“Freedom isn’t given, it’s taken,” a character utters towards the end of Assassin’s Creed Origins, punctuating the game’s ultimate thesis on the dynamics of the powerful and powerless. It has meaning because the men and women who take it as an article of faith have undertaken a journey that’s only persuasive because the characters at the heart—a mother, a father, a son—were credibly driven to believe it.
The Scorpion. The Lizard. The Heron. These, among others, are the masked men you’re tasked with killing in Origins, institutional markers of a corrupted system rotting Egypt from the inside. Aya. Bayek. Khemu. Those are the names that matter in Origins.
You kill all sorts of men, some masked and many not, in every Assassins Creed, but nearly 10 games later, Origins has provided players with its most compelling reason to employ a hidden dagger over and over. This time, besides the joy of exploring a sprawling and beautiful world, there’s an emotional core driving your actions.
Origins, a game without a guild of trained assassins, is largely disconnected from the goofy, convoluted mythology the series has tied itself into knots trying to avoid resolving. A world-changing event occurred in 2012’s Assassin’s Creed III, the kind of story beat whose consequences should be explored ASAP, but Ubisoft has basically ignored it ever happened. As it turns out, Origins is all the better for it. (It reminds me of Capcom’s approach to Resident Evil 7, setting a game in a familiar timeline and world, while doing their best to avoid having to deal with choices from the past.)
Origins begins by introducing us to its main character, Bayek of Siwa, and his young son, Khemu. Bayek is a Medjay, a fading order in Egypt who historically acted, at times, as a pseudo-police force. It’s a convenient way to explain why Bayek can be tasked with doing all sorts of weird missions in Egypt, and importantly, establishes a credible reason for why he’d stop to listen at all: his job (and his temperament) is to help people.
Soon, Bayek and Khemu are kidnapped. Something mysterious and powerful—aka magical Assassin’s Creed deus ex machina bullshit—is hidden beneath Siwa, and they’re convinced Bayek knows how to access it. He doesn’t, but the kidnappers care not. They stab and kill Khemu. Bayken’s only son is gone, and suddenly, his life has lost meaning; Khemu was his guiding light, a reason to be hopeful in an otherwise brutal region.
Not all is lost; Bayek still has Aya, and in Khemu's absence, their relationship becomes a murky foundation for what comes next, something to hang on to. I’ve played a lot of games that attempt to depict romance, but few make as convincing a case as Bayek and Aya. It’s one thing to say two people are in love, it’s another to believe it’s actually true, and it’s how Origins pulls off the former that’s especially impressive. It’s partially because of the naturalistic voice acting by Abubakar Salim (Bayek) and Alix Wilton Regan (Aya); it’s partially because of the nuanced writing, which relies on humor and in-jokes to convey a relationship, not just depictions of affection and sex; it’s partially because the staging of character animation, where Bayek tracks Aya with his eyes, a knowing smile over his face, or Aya tapping Bayek playfully on the arm, as she pushes back on one of his ideas. Their relationship feels lived in, with both a past and present.
A relationship is forever transformed when a child is introduced into the equation; it’s no longer the same relationship—often for the better, sometimes for the worse. But as a child becomes the center of your life, it's impossible to imagine life without it. In the case of Origins, Aya and Bayek are forced into such a tragic situation. It’s not clear they can fill the empty space, nor, as they discover in fits and starts, can they easily return to life pre-Khemu. The love they’d transferred to Khemu cannot be easily swapped for "new" love between the two of them. In its absence, something (anything) fills the void.
It’s not the first time Assassin’s Creed has used the death of a family member to motivate its protagonists, of course; in Assassin’s Creed II, the death of Ezio’s father set his own actions into motion. But in every other instance, an existing structure guided their blood-soaked justice: the assassins guild. There’s nothing like that in Origins, forcing Bayek and his wife, Aya, to accidentally build an organization to fight for the powerless, starting with themselves. Their quest is murky and often misguided, forcing them to align and integrate with existing power structures, hoping a flawed step forward is better than two steps back. Sometimes, they choose wrong, but it's always in pursuit of personal justice and preventing their tragedy from befalling others.
Killing one man (or woman, at times) with power only leads them to another man with power, yet no closer to finding the person who killed their innocent son. Sometimes, they elevate people who traded on their dedication to finding their son’s killer, only to leave them behind. The ultimate lesson—”freedom isn’t given, it’s taken”—ends up being personally delivered to them over and over. Even as the game's story stretches towards hour 40, long after it should have ended, the game has juuust enough moments between Aya and Bayek to emotionally ground you in seeing their story through.
Origins smartly infuses its open world with Aya, Bayek, and Khemu, too. While I quickly grew tired of finding Yet Another Outpost With a Treasure Chest, I delighted to find one of a handful of astrological stone markings, which had players solving a small puzzle while listening to a conversation between Khemu and Bayek. Often, I’d finish the puzzle before the conversation was over, forcing me to hover the solution just out of reach, while I waited to hear what the two had to say. My heart broke each time.
I’ve written over and over about how much junk is used to fill open worlds, and while Origins has plenty, a handful of landmarks featured the kind of character-enriching moments that I crave. Give me a reason to seek out what you’ve hidden, developers.
Without Aya, Bayek, and Khemu, Origins would still be a pretty good Assassin’s Creed game. It makes long-needed streamlining changes to the interface, adds enough depth to combat to keep it interesting beyond the first fight, and introduces a genuinely novel world to explore. And yet, what elevates Origins over many of its predecessors are characters. I’ll be thinking about them long after I’ve left Egypt.
I hope you find peace, Aya and Bayek. See you in the field of reeds, Khemu.
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