It’s no secret that the brilliantly realized historical settings have always been the main draw and appeal of the Assassin’s Creed series. From the lovely reconstruction of Italy during the Renaissance to the bustling streets of Victorian London, you can say all you want about the series’ nonsensical modern-day plot, but it’s hard to look away from Ubisoft’s loving recreation of key points in human history. Still, despite being a self-proclaimed history buff and enthusiast, no game in the series has captured my attention or piqued my curiosity quite like Assassin’s Creed Origins.
Taking place in ancient Egypt, before we started counting the years upwards in Anno Domini, Origins takes the series back 1,000 years before the original game, which explored the period of the Third Crusade and the conflict against the Templars. Ubisoft has taken us back to one of the most important moments in our history, one where humanity had started to really establish a foothold in the annals of time. What makes Assassin’s Creed Origins so special is the fact that we’re living out the life of a Medjay in what is essentially a dead civilization. Researching and finding out what makes ancient Egypt tick is no easy feat; it’s also the reason why Ubisoft has a team of dedicated historians to help make the game feel grounded in history and reality, and why they’ve also brought professional Egyptologists along for the ride.
The time period we’re sent back to, around 49 BCE, is a critical one. Cleopatra has just been deposed by her brother Ptolemy, and the Romans are moving in quickly. The theme of conflicting nations or factions is key in the Assassin’s Creed series, and that’s no different here. But while a brief glance through Wikipedia pages or historical textbooks can only give you an idea of the political climate during this time, Origins lets you live it. Again, this has been the draw of the series for many years, but what’s different about Origins this time is that the historical figures in question are on a much larger scale than anyone we’ve seen in the games before.
When we talk about figures like Cleopatra and Ptolemy, it’s difficult to get a sense of who they were as rulers and people, primarily because ancient Egyptian history is a remarkably tough subject to get into. Not to mention the fact that whatever primary sources historians have gotten their hands on are difficult to interpret by themselves. Everyone knows about Cleopatra’s romantic tryst with Caesar, but there’s so much more to that relationship to consider – the politics, and social ramifications, and what that connection meant for Egypt and Rome. Most importantly, Origins dives deep into the pasts of these historical icons, and attempts to humanize them for the player to give us a better understanding of the reasoning behind their actions at the time. The average person’s impression of ancient Egypt (or any ancient civilization, really) is muddy at best; most likely filled with images of tall pyramids, mummies, Imhotep, and remnants of whatever we saw in the Mummy movies.
Take the city of Alexandria for instance. What we see in Assassin’s Creed Origins may not be an entirely accurate representation of what the place really looked like, but that’s because it’s impossible to know. Speaking with the Financial Post, historian Evelynne Ferron mentioned that during her time working on the game’s world-building with Ubisoft, she had to give the developers an idea of what the city looked like visually – a task made all the more challenging because there weren’t any concrete or reliable depictions of Alexandria. Figuring out what Alexandria looked like went beyond just studying primary sources and artifacts; it was a process of really getting deep into Egyptian culture and theories to formulate a clearer picture of the city.
‘“I researched different theses for the theories about the fact that the ruins of the Library of Ephesus were inspired by the one in Alexandria, that Petra in Jordania had inspiration from that city as well, and that the Romans depicted Alexandria on their painted walls,” she said. “I studied the ruins of Pergamon as well to help them figure out a traditional Hellenistic city plan.”’
Even the language that was commonly used in ancient Egypt in 49 BCE wasn’t something that was easily confirmed. Today, the “Egyptian language” is referred to as Egyptian Arabic. But before the 17th century, before the original language had evolved to Coptic, which is a much more recognizable term for the ancient language itself, it’s nearly impossible to decipher. Unlike past Assassin’s Creed games, it’s not really just a matter of saying, “Oh, this game is set in Paris, so we should be having our NPCs speak in French.” Without knowing what the ancient Egyptian language was exactly, Ubisoft opted to create a new language for the game, but one that was steeped in Hebraic and Arabic roots.
‘“We don’t know exactly what ancient Egyptian was,” explains Ismail. “So we had linguists actually develop a language based on research. We consulted Egyptologists, Perrine Poiron and Evelyne Ferron, and dialogue coaches Julia Lenardon and John Fleming, to establish our target sound, and we cast actors with Arabic, Hebraic and African backgrounds to make it really come to life. The language spoken by the crowds is largely based on Sir Alan Gardiner‘s Egyptian Grammar, along with the works of James Allen and Raymond Faulkner, amongst others.”’
Like the recreation of the city of Alexandria, the language we sometimes hear spoken in Assassin’s Creed Origins isn’t 100% historically accurate, but it is an authentic presentation.
The most impressive part of the game has to be its scale and world size. Origins is the largest Assassin’s Creed game yet, giving players the freedom to wander the deserts, visit the Great Pyramid of Giza, and fight crocodiles in the Nile. Wandering through the streets of Siwa and exploring the fields near the Hippodrome gives you a better idea of what life was like in ancient Egypt – how the lower class citizens lived, how diverse and multicultural Egypt was even at the time. Just exploring Ubisoft’s open-world and unlocking various parts of the world map was a constant joy because of how far away and unreachable this time period felt to me.
You could always look at photos and images to get a sense of the average person’s livelihood in London during the Industrial Revolution or Colonial America during the American Revolution. You could even read books about these time periods and learn all there is to know about the Boston Tea Party. But being able to really sink into an ancient part of history and be treated to a grounded representation of a dead civilization? That’s not something that can be done as easily, and it’s a major part of what makes Assassin’s Creed Origins stand out so much.
I recall taking a class on ancient Greek history and culture during my university days before promptly dropping it after the third week, and opting to take a relatively more interesting module about the French Revolution instead. The idea of studying ancient history sounds cool on paper. After all, who wouldn’t jump at the chance to learn more about the civilizations and empires that came before modernization began to take hold of the world? Speaking from experience, I’ve learned that attempting to study ancient history is the toughest part of any history major’s student life because of how impossibly difficult it is to understand it properly. With all these dead languages, dead cultures, and dead philosophies, attempting to study it can feel like a dreadful descent into an unknown abyss, especially when you’re given particularly harrowing assignments like having to write a thousand word essay about the Dark Ages.
Perhaps that’s why Origins feels like historical magic to me. By taking a lost piece of history and allowing me to experience it in video game form, Ubisoft has made the game that much more enjoyable because the development team has done all the research heavy lifting and legwork I’d never be able to do on my own. Assassin’s Creed Origins is a delightful romp through ancient Egypt that constantly surprises me with every new area I unlock, and every new historical figure I meet.
I used to scoff at the idea of history professors and lecturers using the Assassin’s Creed games as supplementary materials in their lessons. But in the face of what an engaging job Ubisoft has done with Origins, and the exciting Discovery Tour Mode on its way in early 2018, I can’t help thinking about how unbelievably cool it would be if the game actually ended up being used as an educational tool in modules about the history of ancient Egypt. Maybe I’d actually learn something.