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Blog & Cultural Criticism

Clearing Out My Backlog: Assassin's Creed: Origins

Part of the mission of One Game At A Time is to refocus my energy and start experiencing games on their own merits, not as examples of trends I have to keep up with. When I decided to start this, I knew one thing would play a major part. I'm calling it triage.

A habit I've carried over from my younger days is binging on video games when I have the time to do so. When my life was heavily structured by outside forces, like school & work, I would relish the opportunity to close the blinds and tuck into a game for hours, or days at a time, when I had the chance. Now that I'm freelancing and setting my own schedule, it's easier for me to burn a day playing a game rather than fulfilling my own deadlines, which can always be pushed back. Working creatively on a long deadline is weird, it's easy and sometimes beneficial to fuck off and not work for a day, then have a love affair with your project the next day. You can also work whenever in the day you like. I've been on a routine of waking up early, playing a game for an hour or so with my coffee, then writing until the early afternoon.

This is all fine, except when I fall into an old trap: playing a game compulsively "just because I have the time." I realized just now that I've been doing that with Assassin's Creed: Origins.

Origins made a big splash when it released last year because it was a big refutation of what Ubisoft had been doing with AC for a long time. To grossly oversimplify things, they turned Assassin's Creed into The Witcher 3, adding sidequests, crafting, gear, a truly massive open world, and improved combat. All these improvements and the intoxicating Ancient Egyptian setting was enough to really get its hooks in me when the game first released. The one thing they didn't learn from Witcher 3, was how to tell a story.

In my Backlog entry on Horizon, I talked about the storytelling in open world games being flawed. Assassin's Creed has always struggled to tell a compelling story, bloating its narratives with tons of characters who pop in and out of the story, low-to-no emotional stakes, and sprawling storylines that go dormant for hours to spring back up again as if no time had passed at all. Witcher 3 addresses this with its storytelling-style quest log, giving you a new paragraph to read for every event that occurs in every questline. God of War handles this by having Atreus, Kratos, and Mimir chat about what they're doing and why- an organic approach to Witcher 3's solution.

Origins does neither of these things. Its quest log is barebones: "Bayek and Aya race to Siwa to stop..." I actually can't remember the name of the Third Act bad guy and I literally just turned the console off. The death of Bayek's best friend, who walks you through the tutorial, is handled as a major emotional climax dozens of hours after he last appeared in the story. I get that Bayek is upset by this character's death, Abubakar Salim's performance is one of the best things about this game, but I'm not!

Kotaku's Kirk Hamilton covered Origin's Third Act expansion in a positive light but it was the breaking point for me. I kept repeating "Who are these characters?" And "Why am I doing this?" Long after where I expected the game's climax to be.

I was looking forward to Odyssey, the sequel to Origins, but a recent IGN video and this week's experience with AC:O has dropped it from my schedule. In adding choices to the dialogue, it seems they've just given you the option of skipping through the BS, and the appearance and performance of the male lead (You can now, finally, choose between a male or female protagonist ala Mass Effect) is cartoonish: the guy reads like he's in a community theatre production of 300.

Here's hoping the next big three open world games, Spider-man, Red Dead Redemption 2, and especially Ghost of Tsushima, pick up where God of War left off.

Colin Munch