Note: This post contains major spoilers.
When Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed Origins landed on gaming consoles in October 2017, it marked a crucial turning point for the stealth-action franchise. The series’ last three entries had been met with a mixed response from fans and critics, and Origins was a much-needed reset in more ways than one. As its title promised, its story recounted the founding of the Assassins, the series’ secret, anti-heroic order of king-slayers, who have been locked in a millennia-long struggle with their nemesis, the authoritarian Knights Templar. Gameplay-wise, Origins represented a massive, still-controversial expansion of the Assassin's Creed formula into a true open-world role-playing game (RPG). This development pushed the series’ renowned dedication to meticulous historical re-creation to new heights, as Origins’ action unfolds amid the glories of Ptolemaic Egypt in the first century B.C.E.
Most memorably, Origins gave the franchise one of its most fascinating protagonists, in the form of the desert-hardened Egyptian warrior Bayek of Siwa. Bayek is one of the few remaining Medjay – once the guardians of pharaohs, now more akin to freelance sheriffs with an eagle eye on the concerns of the common folk. Bayek is married to a cunning, equally formidable Medjay named Aya, with whom he has a young son, Khemu. However, as suggested by the game’s prologue and confirmed through flashbacks, Origins’ story proper begins more than a year after an unthinkable loss turns Bayek’s world upside down. Khemu is murdered before Bayek’s eyes by masked conspirators, who mistakenly believed that the Medjay holds the knowledge to unlock a priceless artifact. Bayek and Aya have both spent the past year attempting to unmask and slay the men responsible – preferably as brutally as possible.
The wrongful death of a family member and the ensuing hunger for retribution are familiar paths to quick-and-dirty characterization, but Origins straightaway announces that its employment of these tropes will be somewhat unconventional. Given that the game begins in media res, a grieving, vengeful Bayek is established as our Bayek, which makes the happier, less burdened Medjay glimpsed in flashback feel slightly uncanny, as if those vanished days of family contentment were merely a dream. For Bayek, the loss of his child – a proposition so horrifying that most parents dare not even dwell on it – becomes the bloody slash through the timeline of his life, dividing it into the sun-warmed Before and the benighted After.
Vengeance is a compelling motivation, but it can swallow a poorly drawn character, to the point that their purpose supplants their personality. To their credit, Ubisoft’s writers craft an indelible hero in Bayek, while rendering his grief as the crackling background noise to his journey across Egypt. Superbly performed by Abubaker Salim, Bayek cuts an instantly magnetic figure. As a warrior, he is observant, assured, and often ruthless. Moving guardedly but confidently through the Egyptian, Greek, and Roman worlds that collide in the kingdom of Ptolemy XIII, he is convivial and quick with a joke. Yet his principles are well honed, and he often finds it difficult to hold his tongue (or stay his sword arm) when he comes face-to-face with injustice.
Whenever another character speaks of a personal loss, however – a husband cut down by soldiers or a daughter ravaged by plague – Bayek seems to flinch, his grief slicing into the moment like a blade. His nocturnal journeys through the endless deserts summon echoes of his son’s awestruck voice, recalling the nights they spent stargazing together. When Bayek strikes down the vile schemers responsible for Khemu’s death, he sees visions of the underworld, the Duat, where the dead await their judgment. The righteousness of his vengeance is no defense against the despair that slithers around his heart: A part of him secretly longs to leave behind the anguish of the mortal world and join his son in the idyllic Field of Reeds.
Of course, Bayek is not the only grieving parent. Aya also laments their son’s death, and she travels a meandering path through the game’s story that intersects only occasionally insects with Bayek’s journey. Husband and wife each follow separate trails of clues, and they have spent more time apart than together in the past year. Rarely, Origins allows Aya and Bayek a moment of private respite with one another, and in those scenes, the depth of the devotion and affection becomes apparent. Their dynamic is playful and lusty – that is, until a memory of Khemu brings the wave of shared loss crashing down on them again.
Here is where Origins truly distinguishes itself, presenting an unexpectedly sophisticated portrait of parental grief. Bayek focuses his attention on eliminating his son’s killers, slaughtering his way up the ranks of a pan-Mediterranean conspiracy that regards one boy’s death as less than nothing next to their grandiose schemes. Aya, however, throws her weight behind the political machinations of Ptolemy’s deposed sister Cleopatra, who allegedly counts the plotters as her enemies as well. The so-called rightful Queen of Egypt uses Bayek as a cat’s-paw, leveraging his thirst for revenge to eliminate the conspirators and uncover new threads. Bayek is uneasy with all this courtly intrigue, but Aya has become idealistic during her year of mourning, placing her faith in Cleopatra and the promise of a more just and peaceful Egypt. She envisions a future in which no children need die for the whims of vain, grasping men.
These differing responses to their mutual grief results in a growing undercurrent of awkward friction between Aya and Bayek. The latter hopes for an eventual return to normalcy, naively assuming that once every name is crossed off their proverbial kill list, they will return to a quiet life at the Siwa oasis. However, for Aya, the hollow in her heart that once housed motherhood needs to be filled with something. “We must serve greatness,” she insists. “What greatness do we serve now?” Bayek’s aggrieved response – “We are parents” – does not satisfy her. “We were parents. I love you, Bayek of Siwa. But what are you of now?”
Ultimately, Origins is the story of Bayek’s search for an answer to that question, for something more meaningful than his private pain to which he might devote himself. Unsurprisingly, Aya’s trust in Cleopatra is eventually revealed to be misplaced. The queen is a schemer like all the rest, and when presented with a ripe opportunity for personal advancement, she sells out Egypt to the very cabal she once opposed. Aya is chastened but her zeal is not diminished, and together she, Bayek, and their remaining allies begin to build a long-term underground network to eliminate tyrants, whatever form they take.
Their quest ends in a victory of sorts, but a bittersweet one. Evincing an emotional maturity that few AAA games aspire to, Origins concedes that not all wounds can (or should) be healed. Long before the story’s conclusion, one senses that Bayek and Aya are beginning to drift apart. In the end, they find a purpose in their new creed, but the romantic aspect of their relationship has diminished under the weight of their private grief and their emergent obligations to Egypt. “Our victories have multiplied,” Bayek observes. “Our bond not so. Our love lies in the Duat.” Remarkably, they reach this conclusion without shouting or sobbing, amicably parting ways (for now) on a lonely beach near the port of Alexandria. It’s a scene that feels right and true and yet still heartbreaking. The deftness with which Assassin’s Creed Origins’ narrative lays the groundwork for this moment over 30-plus hours makes it all the more poignant.
Assassin’s Creed Origins is now available for Windows PC, PlayStation 4 and 5, and Xbox One and Series X/S.