The Hope for, and Lack of, a Political Future in Assassin’s Creed: Origins

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Assassin’s Creed Origins’ first DLC, The Hidden Ones, takes place 5 years after Bayek and Amunet (formally Aya) founded the Assassins, their secret organization . It functions as a miniaturized, more difficult version of the game proper. It’s another vertical slice of fictionalized, videogamed ancient Egypt, dense with bandit hideouts, Roman encampments, and astonishing stone vistas. It’s more of the same, which serves a resonant thematic purpose. The Hidden Ones is about continuing the long work of change and trying to make something that will outlive you. The game brings up this problem most dramatically as you assassinate the leader whose ends you have thwarted. As the roman officer Rufio pontificates, claiming that the evil order of ancients will long outlast the heroic Assassins, Bayek snaps back, “Our power burns in the shadows.” Rufio replies menacingly “and we create those shadows.” Rufio emphasizes that the Assassins react to the presence of oppression, but cannot exist outside of it. As long as the Templars (as the organization will later be named) exist, they will determine the stakes of the game. Any opposition to the Templars will be short lived.

Rufio’s reason for saying this is showing off power, getting one last victory before his death, but it lays bare a curious tension within the franchise:  Whatever the Assassins do, it ends little. The Templars still exist thousands of years after these events. The first few games in the series make clear that it is the Templars who have real power and that it is the Assassins who are on the run. Of course, injustice is old in the real world. Colonialism, fascism, racism, and environmental destruction are old forces that still hover their blade over our heads. However, their forms have changed, adapting to a new world. Furthermore, real victories have been won. The oft sited quote “The arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice” ignores how history moves in contradictory directions. Queerness and socialism had power in Europe, before fascism stamped them out. Non-heteronormative ways of living thrived in indigenous cultures for hundreds of years and continue to exist. “Progress,” as we might loosely define moving toward justice and equality, is always being lost and gained, as the  abortion bans in Georgia and Alabama prove. There is no straight line of history. Origin’s view of history is frustratingly stagnant.

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This stagnation extends to the game’s structure. Origins is all about the establishment of a community, but focuses on little of the continuing work. Bayek meets countless characters in the game’s various provinces, but none of them show up once he finishes their quests. Furthermore the landscapes never change. The only options afforded the player are destructive and those don’t even last. The Roman and Greek outposts that you can clear of enemies and captains always repopulate. The player’s actions have little permanence. This endless world is put to poignant use in Metal Gear Solid V, where soldiers always respawn and no space is ever conquered. No matter how many soldiers you kill or kidnap, the war will rage on. But Metal Gear Solid V is a deeply pessimistic game, one about the futility and monstrousness of military action. Origins, in contrast, wants to believe that change is possible and spends most of its cutscene time dramatizing revolutionary action. All that though, loses its weight with no concrete depiction of a political future.

The closest the game gets to articulating that future is in the conclusion of The Hidden Ones. After rededicating himself to his cause, Bayek proclaims that his organization will last forever, as the spirits of future Assassins surround him. The moment strikes with not triumph, but melancholy. Bayek’s work will live on, but it will never know victory. What this really reenforces, of course, is that we will continue to have games, tie-in movies, and comic books. On the main menu of Origins, there’s a side bar that simply states, “more content awaits!” Capitalism lives on. There is no future, because there cannot be, not without “Assassin’s Creed” the brand running out of content and conflict. One could argue that the stagnation still serves the thematic purpose, revealing Bayek’s violent revolution to be hollow, incapable of accomplishing its goals. 

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However, the game does depict its present with force and purpose. Although it has innumerable issues that plague AAA games, it also has a vivid world that cares about the smallest people in it and shows that world with a sharp beauty. It is also one of the most sharp and un-apologetic political AAA games in recent memory. Laced throughout the map are images of colonial and immigrant communities. The Hidden Ones’ opening image is a pyramid being dismantled for Roman structures by Egyptian slaves, a three dimensional picture that elegantly communicates the politics of power and colonialism. Additionally, Origins doesn’t have patience for sitting around or comprising to oppression. Its characters act directly and furiously to bring about a changed world. As Rob Zacny points out, the game’s central dramatic question is whether Bayek and Amunet will be content to live out their lives in peace after getting their revenge or whether they seek to end the systems of injustice that lead to their son’s death. Time and time again, they heroically choose to push forward, often at great personal cost. Their marriage ceases and their relationship fluctuates, but they remain dedicated to justice. This results in a game that is both clear-eyed and hopeful about fighting oppression. The world may remain stagnant, but its narrative begins to hint at a brighter future. The narrative’s most poignant moments often involve Bayek returning somewhere, not for new quests or “content,” but flickers of dialog, moments where he can bask in the peace that he helped create.

Still, Origins offers no way to something better, something beyond the colonialism and oppressive terror that it vividly depicts. It gestures at a community beyond the game, but then leaves us alone in an unchanged world. It paints that world with impact and purpose, but cannot reach beyond it. In 2019, with the threat of climate change growing ever closer, I want to believe in a world that can heal. I want to participate in the creation of that world. Self-perpetuating mega capitalist companies like Ubisoft cannot provide that for me, I still long for it at as grand as scale as Origins. The lack of a concrete future is common to games, both Austin Walker and Cameron Kunzelmann have written about it. Its absence feels so clear in Origins, because it comes so close to building something more. I want a game like Origins that focuses less on density, less on a world that can be divided and segmented, rather one that shows a world that lingers, that lets you see it change and heal.

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