'Assassin's Creed Origins' Replaces Revenge With Justice
Aya is not the main character of 'Origins' but her dawning political awareness is what gives the game—and the series—its meaning.
Screenshots courtesy of Ubisoft
Heads up, this story gets into some pretty heavy spoilers!
Assassin’s Creed Origins tells the story of Bayek, a man seeking revenge. But as I wrote when the game came out, the real turn that makes this Assassin’s Creed game different from the others is that it fundamentally cares about building out its world. It wants us to take part in small and interesting interactions with the people, animals, and places that it brings into our path, and for a good reason: Origins wants us to understand that Bayek is but one person in a vast web of relationships that stretches across ancient Egypt and its surrounding region.
However, it is not merely Bayek's story. It is also Aya's. She is similarly trained as Bayek, and she's the mother to his child. When their son Khemu is tragically killed because of a group of conspirators, Aya goes on her own, seperate quest for justice. As a separate character, with thoughts and feelings that are often directly in opposition to Bayek's, Aya pushes back against some of the ideas and concepts that have driven the Assassin's Creed games for ages. Aya decenters Bayek in the narrative, and it is through that decentering that we get a better picture of the world that they live in.
Origins is not the first game in the franchise to embrace multiple playable characters. Revelations jumped us backward and forward in time in the forms of different bodies, and Syndicate pitched itself based on the interactions between its brother/sister playable characters. The difference in Origins is that they are a husband and a wife who are both out to avenge the death of their child, the one thing that truly united them. They are a pair who hunt in mourning.
There are a few moments in Origins when we cut away from Bayek and over to Aya. While he is on the mainland of Egypt doing assassin things, Aya spends quite a lot of time on a Greek-owned boat trying to both defeat enemy ships and to recruit the Romans to help the cause of Cleopatra in the Egyptian civil war. These scenes are an interesting follow-up to the naval combat of Black Flag, but they are also a form of narrative exposition; Aya and the ship's captain talk about the game's plot a lot.
It's through these segments (and others) in which we control Aya that we find out that her goals don't totally align with Bayek's. He truly believes that carving his way through Egypt and meddling in world politics is just a phase. He believes that things can go back to normal (meaning back to the way they were before Khemu was killed) once he and Aya kill their enemies and put Cleopatra on the Egyptian throne.
Aya thinks that is a delusion. She rightly understands that the creation of The Order, the alliances forged between Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, and the various shadow games being played within all these groups, mean that the world cannot go back to parochial politics and smaller games. And, as Reid McCarter has also pointed out, when taken in context this has massive implications for understanding how political systems operate in ancient Egypt and beyond.
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In an important scene near the end of the game, Bayek pleads his case to Aya. He asks her to throw the worlds to the gods, to fate, and for her to return to Siwa with him so that they might make a go of life again. Aya tells him plainly that the gods are dead. In a prefiguration of the creed of the assassins, she explains to him that there is no fate, and that no one has the good will of the world in their heart. No one is watching over us, and so it is the responsibility of the good person to fight against those who would oppress the common person.
Critically, if the "origins" of the title are the creation of the orders of Assassins and Templars that fuel the rest of the franchise, then it is Aya's recognition that is this moment of origination. Bayek is not the first assassin; he is merely a man who killed people in the heat of revenge. Aya is the first assassin because she recognizes and formalizes what the brotherhood of assassins must do, down through time, forever. They have to foil The Order, what will later be known as The Templars.
When the original Assassin's Creed showed us Abstergo Industries and their Animus machine, players all over the world were entered into a world of conspiracy. That first game leans into that in a very significant way, making sure that we find out that Abstergo's lust for world domination stretched back at least to the Crusades. An industrious player who reads every in-game email might have realized that Abstergo are basically a fantastical Illuminati who put docile drugs in the drinking water, want to control minds by putting a mystical artifact in a satellite, and who want to create a super corporation that dominates the chemical, biological, and entertainment industries. It's every conspiracy theory come to life.
Making Aya the first assassin means that she is the first person to put that conspiracy theory together. In creating the assassins, Aya becomes the person who understood that all of the disparate oppressions, violences, and crop burnings of her time in Egypt had a purpose. To be clear, Aya is a fictional person, and so is this entire enterprise.
At the same time, especially in the political moment we are living through right now, I think there is some rhetorical weight to a game that tells us that it was a woman who understood the connected nature of the various ways her people were oppressed first. And that to destroy it, or at least fight it, she had to put together a vast coalition of like-minded people who were invested in finding freedom for everyone, universally, and not just the liberation of those who look like, act like, or have the same basic desires that they do.
Decentering Bayek within Origins is not just a move toward "strong female characters" without a politics to back it up. Throughout the game, Aya is deliberately kept separate from Bayek. They do not share an upgrade tree. The player cannot alter her weapons. She is her own character, her own person, and in the final moments of the game we see that truly come to fruition. The game skips forward a number of years. Aya enters the Roman Senate. She's hunting Caesar. We see one of the most powerful political moments in human history, and the first blade is hers.