Game developer Ubisoft is one of the companies leading the charge for diversity in the gaming community, albeit with mixed results. Through a number of hits and misses, the company has stayed the course learning from missteps to be regarded as one of the most forward thinking companies in the community.
And fans and critics definitely notice the good and the bad. Critics have taken the company to task for the lack of diverse characters in its Assassin’s Creed franchise, misogynistic tones in the original Watchdogs, and racially insensitive depictions of cultures in some of their games including Far Cry 4.
But Ubisoft has also been praised for its efforts to build games with diverse leads like the hacker Marcus from Watchdogs 2, the Native American Ratonhnhaké ton from Assassin’s Creed 3, Aveline from the Assassin’s Creed Black Flag DLC, and the slave freeing Adewale from the Assassin’s Creed DLC Freedom Cry.
With such a back and forth history, it’s interesting that the company would take on a potential powder keg by setting a game in ancient Egypt, a time that still inspires debate about the accuracy of the language and the population. But Assassin’s Creed Origins is set around 49 B.C. and follows the story of the birth of the Assassins and their fight to protect their people from Caesar’s army. The team worked with a legion of experts, historians, and world-renowned scholars on ancient Egypt like Maxime Durand and Jean-Claude Golvin in an effort to make the game realistic. The developers paid painstaking attention to detail not only to the physical realities, but the community as well, examining the language, the jobs, what the people looked like, what they did and what they sounded like.
We spoke to creative director Jean Guesdon on what went into bringing ancient Egypt to life for Assassin’s Creed Origins.
CASSIUS: What made you want to create a game set in ancient Egypt?
Jean Guesdon: It’s a setting we’ve been willing to do for a long time, and it was also one of the most demanded by our fans. But to do it justice, we needed the technology ready so our vision of an entire, seamless country would be achievable. What also decided us for that setting is the fact that for the 10th year anniversary of the franchise, we wanted to tell the origins story of the Assassin’s Brotherhood as players know it since AC1. To tell that story, what better setting than the place and time that many consider as the foundations of modern civilization?
C.: The game is set in 49 B.C. How did you choose the time period you wanted to recreate? What interested you about that time?
J.G.: The time period we chose is Cleopatra’s ascension to the throne. Of course, that time period is a great opportunity for us to include bigger than life characters such as Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, but first and foremost the reason why we picked that specific time is because it’s a pivotal moment in history. After 3,000 years, Egypt is at the dawn of its demise, confronted inside with the rising presence and influence of the Greeks—in fact, the Pharaohs of the time were of Greek/Macedonian ascendance, following the conquest of the region by Alexander the Great—and outside with the threat of Rome.
From a narrative perspective, we wanted that our main protagonist, Bayek, could himself explore and unravel the mysteries of his own country. Many cities and temples of old Egypt have already become ruins. Treasures and secrets have been lost, and players will uncover them along with Bayek. From a game play perspective, it was important for us that the game was set at a time where weaponry was advanced enough with the use of swords and maces, but also shields, helmets, and armors.
C.: The Assassin’s Creed franchise has been noted for lush worlds and realism, and Origins is said to follow that same path. How was this achieved?
J.G.: This is the core DNA of the Assassin’s Creed franchise: make history everyone’s playground. While we take some liberties here and there so we can tell our original story, we strive to recreate time periods and locations in the most credible and authentic way possible. Once we decide on a time period, we immediately start gathering all the information we can find to help us understand the places and events of the time so we can recreate them in the game. This is also when we start working with external experts such as historians who bring us their expertise and knowledge of that specific era. We even have a historian embedded into the team! If we speak specifically of ancient Egypt in Assassin’s Creed Origins, the fact is that at that time it was an incredibly diverse country with many different biomes, even more than what it is today. This allowed us to build a world full of contrasts, from the vastness and openness of the deserts to the lush vegetation of the Nile Delta.
C.: Some of the concerns coming out about Origins is how it showcases diversity. How did you go about creating the population that lives in the game?
J.G.: All Assassin’s Creed games have been developed by a multicultural team of various origins, faiths, and beliefs. Assassin’s Creed games strive to be as historically accurate as possible and we work to ensure our protagonists reflect the setting and time period in which each game is set. The world of Assassin’s Creed Origins is populated by NPCs of different cultures and skin colors, which is as much a reflection of their daily life and occupations as of their ethnicity.
We’ve put a lot of effort to make sure that ancient Egypt’s ethnic diversity was represented not only with the look of the NPCs, but also with their different languages.
C.: Egypt is filled with speculation and wonder and even with all the technology we have today, it still mystifies us. How did you remedy some of those highly debated or theorized questions?
J.G.: For the spoken language in the game, we opted for English, with accents hailing from different ethnicities including Egyptian, Roman, and Greek, which all accurately represent the region during that time period. For NPCs and from an immersion standpoint, we went for actual dialects that you can hear throughout the world. Depending on the area, the NPCs speak either a blend of Aramaic and Hebraic, a version of Koine Greek, or Latin. We included a dialect for ancient Egyptians based on authentic research. To create the feeling of Ptolemaic Egypt, which was a real melting pot of cultures, our dialog coach John Flemming created our signature “Egyptian rhythm,” a mix of several African speech rhythms and the ancient Egyptian dialect.
C.: What were some of the most daunting tasks of recreating Egypt?
J.G.: While it was of course a great challenge, we had wanted to do ancient Egypt for a long time, so what always prevailed was the excitement to recreate such a fascinating place and time period. Recreating landmarks and cities that since then have drastically changed or have simply disappeared was especially tricky; it’s somehow a different process than bringing back to life revolutionary Paris, where many elements are still in place. For instance, there is not much left of Alexandria or Memphis. But thanks to our collaboration with renowned specialists like Jean-Claude Golvin, who is both an archeologist and a painter, we have been able to propose a vision of those places that are at the same time as historically accurate as possible, but also designed to strike players’ imagination and create emotions.
C.: Egypt has a rich history and mythology. How was that incorporated into the game?
J.G.: As for the history, I hope it can be felt and experienced everywhere in the game! Our main protagonist, Bayek, is a Medjay, a sort of sheriff of the time. As a Medjay, people in need will come to him for help, which allows us to tell hundreds of stories connected to the traditions of Ancient Egypt. Through the eyes of Bayek, players not only dive into Ptolemaic Egypt but also in the secrets and mysteries of Egypt’s glorious past, uncovered by Bayek while exploring a tomb or discovering an old temple now hidden underwater. For the mythology, we found some ways to include it in the experience so it does not break the realism. I don’t want to get into too much detail here as I’d prefer that players discover those moments first-hand!
C.: What was your goal when you set out to make Origins?
JG.:. From the start of the development, we had two main goals. First of all, we wanted to modernize the Assassin’s Creed experience, to rethink what it means to be an assassin from a game play perspective. We wanted to give more freedom to players, to give them more control over their actions. That’s why we decided very early on that we wanted Origins to be more of an action-RPG than its predecessors, so every player could choose how they want to build and make their character progress. To achieve that, we completely revamped three of our main game pillars: the combat, the narrative, and the AI. Our combat is now hitbox-based, meaning that the speed and the size of the weapon, as well as the player’s positioning, are now key and will make the difference between life and death. This also opened the door for unique weapons with different rarities and attributes, which players can loot everywhere in the world.
For the narrative, we moved to a quest-based structure so players can at all times choose what story they want to play. It’s now possible to start playing a quest, then switch to another one while keeping your progress in the first one.
As for AI, we created from scratch a new AI framework so most NPCs have their own personal agenda that players can decide to leverage in their actions, such as choosing to attack a camp at night when some of the guards will go to sleep. Our second goal was to tell an important story in the Assassin’s Creed franchise, the origin story of the Assassin’s Brotherhood. Fans have played with the Brotherhood’s rituals and principles since AC1, for the 10th anniversary we wanted them to discover how all that came to be and what characters and events led to the foundation of an organization that spans millennia.
C.: It took a robust team to make this game, outside of the legion of developers and programmers. Who were some of the key figures in bringing this game to life, outside of the usual suspects?
J.G.: Developing a game with such a scope is of course first and foremost a collaborative work. Everything needs to click together so players are totally immersed in the world and story we’ve created. From the directors to the testers, from the writers to the music composer, from the game designers to the programmers, everyone involved played an essential role in the making of the game.
C.: What sets Origins apart from the past titles in the Creed franchise?
J.G.: It’s the first time we recreate an entire, seamless country. From Alexandria in the North to the Faiyum in the South, our playground is one single world that players can experience without loading. With the new combat, quest system and AI frameworks, it’s also the first time that we give as much freedom to players in the way they can experience an Assassin’s Creed game.