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Feature: Why Bayek is the new best Assassin's Creed protagonist

Here thar be spoilers for the main story of AC Origins.

Assassin’s Creed Origins has done a lot for a bit of a tired series. It refreshed it – almost rebooted it in fact – and gave players back a sense of being part of a great adventure. But it’s easy to miss the good work they’ve done with the new protagonist Bayek, because he is by design only a small part of a large machine, like we all are.

In the pantheon of Assassin’s Creed protagonists, I’ve always held that Ezio is the greatest. Altaïr, though fleshed out in later entries, was a stoic, empty vessel to carry murder around in, Evie was great but came bundled with a weird slab of beef in the form of a brother, and Arno Dorian left so little impression that I forgot he existed until right just then. But with Bayek we may finally have found an assassin worthy of challenging Ezio.

Bayek is a very relatable character. He displays both immense kindness and towering anger, deep sadness and boyish humour. He is incredibly gentle with children, loving to his hawk companion Senu, and adorably proud of how his wife Aya could almost certainly kick his ass. But at the same time he is capable of extreme violence, and unlike others that came before (but technically after) him, he’s conflicted about it and the ramifications it may have on his eternal soul in the afterlife. He is a bundle of contradictions, which makes him human. It also makes him a great avatar for the Creed.

Every fan of Assassin’s Creed – hell, even most people who’ve played an AC game – knows the phrase ‘Nothing is true, everything is permitted.’ Push them and they’ll probably be able to give you the three tenets of the Creed, which Altaïr broke back in the very first game: stay your blade from the flesh of the innocent; hide in plain sight; never compromise the Brotherhood. But less well known are the three ironies, which Altair ruminated on a lot as he got older. The Assassins commit murder to promote peace, they try to open minds but require obedience to rules themselves, and they see blind faith as dangerous to humanity but practice it within their own order. The Brotherhood basically functions on what it deems is necessary hypocrisy, and the members never see the benefits of the sacrifices they make. Bayek murders members of the Order of the Ancients, risking that his heart will be found wanting when weighed against Anubis’ feather after his death, but trusting that his work is for the greater good. Several times he comments on it in the game, concerned that Cleopatra orders a priest must die, but the blood of a holy man will be on his hands and not hers. 

Bayek’s story is especially interesting when you compare it to that of the other protagonists. Assassin’s Creed has always had a bit of an obsession with families and parents (which is understandable given the premise for that ‘genetic memory’ is a thing), and in particular the absence of parents. Altaïr’s mother died in childbirth and his father was killed for being an assassin, Ezio’s path to becoming towards the Brotherhood was set in motion by the hanging of his father, the Frye twins’ mother also died in childbirth and their father was dead by the start of the game, Arno Dorian’s father was also murdered when he was young, and Ratonhnhaké:ton (more commonly known as Connor) saw his entire village burnt down as a child. If you’re an assassin you should get the will drafted as soon as you have a child, because you probably won’t last outside a decade. These events also often hilariously conspire to mean that the fatherless assassin ends up having to kill at least one of their replacement father figures, and in one case their actual literal father. Dads: they’re a big deal in Assassin’s Creed.

But in Assassin’s Creed Origins Bayek is the father, and it’s his young son that dies. In a group with the same rate of occurrence of sad but beautiful orphans as the Disney Princesses, here stands Bayek, a childless father. Aya even comments on this unmooring of his identity: he can’t call himself a father because he has no son. Aya grasps that they are becoming mere pieces in a larger game much faster than Bayek does. While Bayek believes until almost the end that his task is over when he finally kills the man who murdered Khemu, Aya is already planning to head to Rome because ‘The Order is no longer an Egyptian problem only.’ By this point Aya is preparing to let go of her husband and son. She understands that she is not a person she is merely an assassin, eventually embracing this fully and changing her name and separating from her previous life, and identity, entirely. Bayek only starts to understand this as she leaves, and even then she has to remind him again that, ‘Everything has told us our love is impossible.’ At this point it should be clear that Aya deserves her own game, but that’s a battle for another day.

Assassin's Creed Origins Screenshots

Though Bayek eventually dedicates himself to ‘the new Creed,’ none of it would have been possible without his very personal vendetta in the first place. In a couple of Terry Pratchett’s books, characters say that ‘personal isn’t the same as important,’ but it of course usually feels quite important to the person involved in the personal. Bayek’s anguish feels sharper because he fights against a group of anonymous masked killers, almost literally faceless murderers, and part of his journey is uncovering their identities and very human foibles to face them on a more equal footing. He kills one of them while they’re both semi-nude in a bath, which is almost as personal as you can get, and if he had not been moved to seek out and kill the Order of Ancients, then the effects would not have rippled forwards and resulted in the deaths of all those other fathers. And yet he has to move beyond it all to found a new Order, becoming a Hidden One, a faceless killer himself. The Brotherhood protects people’s freedoms by manipulating nations without them even being aware of it.

The path from revenge story to a kind of wise scholarly type who is above it all in their old age is one that a few Assassin’s Creed protagonists have trodden, noticeably our old friend Ezio. He goes from mad shagger, to grief stricken sole male survivor of his family (but still a mad shagger), to a man approaching retiring age and realising that he was ‘only a conduit for a message that eludes my understanding.’ 

Bayek doesn’t encounter the First Civilisation of the wider AC lore much, and isn’t especially troubled by it when he does, which is a great decision because it allows his struggle to unfold on a much more relatable level. He is caught up amongst politicians scrapping for power, the colonisers ostracising his Egyptians in their own lands, and the people being manipulated by their superstitions and fears. These looming figures of history only care about his loss to the extent that it means he wants the same people dead as they do. Even those he helps as he travels around the country don’t really know who he is, they’re just glad someone has stopped by who doesn’t mind sorting out the bandits down the road. The story works particularly well in Ancient Egypt, which in Bayek’s time is already full of monuments to its impressive past, but is also marked by the squabbles of Greeks and Romans, so everything around Bayek is constantly placing him in the context of an entire country’s history.

Bayek is complex, as complex as a real person, and he is pushed and pulled in different directions by his personal feelings and knowing what the ‘right’ thing to do is. He wants to avenge his son, but is troubled for his soul. He wants to stay with his wife, but save the world too. But rather than accept it all passively, like so many of us do because, to be honest, social upheaval is all very well but we’re doing pretty alright right now and besides it’s a bit rainy, Bayek chooses to not go gently. He rages against the dying of the light. And he does okay. Okay is good enough.


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