Egyptologist Jose Manuel Galan fell in love with the Ancient Egyptians by reading the fiction they wrote. Originally written on papyrus 4,000 years ago and translated into English for modern eyes, these stories of ancient deities awoke something inside the professor, leading him down a lifetime of study of the ancient civilisation, - particularly their daily lives, and the events we can piece together from the traces they left behind.
There was no other way to consume these tales in Galan’s younger days. Modern life, however, can introduce young people to history in many more ways - not just through old papers and books, but through movies, apps, and even videogames. Galan hopes that these new methods will ignite a lifelong passion for a new generation of historians. Specifically, he picks out Assassin’s Creed Origins and its forthcoming Discovery Tour DLC, a free, non-combat exploration update, as the game that could do it.
“[With Discovery Tour, Ubisoft] will make available what is written in [history] books in a more modern way,” Galan explains. “This could be a more attractive way for this generation to gain knowledge than my generation got through books. Maybe this could prompt them to fetch some books from the library.
“The idea is that this could be a first step to appreciate history. I think you will find people in the 21st century, ask them how they got into Ancient Egypt, and they will say they loved Assassin’s Creed Origins. It’s a possibility. It’s true that kids nowadays are very difficult to… trap, in a way, how you make them interested in what happened in Egypt 3,000 years ago. These kinds of tools may help teachers in high school to get kids interested in these studies.”
Galan consulted on Assassin’s Creed Origins. He was approached by Ubisoft to take a look at the content in the game and see if anything was out of place, down to the minutiae of daily life for the Ancient Egyptians. Being shown a falcon flyover of Ancient Egypt by the creative director, he was stunned by the visual recreation of these forgotten landscapes, the periodic decay of the monuments, and the life bustling around this once great kingdom. But how does this gel with the more fantastical elements of videogames?
“I have some colleagues who are concerned when fiction does not meet the information we have [of the period], but I think it is a price we can afford, [in exchange for] being present in media,” Galan says. “Of course, the public should know that it’s fiction. Want to know what really happened, or what we think really happened? You have to read books or go on the internet. On the other hand, we have to understand that the image we have of Ancient Egypt might be as wrong as the one portrayed in videogames. We’re not 100% sure what happened. Scientists and academic people should be more humble. Anything is welcome. Even the most idiotic movies - Marvel kind of things - should be welcome.”
Historians piece together stories based on the evidence they have, but theories are subject to change. Maybe there was once a Medjay who rode across the desert in a mummy outfit on the back of a chocobo. Who knows?
“With [Ancient Egyptian] mythology and with gods, everything is a little confusing,” Galan continues. “Particularly the Ptolemaic period where the Egyptian deities have been through a long evolution, and then foreign influence also altered them a little. Still, one can get a good idea of what was going on. The problem is that Egypt is not a monolithic culture, but it evolved a lot over 3,000 years. Also, regionally speaking, it is not the same in the north and the south.”
Even if Assassin’s Creed Origins does take some liberties with the big events of its period setting, it makes for an atmospheric learning tool. Nothing else lets you take a virtual tour of this ancient civilization, particularly not at this fidelity - Ubisoft are known for creating incredible worlds and Ancient Egypt is among their most impressive.
“History is not made of events,” Galan says. “History is more than that - history is literature, history is daily life, history is the relations between father and son, or husband and wife. History is legal contracts. In that sense, the game brings great attention to these secondary details, like how bread was made, how beer was made, when you go into a house you see what an Ancient Egyptian house looks like. Cleopatra is well portrayed, Julius Caesar is well portrayed, but the daily life, the geography, and the monuments are very well done.”
Perhaps one day, more discoveries will be made by new academics - historians inspired to research the Ancient Egyptians because they once watched the sun set over the Great Pyramid in Assassin’s Creed while sitting on the back of a giant yellow chicken.
This feature was originally published on January 15, 2018. You can read more about Assassin's Creed Origins here.