This piece contains spoilers for Assassin’s Creed Origins.
Assassin’s Creed has always had fun with nested narratives. The modern-day sequences get a lot of stick, and fairly: they often feel like awkward and unnecessary interruptions to the historical adventuring which draws many of us to the series. But they do make explicit the series’ ongoing fascination with themes of historical memory – how we think about and remember our collective past. It’s baked into the idea of the Animus: where other series might have gone for time-travel or done without the contemporary frame-stories altogether, Assassin’s Creed bases its nonsense McGuffin on the idea that historical experiences are encoded in our DNA. For much of the series, the historical portions were explicitly labelled not as areas or time-periods, but as memories.
These themes have always been part of the series but the most recent entry, Origins, takes them and runs. There’s the modern-day frame-story and the mainly historical adventure, as usual, but within the ancient Egyptian setting the game is particularly interested in the still more distant past. Ancient Egypt isn’t equal in its ancientness. Its greatest icons and the central image of the box art – the pyramids – were more ancient in the game’s Ptolemaic setting than that period is to us. The game’s fascinated by this. Ruins are everywhere, ancient tombs punctuate the landscape and the game itself, casting hero Bayek as a Croft- or Drake-style tomb raider. Your reward for clearing a tomb: a stele inscribed with hieroglyphs. ‘Ancient writing,’ says Bayek, a note of awe as well as satisfaction in his voice, ‘from the Old Kingdom.’ The idea of ancientness-beyond-ancientness is there for everyone to hear.
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