I’ve written so much now on how Western media, including in video games, has and continues to depict the countries and peoples of Southwest Asian and North Africa (SWANA, ie. “Middle Eastern”) as dangerous, exotic, stereotypical, and overall Orientalist. There’s still so much work to be done undoing harmful Orientalism that perpetuates our media sphere, but with the absolute majesty of Assassin’s Creed Mirage, which takes place in 9th Century Baghdad at the height of the Abbasid Caliphate with an Arab main protagonist in Basim Ibn Ishaq (Lee Majdoub), we have an outstanding example of Arab, Muslim, and overall SWANA representation in gaming. Through their thoroughly researched work on Mirage, involving Arab creative talent both in front of and behind the scenes, the Ubisoft developers have created one of the absolutely best examples of Arab, Persian, and Muslim representation in gaming that I can ever recall. To put it simply, this is the way it should be done.
As we start the game in Anbar, eventually settling in the main setting of Baghdad, Basim’s world feels instantly familiar, as somebody who has had the fortune to visit other Arab countries, namely Jordan and Lebanon. The casual nature of seeing people go about their daily lives is refreshingly subdued. Like any other city or location in the Assassin’s Creed franchise, the adventures are set against the backdrop of normal people’s lives as we traverse the splendid architecture of Baghdad.
What makes these people distinct is their cultural richness, evident in the Arabic, Farsi, and other languages spoken so casually in the background, as well as the main dialogue. To see so many brown faces with the full variety of skin tones in the region, to run into a bright and colorful hung-up carpet when turning a random corner, to hear the call to prayer several times throughout the day as you traverse the city, to swim in the Tigris river flowing through the city, to marvel at the various fountains and architecture, and so much more makes for a culturally enriching experience. Arab and other SWANA players can truly see the representation too often denied to us, and spur us to demand more of it.
The sheer design of this game is a marvel, showcasing the inherent beauty of Arab and other West Asian civilizations. Most Western media depicting Baghdad, and the Arab world more generally, are designed through the Orientalist flatlining of dusty deserts and remove vibrant color through the ugly yellow filter. But not here. While Assassin’s Creed Mirage itself takes place in a desert environment with a few dusty areas, there’s so much else to explore in the city’s buildings, nature, art, and people, all of which have a vast array of colors. Showcasing sprawling wadis (“river valleys” in Arabic), a huge variety of colors and textures in the environment, including the gorgeous design of the sun as it shines in the desert, the numerous fountains over the city, gorgeous carpets, beautifully designed architecture, and more, Assassin’s Creed Mirage is a marvel merely to look at, as well as play.
Political intrigue is, as ever in the series, at the heart of Assassin’s Creed Mirage, as it showcases political rivalries in Baghdad with intricate depth rooted in human fallibility without vilifying the Arab population. More importantly, there’s no stereotype of the religious zealot present in the game. Rather, political rivalries are based merely on a desire for control. It’s the classic conflict of the noble Assassins fighting for freedom versus the oppressive Templars who, as always, want to control.
In many ways, seeing this type of battle between the Assassins and Templars is one of the best encapsulations of the political dynamics in the region. There’s no Neo-Orientalist nonsense of “ancient hatreds” or other simplistic notions that further flatten the complexities of conflicts in our region. All of the characters’ motivations are manifestations of the very human evil of desiring power and control and the goodness of those fighting for our rights and liberties.
Basim is a fantastic Arab protagonist who, as his Lebanese voice actor Lee Majdoub says, is seeking his place in the world, has a highly relatable journey for anyone playing Assassin’s Creed Mirage, especially Arab people in the diaspora who may feel out of place. His Persian Assassin Mentor, Roshan, is a worldly older woman warrior who speaks with the gravitas and confidence that her splendid voice actress, Iranian legend Shohreh Aghdsashloo, easily affords her. Together with their Assassin brethren, they are noble figures fighting for justice.
The game’s presentation also invites players into Baghdad, reveling in its rich history as the Abbasid capital. The Baghdad of Assassin’s Creed Mirage is a thriving, sprawling, and diverse city with people from all across SWANA, Africa, and East Asia, as seen across the game in the background. This diversity genuinely speaks to the benefits of the Silk Road, which stretched across all of Asia and beyond into Europe and Africa and saw trade across these regions, with Baghdad as a waypoint for many merchants. Sometimes Silk Road’s diversity is used as an excuse not to cast or accurately portray countries in the region correctly, but not here. The Arab identity of Baghdad is strongly present, with a welcoming environment for non-Arabs as well.
Assassin’s Creed Mirage wonderfully presents Baghdad’s House of Wisdom, for example, a magnificent library built by the Abbasids, yet tragically destroyed after the Mongol invasion in the 13th century. There are no known records of the library, but the team at Ubisoft created a beautiful representation of their best-estimated design to lovely effect. With a large blue dome, a courtyard with a sprawling fountain, a beautiful and colorful interior and staircases, and scholars from all over entering and discussing the latest in history and science, players will see first-hand how Baghdad was an epicenter of advanced learning in the Middle Ages, far before the Renaissance in Europe. Through natural gameplay and bonus codex factoids scattered throughout the city, players will learn about such famous researchers as the Banu Musa brothers and others who advanced science and mathematics at the time.
There’s so much else to be said about how wonderfully this game portrays the region and Baghdad, but I’ll leave that for players to uncover. I can’t wait to play more of the game and discover them as I continue to get lost in the majesty of Baghdad. I can only hope that Assassin’s Creed Mirage does not remain exceptional in the mass of subpar and Orientalist content we SWANA people have to see in popular media. Hopefully, more and more games, films, and TV shows will take note of how Ubisoft did the work to hire and consult Arab and Persian people in front of and behind the scenes for Assassin’s Creed and make more exceptional stories that become the new rule. We all deserve better.