I mentioned in my Game of the Year article about Persona 5 a few weeks ago that I hadn’t had a chance to play a lot of new games in 2017. One of those, however, was Assassin’s Creed: Origins, which I received as a birthday present. I streamed bits and pieces of that game as I played it and shared some video clips and screenshots from it on my twitter account as I went. If you followed along you’ll have noticed that this was still very much a Ubisoft game, with everything that entails. In case you’re unfamiliar with Ubisoft’s typical release the high points are that it had lots of weird texture bugs; just so, so many map icons begging for you to clear them, and – specifically in the case of Assassin’s Creed games – a really interesting faux-historical plot backed by an incomprehensible mess of a modern day or near-future plot.
— Hokius (@Hokius) December 10, 2017
For those of you who don’t want to read spoilers just know that Assassin’s Creed Origins does not require you to play any of the previous games in the series to enjoy it’s story. If you’re at all a fan of open-world RPGs or previous Assassin’s Creed games I can easily recommend this game. Spoilers for the Assassin’s Creed series and Origins in particular, coming up next!
Since the bugs this time around were amusing, rather than terrifying, the biggest flaw in this game was absolutely the modern day plot. I actually defended the split stories of the original Assassin’s Creed which had you spend a fair bit of time as Desmond Miles, descendant of a famous assassin, unlocking various secrets and learning about Abstergo. His plot didn’t do much – as opposed to Altaïr’s story which had a distinct beginning, middle, and end and followed a typical video game variation of the hero’s journey where the arrogant hero loses all of his abilities and/or equipment and must earn them again – but it seemed primed to set up some interesting stuff in future games.
Plus it had Kristen Bell which is never a bad thing!
Without going into to much more detail the following games in the Desmond Miles saga improved upon the formula of the original in many ways but the modern story was not one of them. It became more and more incomprehensible, turned Kristen Bell’s character into a villain and then killed her without any discussion or a chance for the player to process it, and ultimately ended with Desmond Miles choosing to sacrifice himself for humanity in a moment that was very confusing if for no other reason than this pre-determined plot point at first appeared to be a player choice. Beyond the ending, the game was loaded with poor design decisions, burned me out on the Ubisoft mapTM, and did not provide any characters that I found interesting beyond Desmond – who, as previously noted, is ripped out of the player’s hands at the last moment. I can’t speak to any of the other Assassin’s Creed games between III and Origins as this is the first one I’ve bothered to pick up since that disastrous day.
The modern day plot in Origins, though, starts off making no sense and goes nowhere. It follows Layla Hassan and her friend/co-worker, Deanna Geary. Layla joined Abstergo because she wanted to work on the Animus project – this is the project where the devices that allow people to relive their ancestor’s memories are developed and used – but for various reasons is not allowed to do so. Because she is a genius she’s able to create her own animus machine that is not only mobile but also allows her to sample the memories of people she is not related to. By the end of the story Deanna appears to be dead, killed by Abstergo, and Layla is recruited by William Miles, Desmond’s father and the current leader of the Assassins. It sounds like I’ve skipped a lot of the joining action that makes a story come alive but that’s pretty much how it’s presented in-game. This plot and these characters are so pointless that if you go to Ubisoft’s official Origins character page none of them are even listed.
The future plot also featured the most obnoxious of the bugs I faced in the game. At one point Layla is forced out of the animus she was using by Deanna who warns her that – apropos of nothing beyond some vague insinuations that she might be taking too long in her originally assigned task to recover some artifacts – Abstergo agents have come to kill her. At this point in my playthrough I paused the game for one reason or another. When I returned I discovered that there were markers in the pause menu indicating Layla had created new notes for herself on her computer. I decided to read them before unpausing and discovered that she was writing them very upset from the death of Deanna. At that point I unpaused, confused because Deanna hadn’t seemed particularly dead when I paused, and attempted to escape the cave without killing anyone because I assumed that Layla wasn’t really an assassin yet, even if she had gained some climbing skills via the animus bleed-through effect. I got all the way outside having only killed a couple of people once I accidentally discovered that Layla had a hidden blade and assassination skills after all and could find nowhere to go. So I went back inside the cave to the animus, killing everyone who got in my way this time and then the dialogue finally triggered for Deanna to tell Layla that she can totally be an assassin now and that she should kill all of the attackers instead of hiding from them, Once I killed the final remaining attacker the cutscene played where Deanna seems to die. Of course, Layla, now that she knows that Abstergo knows where she is and wants her dead and still mourning the death of her friend, jumps back in the Animus to continue the history lesson.
Beyond even the weird story with the missing parts and the bugs there was also the problem that from the start of the game Layla complains about being ill every time she uses her animus and Deanna warns her that using it too much might kill her. You’re even given a task early in the game to take the last of some medicine that will stabilize you long enough to go back in for a bit. However, even as Layla continues to complain of feeling sick every time she exits the animus it never plays into the story at all.
So yes, the game has bugs, and it has some weird, awkward story jumps. But it also has one of the best main characters in video games I’ve ever seen. Bayek of Siwa is a Medjay in Egypt. According to Wikipedia Medjay were sometimes a kind of constabulary or investigative force and other times officials in charge of administering the Pharaoh’s lands. In the game it becomes very clear early on that Bayek, at least, sees the Medjay’s duties to be those of helping the people of Siwa and eventually all of Egypt however he can. And by helping them I mean in every way. He does everything from helping to find missing scrolls to defeating large bandit groups for any citizen who asks for his help.
I mentioned in that Persona 5 article that while most open-world games make side quests feel tacked on and as if they interrupt the story Origins does a really good job keeping good pacing despite having so many side quests. It also actually makes it make sense, in this game, for the protagonist to want to do them. Yes, Bayek is on a quest to avenge his son. But he knows that this quest will take him weeks, months, or maybe even years. He still strongly sees himself as a Medjay – a person with the strength, skills, and a requirement to help even the poorest of his fellow Egyptians and Greeks with anything they need – and so it makes sense when he pauses in his quest to track his enemies to investigate a nearby, unrelated murder or to help some kids save their kidnapped guardian. Bayek was a protector and helper long before he was a revenge seeker and no amount of desire for that revenge is going to keep him from trying to improve the lives of those he comes across while he’s at it. This internal drive is so strong for him that when Cleopatra tries to recruit him to help her seize the throne from her brother, whom Bayek already hates, she doesn’t offer him wealth or fame but instead offers him the title of Medjay of Egypt – an opportunity and the authority to officially help the citizens of his country with all of their problems
Bayek is also a terrific protagonist because of his passion. He feels he must help people. He loves his wife, Aya, more than anything. He misses his son deeply and strongly. He exhibits bone-crushing sadness, righteous fury, and a ready smile throughout the course of the game. Bayek’s emotions are so strong and so real – helped by some great animation and a terrific voice performance by Abubakar Salim – that his charisma cannot be matched by any other video game character I can name off the top of my head. Many player characters are purposefully made into blank slates so the players can insert themselves into the persona but Ubisoft skipped that idea entirely and the game is all the better for Bayek’s enormous personality and charm.
The final really powerful thing about Bayek is that while he achieves his goals by the end it is an entirely melancholy achievement. Bayek of Siwa wanted his son’s soul to rest, but he also wanted to bridge the gap that had grown between him and his wife because of it. That didn’t end up working out for him as once their revenge is complete Aya realizes that neither of them can ever return to Siwa or the lives they once led. She now wants to dedicate her entire life to righting wrongs and protecting their people from The Order – the group of animal-related jerks who brought about the death of their son, Khemu, and started this story. She knows there is no room in this future for their love and deep down inside Bayek knows it, too. She recruits Bayek as the first member of her new group so that they can continue their fight in the shadows and together they form the Assassin’s Creed. Games almost always end triumphantly; the hero saves the day and everyone leaves happily. There are plenty of other games that end on sadder notes, but this can often make the player feel cheated. They did everything right and wonder why that couldn’t be enough. One example of this was in the game Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. I won’t go into details, but the ending of that game struck me as patently unfair. It felt like there should have been a way to have my cake and eat it too with a happier ending. In contrast Origins’ ending feels inevitable thanks to the strength of the story and characters it is built on. Bayek won’t be able to be with his true love but he will be able to continue helping people (this works narratively and with the intended gameplay flow; with this ending it makes narrative sense for the game to dump you back in for the rest of the side-quests you may have skipped and the coming DLC.) He can’t bring Khemu back, but he can still laugh over a beer with his friends. It’s not a happy ending, but it isn’t necessarily a sad ending, either; it’s just the ending he, Aya, and the player earned. Because it’s clear that only this chapter of the story is ending, those who want to believe can easily see a future where Bayek and Aya find a way to be together as man and wife again, too.
Bayek of Siwa is the best designed character of any game I’ve played in at least the last five years. He’s perfectly designed to fit the setting, the story, the gameplay, and to appeal to players of almost every variety. Maybe Ubisoft doesn’t know how to make a game where ships don’t randomly float into the sky but they really hit gold when their writers came up with Bayek. I can’t wait to see them and other game studios create similarly mesmerizing characters in the future.