Layla Hassan is a welcome addition to the “Assassin’s Creed” franchise
Spoiler Alert: Part of the discussion below includes details from Assassin’s Creed games. If uncovering the story yourself is important to you, don’t read beyond the first paragraph.
The first time we meet Layla Hassan in Assassin’s Creed: Origins, she is already breaking the rules. “My mods are holding. Subject’s memories are perfectly clear. If this doesn’t convince Abstergo to give me a place on the Animus Project, nothing will,” she says to her best friend Deanna, who then reminds Layla the powers-that-be won’t be happy with her tinkering. “They know I don’t work by the book,” Layla replies, and we get the idea that this isn’t the first time she has made end-runs around her bosses. Deanna sighs, “Well, this time you lit the book on fire and then stomped on it.”
Layla is a scientist working for Abstergo, a modern day corporation run by the order-obsessed Templar Cult, and her job is to explore the memories of Bayek of Siwa and Aya of Alexandria in a tomb found in the Qattara Depression. Despite being employed by Abstergo, she was not given access to the Animus project, the computer that allows people to relive past memories through ancestral DNA, so she must work on the Animus in secret.
As the game progresses, players learn while searching through Hassan’s belongings in between levels that she attended Berkeley as a computer science major before being recruited by Sofia Rikkin to Abstergo’s Young Innovators. After her employment, the “Historical Tactical Team” sent Layla and Deanna to retrieve an important historical artifact. Initially, Layla was unaware of the Templar foundations of the company; she only ever wanted to work on the Animus Project.
“Besides creating a strong woman lead in one of the most popular game franchises in the world, Layla’s story highlights the struggles women face within the scientific community and celebrates careers in science or technology that tend to fall outside traditional educational paths.”
Her story is a welcome change to the “modern day” story lines of the Assassin’ Creed franchise, but more than that, her character is also a much needed representation of a woman scientist in video games specifically and popular culture more broadly. For the last decade, the Assassin’s Creed franchise has rightly received criticism for its male-dominated story arcs. In response to this, Ubisoft increased inclusivity in its games and movies, not only by adding women into the mix but culturally and geographically, recentering some of its games’ stories, such as is the case with Layla’s addition to the Assassin’s Creed universe. For decades, video-game studies have shown that game content/culture is effective at excluding women and reinforcing negative stereotypes. At the same time, women gamers and designers are increasing in number and characters like Layla hopefully signal that it will continue.
Besides creating a woman lead in one of the most popular game franchises in the world, Layla’s story highlights the struggles women face within the scientific community and celebrates careers in science or technology that tend to fall outside traditional educational paths. She dropped out of college; she is difficult to label (at first, I thought she was an archeologist); and she ultimately is forced to work outside of an institution. Abstergo frequently refused her application for the project because she didn’t follow their rules to the letter. Before Layla, the Animus technology could only allow people to explore the memories of their biological ancestors, but to prove her skill, she reconfigured the Animus in a way that allows her to explore the memories of anyone from the past. Her story provides gamers with a window into the stories of the many women that prove that there is not one way to do science.
Layla also doesn’t neatly fit into the category of scientist, for often in popular culture, especially video games, scientists fit into the same lab-coat wearing (typically male) tropes, with few exceptions. As with so many women, the fictional character has been forced to choose a non-traditional path. In fields like engineering, women are consistently discouraged from pursuing a career, beginning from their first classes in undergrad to engineering jobs. Women who choose to leave institutions are, of course, capable and skilled in engineering, but they are sidelined in a discipline that continue to privilege men. Just like many marginalized people in engineering, Layla and her partner were limited by a system, in this case the Animus, so they altered an existing technology.
What makes Layla an important character in the story is not so much that she invented something new but that she completely upends the Animus System from outside Abstergo, a gated community of Animus “experts.” As she develops this technology, uncovers new memories, and disregards the orders from Abstergo, Layla finds herself in league with the Assassin’s. When the Animus required live DNA to be of the same lineage, the Assassins and the Templars had to fight for control over a few select people, Desmond Miles, Subject 16, or a Sage (characters from previous games in the franchise). In order to explore the memories of Bayak, an Animus project she stumbled upon, Layla only needed a sample of DNA from any mummified remains thousands of years old. Thanks to her, anyone can now explore the past through memories locked away in DNA. This small change is literally game-changing. It dramatically alters how the past is accessed by Animus users, and by extension, gamers themselves. By expanding who can look into the past through the Animus, countless new storylines and memories can be explored, especially memories outside of the traditional greatest hits of “western civilization” around which most previous games center.
“The game developers’ decision to use Layla to upend a system illustrates how diversity shapes the way knowledge is produced and invites us to think differently about science and technology.”
As an ostracized woman working in a massive technoscientific company, Layla was able to see avenues for discovery that others weren’t. Layla is also an Egyptian-American, and it’s not a coincidence that it’s in Egypt, the site of her own heritage, where she is able to make such breakthroughs. Scientists don’t have to look a certain way or follow the rules of elite scientific societies (or, in this case, ancient evil cults). The game developers’ decision to use Layla to upend a system illustrates how diversity shapes the way knowledge is produced and invites us to think differently about science and technology.
Even though video game narratives have yet to make an appearance in literature or cultural anthologies, we must pay attention to how people write and play them. In “Why Video Games Matter,” astrophysicist and NPR commentator Adam Frank argues that video games have changed how we tell stories. “Each of our technologies, from the printing press to celluloid film, has opened up revolutionary new possibilities that have fundamentally altered the way stories can be told,” he writes. “That revolutionary role of technology is at work again now, and it's why we should be paying attention to video games.”
Similarly, Assassin’s Creed: Origins has presented us with a new tool for portraying women and others who are forced to work outside of “normal” scientific institutions and still have a major impact. Hassan is a good addition to the Assassin’s Creed narrative and, at least at this time, she will likely be a major part of the series in games to come. I do not want to suggest that the franchise or Ubisoft have fully addressed inclusivity or made amends for the prejudices in earlier Assassin’s Creed games. Still, in the case of Layla Hassan, the game writers have developed a character that celebrates women scientists, not just because she’s a woman but because she like so many other “outsiders” who have been forced out of the institution created something that was not possible on the inside.
Image credit: Assassin’s Creed Origins, Ubisoft Entertainment SA (Wikimedia Commons | Public Domain)