You may not have heard of Ashraf Ismail. Assassin's Creed fans know him as the creative director of Black Flag - AKA the best game in the series not featuring Ezio. But, for four years since then, Ashraf has been buried away within the bowels of Ubisoft Montreal, unable to talk about the game he's been helming since.
Of course, the internet has known about Assassin's Creed Origins for a while. Its Ancient Egyptian setting was leaked long before the project even had an official title. And all the while Ashraf and his team (mostly) kept their heads down, spending an unprecedented amount of time on what looks to be a huge Assassin's Creed overhaul.
I had the chance to play Assassin's Creed Origins at E3 - its demo was impressive, and has done much to restore interest in an increasingly long-lived franchise. Its gameplay has been overhauled, its scope expanded and the long-requested Ancient Egypt location feels like a satisfyingly unique playground.
But what about the things the demo didn't show? The game's modern day section, loved by the hardcore fanbase, for example? And what was the deal with that huge snake at the end of Origins' E3 reveal? Can new main character Bayek finally upstage Ezio? And what was it like, working on a game while other entries in the series released to mixed response? I sat down with Ismail at E3 last week for an extended chat to find out more.
After all this time, and all the leaks, it must be nice to finally talk about Origins.
Ismail: Yes [laughs]. It's been three and a half years... We started right after Black Flag, so it's been a long road. To finally officially show it, to have people play it, it's great it's out there now.
Obviously, various things popped up online before the official announce. Was any of that distracting?
Ismail: Assassin's Creed, the setting and context - these are things people want to know about! It creates rumours... for us on the development team, we're focused on making the best game we can make so it doesn't really affect us, per se...
I can imagine it could be frustrating. I saw your tweet about the GameStop leak which revealed the main character on a piece of clothing. "Nice shirt"?
Ismail: Ohhh... yeah. Ohhh, the trouble I got into for that...
[Laughs] I think I was getting a bit antsy with the announcement coming. I wanted to show the game - I take a lot of pride in what we do. People say to me the game looks great but the people you should talk to are the engineers, the artists, the designers. They're working their butts off.
There feels like a renewed positivity around Assassin's Creed, that it's been reinvigorated with a year off, and with you guys being given more time.
Ismail: Well, it's a mix of things. When we started this project we were just done on Black Flag and super happy with the response to that. But then we had to ask ourselves, 'well, what do we want to make now?' And what came out of our discussions very quickly was that we wanted to do a proper Assassin's Creed experience but one that felt more modern - something people had not experienced before. We knew we were going to do something big, we knew we were challenging ourselves, Ubisoft as a company knew that well. So I'm super happy we've been given the time to do it. It's been three-and-a-half years, four by the time we ship. We've been given four years to make a big game.
It's one reason we couldn't do Egypt in the past - we felt we needed time to make this, technologically speaking we wanted to improve from Black Flag so that everything was seamless. Going into Alexandria, it's seamless, [whether you] go over its walls, go through a hidden cave, go through the main gates, it's up to you. It was an improvement we needed to make, and I'm really happy Ubisoft saw the value of that.
Sure, though in the meantime there have been three other games [Rogue, Unity, Syndicate]. How much attention did you pay to those, and the responses there? Did you collaborate on technology?
Ismail: For sure we paid attention - we had to. From a production point of view, sure, but also for our fans. [Seeing] what the reaction is to things - what's working, what's not working, what we need to think about. From a tool perspective, it's a little harder - if we can leverage technology we'll try our best to do that, but it's such a drastically different game. As an example, everything related to stealth, detection mechanisms, tools are completely different. Combat is completely changed, it's now a hit-box based system.
Combat is a lot better.
Ismail: Thank you - we take a lot of pride in that. The world creation, too - we could not have built this world with previous tech. The AI structure - when we started this game we knew it was roughly the size of Black Flag's world if all the water was replaced with land - we had to change the way we think about that. So now every NPC and animal in the world has a purpose, a function, a day-night cycle. They need to go to eat, sleep, go to the washroom.
Even the animals.
Ismail: Even the animals. When we say we reinvented it, we meant it. And we wanted to announce the game with a playable demo for a reason. We can scream it until we're blue in the face, but we wanted people to see it for themselves, what we've been doing for the last three-and-a-half years. [Laughs] It's why we have a boss fight in the demo. Did you beat him by the way?
[I did not.] The... er... the time ran out.
Ismail: [Laughs] Something for the full game.
There's lots for new or lapsed players then, but what about hardcore Assassin's Creed fans? Will there be answers to overarching questions from the series so far? It seems like you're soft rebooting the historical story, at least.
Ismail: So to be clear - it's not a reboot.
Ismail: It's all in line with the lore! We're telling the origins of the Brotherhood as we knew it in AC1. The symbols, the rituals.
Fingers being cut off.
Ismail: Indeed. And the mentor structure. The symbol of the eagle. How did this all come to be, and what journey did our hero Bayek go on to form the Brotherhood. We kept the viewpoints even though they don't do what they used to. They don't unfog the map. You do get question marks, but you have to go to a place to explore. And yes we do tell the tale of the cut finger.
There are campaign things we're not supposed to talk about yet... I read the forums, I read reddit. I know the things fans ask, what they what answers for. We've tried our best to... maybe not answer everything, but give enough meat to move forward. We play with the mysticism of Egypt - what is underneath the Great Pyramid? There has got to be something there...
Wasn't there a big snake in the E3 trailer?
Ismail: [Pause.] Yes there was... [laughs] What I will say about that is, because I know there are fans asking if we are going fantasy, is that we wanted to play with the mysticisms, the religion, the animal-headed gods... This was one credible, authentic way of imagining, from a mainstream perspective, what you might expect about Ancient Egypt.
So, a giant snake?
Ismail: The giant snake... it's fully justified.
Is it a dream sequence?
Ismail: I don't want to say what it is but when you experience it you'll be like - 'oh, I got it, it makes sense'.
It sounds like you're saying it's a dream sequence.
Ismail: I don't want to spoil anything for anybody! People can look at our old work and look at how we tell and reflect on stories. I'm sure people will work it out...
They're already deciphering your hieroglyphics [spotted by fans during Ubisoft's E3 press conference, these spelled out some familiar AC phrases and a prayer to the Egyptian god Ra].
Ismail: Yeah, they're going nuts. It's really cool. And we wanted to do our homework.
In Black Flag I felt we succeeded in having a great sense of exploration, but not a great sense of discovery. It's something with this game I think we've succeeded in doing - that both exploration and discovery, which are two different things, are on par. When you explore you want to learn something - something narrative, but also something with gameplay value. And you'll notice there are no more collectibles which are just 'collect X just because'. Everything has a gameplay value. We want players to feel rewarded for just exploring, getting lost in the world. There's a ton of stuff that's hidden which you'll be able to spend hours finding. It's stuff which tells you things about Ancient Egypt, but will also explain why this story, this character, this setting all align to reveal the origins of the Brotherhood. It all leads to something.
On the map I spotted something called Juno events. What are those?
Ismail: [Pause, laughs] Those were in the demo?! Errr...
Well, they were if you look at the map and then bring up the map legend and scroll through all the little icons.
Ismail: [laughs] Very good, bravo. Eeeesh. The legend... [sighs]
So. We just announced the game... we're just talking about Ancient Egypt for now, but there's a lot more to it. We are showing off a lot of stuff here but I will tell you we're showing this much [makes tiny amount gesture] of something huge. There's more to come, the campaign is huge. These guys [gestures to Ubisoft PR] want to trickle out the info so I'll play along.
But again... we know the questions our fans ask. [laughs] We know the answers we want to give and how we want to play with the lore of AC. And how this lore is tied to Egypt, as well - it was important we make that link. More will be revealed.
Might we see Egypt in different time periods, while we're there? In Syndicate we saw London during WW1, for example.
Ismail: Oh you mean like time anomalies? No, we don't have time anomalies or the concept of seeing Egypt in a different time period. We do have quite a few... exotic moments in the game which we'll talk about later as we don't want to ruin them. We want people to fall into them and be surprised.
With a soft reboot for the historical story going back to the origins of the Brotherhood, will the modern day story see a similar soft reboot? Or will it continue past narratives?
Ismail: Again, we're just talking about Ancient Egypt... but we listen and read and hear feedback - it's important to us. As game director it's extremely important I hear what state our fan community is in. So while we want new people to come in - and I think as an origin story of the Brotherhood this is definitely a good place to jump in - for me, we have to do justice to the people who have played our games, who support us.
So... I've said it's authentic AC experience, and we listen, but we're not talking more yet beyond Egypt so...
[Laughs] So there's a playable modern day?
Ismail: I did not confirm anything!
To be continued! Finally, while we've talked a lot about the setting, I'd love to hear more about the character we're playing as, Bayek. It seems we don't yet know a lot about him.
Ismail: Sure. Bayek grew up in a town named Siwa which was actually very remote from the rest of Egypt, off in the desert, just south of the Libyan plateau. The people in this place were truly Ancient Egyptians and took pride in that. They were cut off, travelling was dangerous.
He's a Medjay, someone from a line of highly-trained warriors, but also a kind of sheriff - which helps explain why he undertakes all these quests. In terms of his personality, he's highly reactive. When things are good, it's wonderful. When things are bad, he'll tear down the sky. He has a lot of compassion for the people of Egypt but is wary of outsiders. Effectively we wanted to craft a person who was the embodiment of Ancient Egypt. So, in 49BC, we're at the rise of Cleopatra but the demise of Ancient Egypt. The old gods will die and the world of Egypt will forever change. It's about what he needs to do, what he needs to become - and this journey will lead to the birth of the Brotherhood.
You start the game with him unravelling a mystery - there's a sense of mysticism to Ancient Egypt and we wanted to encapsulate that in the game. It pushes him to leave his village and explore Ancient Egypt, and uncover his own soul in the process. And if you align everything I said, maybe it will explain what that snake is!
Bayek is the snake!