Bayek from Assassin’s Creed Origins has all the makings of another Sad Dad among the ranks of AAA games, but instead bucks that in favor of a wholly-endearing character.
Assassin’s Creed Origins is a great bounce back from a franchise that, until recently, I couldn’t be bothered to play, and it’s mostly on the back of Bayek of Siwab, its main protagonist. Bayek is a husband, former father, and all-around good person; his sidequests come from talking to people on the streets who are clearly distressed, and he simply asks them what’s going on and how can he help.
As a Medjay (basically, an Egyptian cop), he takes his duty seriously and finds joy in helping other people. Coming off of a series of other recent AAA open-world games, Bayek was a much-needed breath of fresh air. Thanks to Bayek, I wasn’t too cynical about clearing out the to-do list that accompanies every Ubisoft open-world game.
Assassin’s Creed Origins also equips the player with the tools to efficiently clear locations thanks to your eagle, Senu, minimal objectives, and a ping ability that marks items nearby. Seemingly taking cues from The Witcher 3, many locations have their own smaller stories of tragedy, mainly locations bearing loot from would-be adventurers or unfortunate tradesmen who were killed by wildlife or the corrupt forces currently in power throughout Egypt. Bayek will sometimes offer commentary, hoping their souls have passed on in peace and regretting that they were not afforded a proper burial. It’s hard to express how nice it is to have someone who walks into a city eager to solve whatever problems the citizens may have without haggling on payment beforehand.
Broadly, video games can be separated into three divisions of protagonists: the silent, the selfish, and the unselfish. Generally silent protagonists have a lack of personality and become nothing but a boring empty vessel for the players’ emotions (Far Cry 5, Half-Life), but occasionally can have some semblance of personality through actions other than speaking, such as DOOM. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is sort of halfway between both, as Link lacks a voice or the defining commentary of Doomguy’s reaction to the world around him. Link generally emotes through his face, though Breath of the Wild lacks the range of Wind Waker. It’s hard to recall Link offering much personality himself aside from other characters commenting on his relationship with Zelda via flashbacks.
Then you have the selfish heroes, people who have their own journey and only make time for others reluctantly or via the promise of a reward. All Rockstar games have a deep cynicism in them, and though Red Dead Redemption 2 attempts to buck this with an altruistic Arthur Morgan at the very end, his gang causes nothing but harm for others around them and are no longer the Robin Hood type of yore. Kratos in God of War has no time to help spirits pass on into the next life; he’s too busy trying to reach the top of the highest mountain in all the realms to spread the ashes of his dead wife. Geralt in The Witcher 3 is a strange one, but I’ll place him under “selfish” since he’s mostly concerned with Ciri and desires payments in exchange for helping to kill monsters. Geralt does do the whole grumpy dad thing that Kratos occasionally pulls when he helps people, and puts on a show that he didn’t really want to.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, the follow-up to Origins that takes place hundreds of years beforehand, bucks the nature of Bayek in favor of an open-ended mercenary playing both sides of the Peloponnesian war. Since there are more dialogue choices, another Witcher 3 influence on the series, it can sometimes be up to the player to determine whether they are helping someone out of the goodness of their heart or for a reward.
Not every lead is someone more interested in furthering their own goals than helping others, such as Peter Parker in Spider-Man, Evan of Ni No Kuni II, and Aloy of Horizon Zero Dawn. All of these characters desire to make the world a better place, whether that’s by helping random people on the streets of Manhattan, changing the hearts of cruel kings, or solving problems for other tribes. These characters, much like Bayek, find fulfillment in helping other people which adds to their endearment.
Bayek has friends because he is actually someone you want to be around. He smiles, he laughs, he gets into drunken fights with old companions who despise him for staying true to his origins (get it?), and he watches over a spoiled teenage girl and becomes a secondary father figure to her. He helps someone figure out whether or not his house is cursed, he plays hide and seek with children at a temple, and generally just helps other people with their problems. Unfortunately, most of these story beats end in killing and combat, because video games have difficulty offering more than killing hundreds of people in gameplay. But it is easy to forgive these parts due to Bayek’s attitude towards the situations he gets himself into.
Bayek’s interactions with children also make him endearing, as he enjoys playing with them but is stern when need be. This helps you feel for the loss of his child, something that is otherwise a pretty tired trope. The loss of a family member that causes someone to search for revenge is already familiar territory for Assassin’s Creed thanks to Ezio Auditore’s tragedy in Assassin’s Creed II.
While it’s a motivation repeated here, on top of a rather overplayed and unnecessary cutscene in which Bayek is the one wielding the killing blade, it really helps that Bayek is not defined by his desire for revenge and not embittered eternally because of it (side-eyeing Kratos here). The pain of losing his child is shared with his wife, Aya, who uses that pain to fuel larger ambitions than Bayek ever dreamed of. While Bayek was seeking out those responsible, Aya was busy allying with Cleopatra in order to reestablish Egypt’s “true” leadership.
Instead of being defined by his pain, Bayek is defined by his desire to rid Egypt of the oppression over his homeland. From Siwa to Alexandria and beyond, Bayek crisscrosses all of Egypt on his quest to stop those abusing their power and abusing his people, whether they be native Egyptians or immigrants from Greece and other lands. This is his nature, his calling, and his biggest joy, and this is something I wish we saw a lot more of in protagonists in games, and especially from open-world games. The “sad dad” trend is something that has been happening for awhile now, potentially beginning in earnest with the release of The Last of Us in 2013. While Bayek has all the reason to be one of them, he defies this trend and makes Assassin’s Creed Origins one of the better games I’ve played in recent memory.