Making History Fun: How Assassin's Creed Made Ancient Egypt Live and Breathe

By James O Malley on at

With a new instalment almost every year, the Assassin’s Creed games are a treat for history nerds. Forget reading about the past in dusty books - Ubisoft’s blockbuster franchise provides a unique hint into what the past might actually have been like: wandering through the narrow streets of revolutionary Paris, sailing the seven seas during the 17th century, and, umm, driving Leonardo da Vinci’s tank. Okay, perhaps that last thing didn’t really happen - but no other games come close to creating such an immersive historical simulation.

This year, the latest game in the series, Assassin’s Creed Origins is finally heading to where fans have hoped the Animus might take them for some time: Ancient Egypt.

“Egypt was already something that we wanted to do for a long time and we knew that players were actually rating [Egypt] in the top 3 of their most desired settings,” explains creative director Jean Guesdon, explaining the decision to set the game in amongst the pyramids.

“This was something that was in a sense inevitable,” he adds. “The thing was that this time we were ready. We had all the elements allowing us to actually deliver it fully. The consoles were ready, our game engine was ready and [...] the idea to reinvent [Assassin’s Creed] too was perfect for this setting.”

I was curious. I’ve played all of the Assassin’s Creed games so far - and since I first jumped between the rooftops of Jerusalem with Altair, I’ve always wondered just how Jean and his team go about turning history into a game that is both fun - and reflective of the period in which it is set.

Origins is more specifically set around the time when Egyptian civilisation was coming to an end - when Romans and Greeks were instead working to exert their own influence on the kingdom. So why then?

“It is providing us with an entire country that is filled with locations,” Jean explains. "It's very old already - by the time of Cleopatra, Egypt was already 3,000 years old, making it the perfect playground for us - with hidden tombs, with temples that got buried into the sand, and sunken into the Nile. We really wanted to push exploration and discovery and this was perfect for us.”

This certainly sounds like it will fit the Assassin’s template perfectly: taking a complex political situation, and fitting the long-running Assassins vs Templars dynamic on top. “This was the perfect pivotal moment for us to bring our own narrative within the big history. The personal story of Bayek, our main protagonist, will collide with history with a big H.”

Bayek and his wife Aya are original creations for the game, and in Assassin’s lore are what Jean calls “proto-Assassins”, as they exist 1,000 years before the Order we’ve come to know was officially created.

“We knew from the start that we wanted Bayek to be a native Egyptian, as it would be the perfect vessel for us to be part of that world and to understand it,” says Jean. In the game, he has made Bayek a medjay - which he describes as being analogous to the Old Kingdom police force. The idea is that this will not only create narrative reasons for this character to interact with non-player characters, like Cleopatra, but it would enable the player to see many different stories from the time period play out.

This also makes me wonder: How do you create characters who are sympathetic to the modern player? Ancient Egyptian society would have been so radically different from today in terms of social structure and values. Can we even relate to how Egyptians felt?

“Humanity revolves around the same main emotions: you have love, you have hatred, you have fear, you have joy... and this is still relevant today. This is shared by all humans through history.”

Jean believes that it is through these shared emotions, that the players will connect with Bayek as a character.

Creating the game’s map was also an interesting challenge for the developers. “We know a lot of things about Ancient Egypt, a lot has been documented and even if very few buildings remain we have testimony from the Greeks and the Romans,” Jean explains, and the developers had historians and Egyptologists on hand to share their insight and to make sure the game was respecting historical evidence.

“That being said,” Jean says, “a lot is guesses - based on assumption and ideas”.

“We basically took these guesses from the academic corpus, from egyptologists”, he explains. “Memphis doesn’t exist anymore, Alexandria doesn’t exist anymore, but we have a quite decent idea of how they work. From that knowledge [and] from these solid assumptions our artists made their magic. [...] This was the beauty of it - we could at the same time respect history, and let our Artists have fun and push their limits in creating a wonderful world.”

Having had a brief play of the game at a Ubisoft press event, it certainly feels like an impressively built world. And it appears that this year that the company is particularly proud of its work, as this year’s instalment of the game will also include a mode called “Discovery Tours”. This switches off all of the missions and the combat, and lets the player explore the world on a virtual walking tour - with captions and voice over explaining some of the history behind the game.

“We felt it was the right moment to do it,” says Jean. “This is something we were toying with for a long time. We knew that our work of recreating these worlds is one of quality. We spent a lot of resources, there's a lot of dedication behind this world, and we felt that it was the perfect time in history.”

Assassin’s Creed: Origins is out on October 27th.