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Sunday, November 4, 2018

Game Review: Assassin's Creed - The Curse of the Pharaohs - Nile Scribes

Game Review: Assassin's Creed – The Curse of the Pharaohs

In the spring, the Nile Scribes invited guest blogger Emily Hotton to tell us how Egypt is represented in the latest installment of the Assassin's Creed franchise: Origins. The game developers recently added a new expansion called "The Curse of the Pharaohs" featuring the afterlife worlds of four Egyptian royals. This week, we are pleased to welcome Emily Hotton back for a review of the expansion.

Promotional poster for ACO: The Curse of the                  Pharaohs (Photo: Ubisoft)
Promotional poster for ACO: The Curse of the Pharaohs (Photo: Ubisoft)

Guest Scribe: Emily Hotton

In my previous two reviews of Ubisoft's 2017 addition to the Assassin's Creed franchise, Origins (read Review #1 and Review #2), I praised and criticised the base game and the Discovery Tour in equal measure. I enjoyed this installment of the franchise immensely and respected the time and effort the developers and consultants gave towards perfecting the finished product. That appreciation, however, was nearly shattered with the release of the largest expansion to the game to date: "The Curse of the Pharaohs".

Released in March of 2018, the expansion takes our protagonist, Bayek of Siwa, to Thebes: home to the great temples of Luxor and Karnak and to the Theban Necropolis, including the famed Valley of the Kings. Bayek is drawn to Thebes due to rumours that the kings of old are reawakening, mysteriously massacring the innocent citizens of the city. In order to stop this otherworldly phenomenon, Bayek must travel to the afterlives of each of the resurrected pharaohs through their tombs in the Valley of the Kings in order to save Thebes from this "curse".

The city of Thebes as it was reimagined during the Ptolemaic Period (Photo: Ubisoft)

I was somewhat disappointed that a large expansion was playing into one of the biggest cliches of ancient Egypt in popular culture. Since the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb (KV 62) in 1922 by Howard Carter, the stereotype of the mummy's curse has been irrevocably interwoven with ancient Egypt's portrayal in popular media. The base game and its first expansion, "The Hidden Ones," avoided the stereotype and instead stuck to a storyline delicately interwoven with the main franchise's overarching plot. Like the decision to make Bayek a Medjay or choosing the decline of the Ptolemaic dynasty as the setting, I feel this decision to perpetuate the false notion of the "curse of the mummy" was made to draw attention to the game instead of focusing on educating those unfamiliar with Egyptian history.

Ba-birds, representations of the human soul in ancient Egypt, are seen flying through Nefertiti's Afterlife (Photo: Ubisoft)

What Was Well Done

(1) Entering the Afterlife

Bayek enters the afterlives of Nefertiti (1353-1336 BC), Akhenaten (1353-1336 BC), Tutankhamun (1332-1323 BC), and Ramesses II (1279-1213 BC) in order to end their terrorizing in the living world.In general, I found the process of entering the afterlife to be a well-rendered experience. It plays appropriately into the themes of the Underworld Books which dictate the soul's journey into the afterlife. The one criticism I have was the use of false doors: while universal in tomb architecture of the Old Kingdom, false doors do not appear in the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings as they do in the game. Regardless of this fact, the false doors do work quite well to transport Bayek from the realm of the living to the dead.

False door leading to the afterlife in the rear of                  Tutankhamun's in-game tomb (KV 62). (Photo: Ubisoft)
False door leading to the afterlife in the rear of Tutankhamun's in-game tomb (KV 62). (Photo: Ubisoft)

After Bayek makes his way through the false door, he finds himself in a long chamber with water flowing across a narrow walkway dotted with waterlilies and pads – the Lake of Flowers. On either side stand tall, intimidating statues – presumably representing the 42 Judges of the Dead. Powerful voices echo through the chamber, both male and female. Initially, I thought the recited lines were those of the well-known Negative Confession and this was the weighing of the heart against the feather of Ma'at before Osiris and the 42 Judges. But, listening closely, I realized the judges were accusing Bayek of transgressions: "Have you killed the innocent; the weak? Murdered for your cause! Avenge yourself; burn with rage! Cause terror in the hearts of innocents?" The effect was even more dramatic than the "I have not" confession formula featured in the Weighing of the Heart scene. I adore this adaptation – while not replicating the exact Negative Confession uttered by the deceased, you are given strong admonishments from powerful voices as you progress through the hall to the afterlife.

Waterlily path, where the Bayek hears the judgments                  of the gods. (Photo: Ubisoft)
Waterlily path, where the Bayek hears the judgments of the gods. (Photo: Ubisoft)

(2) Tutankhamun's Tomb

As with the base game, the attention to detail in the expansion is phenomenal. There is intention behind the placement of every object, and wall scene. For example, Tutankhamun's tomb is filled to the brim with royal funerary grave goods, while the others are mostly empty – picked clean in antiquity. This reflects reality: Tutankhamun's tomb, though still looted at least twice in antiquity, was promptly resealed and eventually lost after the stairs were mistakenly buried.The one criticism I have for Tutankhamun's tomb is the entrance: it should have been inaccessible from the surface due to the Ramesside workmen's huts which blocked the stairs until Carter's rediscovery of the tomb in the 1920s.

Treasury room in the tomb of Tutankhamun (Photo:                  Ubisoft)
Treasury room in the tomb of Tutankhamun (Photo: Ubisoft)

Another detail worth mentioning were the thrones of the pharaohs within their afterlives. Each throne has a famous scene depicted on the back of the seat – though I would say the scene from Tutankhamun's throne is most recognizable. The throne bears the same scene found on one of his many funerary chairs. The throne (JE 62028) made its home in the Egyptian Museum, but will soon be displayed together with the entire Tutankhamun collection in the Grand Egyptian Museum which is currently under construction at Giza.

(3) Aaru, the Afterlife of Nefertiti

Of the four afterlives traversed in the game, I felt only two of them effectively represented the concept and ideals of the ancient Egyptian afterlife. The first afterlife you enter is that of Queen Nefertiti, consort to Akhenaten and a famous figure in her own right. Nefertiti's afterlife is a stunning sea of fields with a rising sun that casts a golden glow across the landscape. In the centre lies a temple dedicated to the queen. Throughout the fields, her colossal figure rises up from the reeds. This afterlife, Aaru, is quite obviously the Field of Reeds–the final destination of all souls where they can live on for an eternity in peace. Aaru, literally the Egyptian name for the Field of Reeds, was the mirror image of the deceased's life on earth, where one could reunite with loved ones who had already passed and live out their second life among their favourite people and things.

Aaru, Nefertiti's Afterlife (Photo: Ubisoft)
Aaru, Nefertiti's Afterlife (Photo: Ubisoft)

(4) Aten, the Afterlife of Akhenaten

The second afterlife you enter is Aten – the afterlife of Akhenaten. For Akhenaten's afterlife to be modelled differently than the others is remarkably fitting. Aten, while worshipped as the sun disk, was also the name of the alternative afterlife for Akhenaten's religious beliefs – a separate realm from the one ruled by Osiris where the spirits of the deceased lived on in the temples of Aten. Akhenaten's afterlife is a great sea, dominated by temples. The Aten disc sits high in the sky, rays of light beaming down like the giving hands of the Aten often depicted in the art of the Amarna period. In these scenes, the rays of the Aten end in hands, giving life to the royal family, who in turn give life to the people.

Aten, Akhenaten's Afterlife (Photo: Ubisoft)
Aten, Akhenaten's Afterlife (Photo: Ubisoft)

What Could Have Been Better

(1) Second Death 

Bayek enters the afterlives of the pharaohs to destroy their souls. To the ancient Egyptians, death was not considered the end, but the start of their second life which lasted for eternity in the Field of Reeds. What was feared was the possibility of ceasing to exist, nothingness – the second death. Second death could be achieved by failing to pass the Weighing of the Heart – if the deceased's heart was heavier than the feather of Ma'at, they could not continue onto the Field of Reeds. Instead, Ammut, the Devourer of the Dead, came forth to destroy the heart of the deceased and plunge them into their second death. Deliberately entering a king's afterlife to bring about the second death of a soul is very un-Egyptian, and not something I believe Bayek would have been comfortable with in the slightest. Perhaps the developers have another explanation – that Bayek was not destroying the soul of the deceased pharaoh but the curse itself – but from my perspective, he accosts himself into their eternal resting places and plunges them into nothingness – a fate worse than death to the Egyptians.

An aerial view of the Valley of the Kings, facing                  south. (Photo: Ubisoft)
An aerial view of the Valley of the Kings in-game, facing south (Photo: Ubisoft)

(2) The Valley of the Kings

While Bayek entered the tombs in the Valley of the Kings on the game map, I couldn't help but wonder: do the tombs' placement reflect the real Valley of the Kings? Of the four tombs that players enter, only Tutankhamun's (KV 62) and Ramesses II's (KV 7) are confirmable in the Valley. Akhenaten's tomb is located at Amarna, not in the Valley of the Kings, and Nefertiti's tomb remains undiscovered. At one time, it was hypothesized that the female remains discovered in KV 35 could be Nefertiti's, but analysis proved this incorrect, and the mummy has since been designated the "Younger Lady."

Comparison with the Theban Mapping Project's interactive atlas suggested to me that the locations of the tombs in-game are unfortunately not accurate. As can be seen by the modified map, Tutankhamun's tomb (KV 62) should be somewhat south and slightly east of Ramesses II's tomb (KV 7), unlike the in-game map which places Ramesses' tomb almost exactly east of Tutankhamun's. I thought they may have plotted Nefertiti's and Akhenaten's tombs after KV 35 and KV 55 respectively but, again, the locations do not compare to the Theban Mapping Project's plans. What did match, however, were the tomb layouts. I took time to explore both tombs, comparing them to the floor-plans made available by the TMP. Tutankhamun's small tomb layout is exact to his tomb in reality. Ramesses' in-game tomb is accurate–there are, however, inaccessible sections due to rubble–but the reachable areas do match the available tomb layout.

Duat, Tutankhamun's afterlife (Photo: Ubisoft)
Duat, Tutankhamun's afterlife (Photo: Ubisoft)

(3) Duat, the Afterlife of Tutankhamun

Tutankhamun's afterlife is the Duat, which is actually the Egyptian term for the afterlife as a whole. The Duat has no consistent geography, no map, no setting, but largely it was meant to reflect the world the Egyptians knew in life with fantastical elements. Tutankhamun's Duat is a world awash in darkness, his temple cut into the mountain amid the rocky valley, giant bioluminescent lotus flowers dotting the landscape. While the giant lotuses and midnight setting provide the mystic atmosphere the other afterlives also present, this setting does not emulate the world Egyptians would have known. The ideal landscape was the fertile Nile Valley and Delta, where the annual inundation of the river provided them rich land to cultivate crops.

The temple at the center of the Duat, in Tutankhamun's in-game Afterlife (Ubisoft)

(4) Heb Sed, the Afterlife of Ramesses II

Ramesses II's in-game afterlife is called Heb Sed. This is completely, and utterly, confusing.  *Heb Sed* is the festival celebrating the thirtieth regnal year of a pharaoh, then repeated every three or so years after. Having reigned an incredible 66 years, Ramses would of course have celebrated an unprecedented number of Heb Sed festivals. This doesn't, however, impact the landscape of his afterlife or explain its name. His afterlife is a desolate expanse of jutting rocks, monolithic busts, and a bloody battlefield–the Battle of Kadesh. While I appreciate the nod to one of Ramesses' greatest campaigns (which he won and lost–depends who you ask), this *is not* how one would want their eternity formed.

Heb Sed, Ramses' Afterlife: Battlefield of Kadesh                  (Photo: Ubisoft)
Heb Sed, Ramesses' Afterlife, takes the form of the Battlefield of Kadesh (Photo: Ubisoft)

Before reading on, please be aware the following paragraphs contain game plot spoilers.

Second, it is unclear why Ramesses II is included as one of the resurrected pharaohs. Throughout the game, it is revealed that four pharaohs have been resurrected by a living character to enact revenge, but are only able to be resurrected because they all at some point in their reigns came into contact with the Apple of Eden – the artefact at the centre of the franchise's plot. The artefact, a golden orb of mystical ability left from an advanced civilization predating mankind, was interpreted as the Aten by the in-game ancient Egyptians.

Heb Sed, Ramesses' Afterlife, takes the form of the Battlefield of Kadesh (Photo: Ubisoft)

The correlation between the artefact and the Aten is genius–it works impeccably within the larger plot of the Assassin's Creed franchise and ties it well to Egyptian history. It is understood how Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and Tutankhamun came to possess the artefact during their reigns; they all lived and ruled during the Amarna Period, when Aten worship was at its pinnacle. It is never explained, and I cannot fathom how or why, Ramesses came to possess the Aten, or why he is included in the game expansion which almost solely deals with the Amarna Period from the 18th Dynasty. I can only interpret Ramesses' inclusion the same way I bemoaned the decision to make Bayek a Medjay during the Ptolemaic Period –the developers grasped at anything vaguely recognizable to the general public, regardless of whether it fit in the larger plot of the game, franchise, or Egyptian history. Ramses had no place in this expansion–he lived long after Akhenaten and did not ascribe to Atenism. But, everyone knows who Ramesses the Great is, so how could they not include him?

Amarna Period imagery features heavily in "The Curse of the Pharaohs" (Photo: Ubisoft)

Final Thoughts

While I have many criticisms concerning the content of this huge expansion to Assassin's Creed: Origins, this isn't to say it's not a game worth playing, nor is it to say I didn't enjoy it. As just a game, it was entertaining–the graphics still beautiful, the mechanics smooth. If you have no background in Egyptian history or culture, the mysticism of the afterlife and familiar tropes would likely be enchanting. But for me, this time, the inconsistencies in the game plot, as well as how it connected to real Egyptian history, outshined the attention to detail and pretty landscapes, not even to mention the abhorrent decision to invoke one of the most unfortunate stereotypes tied to ancient Egypt from the modern world. The base game and Discovery Tour took my breath away–and will always remain great additions to the small library of ancient Egypt in modern media…but I could have done without "The Curse of the Pharaohs".

Emily Hotton has a Master of Arts in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations from the University of Toronto. She works in Student Life at the University of Toronto, is an avid video game player, and has volunteered at the Royal Ontario Museum. In 2016, she presented her research paper, "Divine Queenships and its Development in Dynasty I-VI" at the NMCGSA's 20th Annual Graduate Students' Symposium.

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