with a nexus of factual figures and places. In them, the vast weight of history becomes as light as feather, as easily traversed as the parkour playgrounds they inhabit.