Flip it, stick it, play Donkey Kong on it.
Assassin’s Creed Origins is, by almost all accounts, one of the most video game-ass video games you could ever play. It’s full of the same type of open world debauchery and diversity (or lack thereof) that one might expect, at least outside of its core narrative. While most of the side content had by and large been full of the same ordinary offerings, there was one in particular with a surprising depth that stood out.
As Bayek’s journey takes him to the northern reaches of Giza, he comes upon a settlement in the midst of rebuild known as Letopolis. Letopolis was swallowed up by a huge sandstorm many years before Bayek’s time, and now with the guidance of an impassioned investor, the city has finally started to be revitalized. This city acts as a great display of construction for its time, alternating between primitive digging mechanisms, and more refined and impressive irrigation.
Towards the center of town there’s an orator named Ramessu, who is set up on stage boasting and buttering up any and all passers-by to try and get them involved with the project. As a Medjay, Bayek’s role is to help the common folk of Egypt with their problems, so naturally Ramessu asks him for help with a man named Nefi. Nefi has just moved in, but he’s had more than a rough go of things between his cart getting stolen, and his wife leaving him for his brother.
After Bayek helps Nefi get his cart back and attempts to get him more acclimated into his new home, Nefi confides in Bayek that he’s frightened of some old hieroglyphics on his wall. They’re faded just enough to obscure their meaning, which is enough to convince the unlucky Nefi that his new home is as cursed as him. Bayek doesn’t even question Nefi’s reaction, he himself a firmly religious man, and promises that he’ll try and figure out the truth to either assuage or confirm Nefi’s worries.
Across the city, Bayek talks with others who have recently moved into homes with their own hieroglyphics, and is able to translate a cohesive message out of the fragments that bids him west to a temple hidden in the vast deserts of Giza. At this point I was pretty thoroughly convinced this was the most trite and formulaic of open world side quests. I figured that if anything, this temple would lead me to one of those map objective tombs that granted me some sort of bonus level up point, or maybe an encounter or some sort of joke.
Instead, as Bayek sneaks into the small broken temple beneath a dune, I quickly found myself in a room full of ritualistic paraphernalia and long dead corpses in priest garb. Now put into an investigative mode, I quickly discovered through notes and Bayek’s own knowledge of Egyptian iconography that these priests had ended up performing a ritual to the goddess Sekhmet, offering the sacrifice of Letopolis in return for the inhabitants of the rest of Egypt to flourish.
Bayek is immediately shaken by this, and seems to accept that this ritual must have been what led to city’s destruction, with no doubt. He heads back to Letopolis and tells the mildly calmed Nefi about what he has discovered, who quickly announces out of fear that he will be leaving as soon as he can, posturing that he could not possibly live in a home that was meant to perish for the goddess of healing. Bayek oddly enough agrees and understands, and offers Nefi nothing but the best of luck, saying he hopes to see him again one day, perhaps somewhere safer.
What’s interesting about this quest to me is how it portrays Bayek as not just the archetypal video game hero whose beliefs and actions would line up with the designers platonically idealized player, but instead as a man of his time. Throughout the game players are shown what Egyptian and even Greek culture is like: fervently driven by belief in, fear of, and respect for the gods. Given the time period, and the lack of explanations offered or accessible by technology and communication, it only makes sense why religion offered a measure of security and understanding to so many people.
Most games don’t tend to offer the deeper insights or time appropriate beliefs of their player, often leaning on jokes and poking fun at any sort of archaic beliefs and practices. In games like Dragon Age, or even older Assassin’s Creed games, player characters often play the role of elucidator, bringing the light of modern knowledge to the foolish savages around them. Instead, Assassin’s Creed: Origins offers respect; it offers an earnest look at how people may very well have lived their lives at a time when there were only so many things that made sense in the world, without breaking into parody.
Assassin’s Creed: Origins has largely felt like a game about its era and the people in it more so than any of its predecessors. Whereas it still involves characters like Cleopatra and Ptolemy in its grander narrative just as the Medicis and George Washingtons of the past, its open world gameplay belies a focus on mundanity and realism that the game prefers over grandeur and blatant fiction. Where Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood featured lavish side quests focused on Leonardo da Vinci’s latest era-defying invention, Origins has you learn about the wannabe philosophers of its villages, or what it’s like to live your life as the wife of a hide tanner. Assassin’s Creed IV’s tropical islands featured the same few permutations of cookie cutter missions with little to no story, while Origins fills its simple molds with unique stories, no matter how short.
It certainly helps that Bayek himself is easily one of the most likable leads in a AAA game. Whether it’s through his adventures in helping solve these mundane situations, his admiration for his wife, or his dedication towards righting societal wrongs, Bayek’s actions only further the idea that respecting the people and world around you can be worth it all in the end. Even despite his hardships throughout his past and present, he continues to persist out of appreciation and understanding. In a climate where we’re continuously presented gruff leads with their dark pasts and beautiful but superficial locales, it’s Origins’ lessons in respect that I’d love to see us learn from.