Oct 5, 2023 - Technology

Assassin's Creed Mirage defies Arab stereotypes

Illustration of a Playstation 5 controller under a date palm tree.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

Assassin's Creed Mirage, out today from Ubisoft, is designed to transport players to 9th century Baghdad. It is an unabashed celebration of Arab culture and the Golden Age of Islam, its developers tell Axios.

Why it matters: Video games have long relegated Arab characters to villains or side characters and have largely avoided any inclusion of Islam.

Details: Mirage, by contrast, puts players in the boots of fictional Arab assassin Basim Ibn Ishaq, as he sneaks across rooftops, slips through crowded streets and hunts members of an enemy order.

  • Assassin's Creed is Ubisoft's most popular franchise, with over 200 million copies sold, and Mirage is the first to offer players worldwide the option to switch all dialogue to Arabic, with that mode's Basim voiced by Eyad Nassar, a popular actor in the Middle East.
  • Between assassinating order members, players can collect in-game tokens that unlock text entries about the artistic, cultural and scientific achievements of Baghdad's citizenry at the time, as well as a lesson on the pillars of Islam.

What they're saying: "We've seen a lot of stereotypes; we've seen a lot of clichés," Mohammed Alemam, a localization manager and creative consultant on Mirage, tells Axios, speaking of how games usually approach the Arab world.

  • For this game, the developers wanted to do better, he said, working with actors who wouldn't bungle pronunciations and aiming to design a world that avoided a "mishmash" of Persian, Arab and Indian cultures.

Between the lines: Players who use the Arabic voice-over option will hear classical Arabic that intentionally uses phrases and expressions specific to the time, while avoiding modern words, Alemam says.

  • For example, a character in Mirage will say لجنينا مالاً أكثر لو جلبنا التمر إلى هجر, which translates in English to "We would make more money exporting dates in Hajar."
  • Hajar is known for its dates, and the "the expression was a common one back in the day," Alemam says. But for English speakers who wouldn't get that reference, that line is subtitled as: "We would make more money selling water to a camel."
Video game screenshot of a man crouching on top of a building in 9th century Baghdad, with a domed building behind him
Assassin's Creed Mirage's hero Basim and the game's virtual Baghdad. Screenshot: Ubisoft (captured by Axios)

Yes, but: As much as Mirage's developers have aimed for accuracy and authenticity, they've had to respectfully bend the rules a bit, Mirage's art director Jean-Luc Sala says.

  • The destruction of Baghdad hundreds of years ago left Ubisoft's designers with a lack of visual references from the time. They focused on building a "garden city," Sala said, with some creative license about how close they placed a nearby desert.
  • Mirage also includes the Islamic call to prayer, or azan (athan), though it is heard only once, not five times, per in-game day, which lasts about 15 minutes. It needed "to be a real one, not like a kind of distant sound," Sala said.
  • Even the best of intentions can go awry. Early Mirage players noticed the in-game music sometimes played during the call to prayer. That prompted the team to post a note on X (formerly Twitter) in English and Arabic, saying the game will be updated to allow players to block that from happening.

Be smart: Ubisoft's efforts around Mirage are meant for a global audience but also to gather interest in the Middle East game market, where big-budget games in the local language are rare.

  • Interest in gaming in the MENA-3 (UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt) market is booming, projected to reach nearly 88 million largely Arabic-speaking gamers by 2026 and generate $2.8 billion in revenue, according to a Niko Partners study.

The bottom line: The Mirage team's attention to detail is earning it praise, even from critics who are lukewarm on the game.

  • "Despite not being super into Mirage, being able to see culture and history that is so personal to me was a joy," GameSpot managing editor Tamoor Hussain posted online Wednesday.
  • "The Middle Eastern and Islamic contribution to the world is usually buried and minimized, but the game shines a light on it. I'll always respect the game for that."

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