Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey

A farewell to arms

All good things must come to an end. I wrap up this series on Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey with a look at the associated books.

Josho Brouwers

When it comes to Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, there’s a lot to write about. Since I started this series in November, I have written many thousands of words on the game’s historical accuracy (or its missteps).

I could continue for at least a dozen more articles, but I’ve reached the point where I have to wrap things up, and leave the rest of the story for you to explore for yourself. After all, this is Ancient World Magazine, not Assassin’s Creed Magazine!

A quick recap

The very first entry in this series dealt with the Battle of Thermoylae, featured a very brief discussion on the role of women in ancient Greece, and the first quest or so on the island of Cephalonia, where the story really begins. Cephalonia is explored further in the second article, which also deals with how temples are represented in the game, the colours of statues, the nature of mercenary service in ancient Greece, and more.

I next wrote about the supposed Spartan tradition of tossing unwanted infants off cliffs, before leaving Cephalonia behind and sailing to the Megarid: a relatively short trip given how the game has drastically shortened distances between places compared to their counterparts in real life. It’s when you arrive in the Megarid that the game’s setting – the Peloponnesian War – takes centre stage. The game is set in 431 BC, ostensibly the first year of the (Second) Peloponnesian War, but it almost seems like the fighting’s been going on for a while.

The Assassin’s Creed games have always allowed the player to climb on virtually everything, but Odyssey seems to have no limits whatsoever. Why go the long way through the Propylaea when you might as well scale the walls and reach the top of the Athenian Acropolis in more or less a straight line?

As a kind of intermezzo, I offered a commentary on all the hints that are shown during loading screens. I then proceeded to oust the Athenians from the Megarid, which gave me a chance to write about the game’s representation of ancient Greek combat, as well as armour and weapons. I next headed to Delphi and performed a few quests in Phocis, before setting off to Athens, where I toured the Acropolis and the Agora, and met a number of luminaries, including Aspasia, Perikles, and Sokrates.

Once you’ve been to Athens, it becomes increasingly obvious that time is starting to pass more quickly. When you return to Athens later, the city has been struck by plague and Perikles is seriously ill, an event that can be dated to 429 BC. Time only seems to go more quickly after that, with the climax of the story set during the time of the Battle of Amphipolis (422 BC). In all, that means that the game covers nearly ten years in the life of your protagonist, but none of the characters involved seem to age even a single day.

I’ve written about the things that the developers got right, as well as the (many) things that they got wrong. But overall, I think the game is worth playing through and experiencing. Their depiction of the Spartans is close to the “theme park” version mentioned in Roel Konijnendijk’s recent article on the Spartans, the Athenians didn’t associate themselves with the colour blue, and there was never a “Cult of Kosmos”.

One of the major characters you’ll run into not long after having visited Athens is the Spartan general Brasidas. He makes quite an impression. Thucydides dryly notes he was “not […] a bad speaker for a Spartan” (Thuc. 4.84).

But I enjoyed the wooden temples, the painted walls, and the mostly good reconstructions of ancient sites like the Athenian Agora, the Acropolis, Delphi, Epidaurus, and other places. As I’ve noted before, the game might not always be particularly accurate, but it does feel authentic. A big-budget game like this can make people enthusiastic about the ancient world; it hopefully inspires people to read up on this stuff.

Related books

When it comes to reading, there are also three books that have been published to coincide with the release of the game. As i was trying to organize my notes and screenshots, I found the Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey Guide, written by Tim Bogenn, Kenny Sims, and Michael Owen, useful.

Published by the recently defunct Prima Games, it’s a detailed guide to all quests, activities, enemies, gear, abilities, etc. in the game. None of the quests, to be honest, are difficult or tricky enough to have you reach for the guide, I don’t think, but it’s a useful book to have when you’re writing about the game. It’s also a beautifully-made book, which means that I’ll probably hang onto it long after I’ve completed the game.

The Art of Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey is a beautiful book that goes into detail when it comes to the design of the locations, places, people, and things featured in the game. Here, a spread showcases some shield designs and offers a rather fanciful take on the Corinthian helmet.

Even more beautiful is The Art of Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, written by Kate Lewis and published by Titan Books. The book has more than 200 pages’ worth of concept art, sketches, and renders of peoples, animals, places, and things. Some detailed illustrations are so large that they are printed on fold-outs. The art is organized mostly according to region.

The text in the book provides insights into the thought processes that went behind the design of certain things, such as the forts, for example, which proved a challenge when it came to creating interesting environments for the player. The designers also tried to give different regions a different look based on the seasons, which help sell the idea – subconsciously if nothing else – that time passes for the player as he/she traverses the ancient Aegean.

The developers are also clear that they were guided in their designs not just by what archaeologists have uncovered or what historians have written, but also by other popular media. As noted before, the giant statues in the game are clearly inspired by stuff like the Clash of the Titans reboot, although no specific movies or TV shows are mentioned in the book. The funniest part of the book for me is probably the section on flags (pp. 184-185), where the author notes that “A lot of historical research was referenced for these designs” – as noted before, the ancient Greeks didn’t use flags or banners.

The large amounts of armour worn by some men (and women) in the game belongs more properly to the first half of the fifth century BC rather than the second, but the designers of the game wanted to offer variety and introduce elements that would be familiar to players. For example, Corinthian helmets had mostly fallen out of disuse by around 450 BC, yet they feature prominently in the game, which starts in 431 BC.

Finally, there’s the novelization of the game, written by Gordon Doherty and published by Penguin. The novelization ignores all the typical Assassin’s Creed guff – there’s no reference to the modern era or any of the Precursor stuff. The book is essentially straightforward historical fiction that keeps the focus squarely on Kassandra (the canon protagonist).

The writing is surprisingly not terrible, even if the author adopts the same mistakes as the game, including Kassandra referring to herself as a male misthios. Many characters also “croak” (in terror, out of anger, whatever) and there’s some other silliness in there, but all in all this is serviceable, if disposable. In short, if you’re curious about the story of the game and/or just want to waste a day or two reading a fast-paced story with plenty of action that’s set in ancient Greece, this is perfectly okay.

Where to go from here?

If you haven’t played the game yet, I cannot recommend it enough. It’s a sprawling game that’s generous when it comes to content. It’ll keep you immersed in ancient Greece for at least 60 to 80 hours, if not longer. Is it perfect? No, but the graphics are great, the writing is solid, and the developers got a good amount of the historical and archaeological details right.

If you want to delve deeper into the Peloponnesian War, there are plenty of books to get you started. First of the list are, of course, the primary sources. Thucydides wrote a history of the Peloponnesian War, but died before finishing it. Xenophon continued the story in his Hellenika. Both books are available in the Landmark series, edited by Robert Strassler. I’d recommend you seek out the Landmark editions of these books, as they’re very easy to get into, feature many maps, detailed appendices and indices.

Much has been written about the Peloponnesian War and I cannot possibly list all relevant literature here. A classic in the field, is G.E.M. de Ste. Croix’s The Origins of the Peloponnesian War (1972). More indicative of the kinds of interests favoured by current scholarship is the collected volume Interpreting the Athenian Empire (2009), edited by John Ma, Nikolaos Papazarkadas, and Robert Parker. J.E. Lendon’s Song of Wrath: The Peloponnesian War Begins (2010) is also of worthy of note. With regards to warfare in Classical Greece, Hans van Wees’s Greek Warfare: Myths and Realities (2005) is required reading. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t point out Roel Konijnendijk’s published PhD thesis.

More generally on Classical Greece, the general reader can refer to Classical Greece, 500-323 BC (2000), edited by Robin Osborne, and P.J. Rhodes’s A History of the Classical Greek World, 478-323 BC (second edition, 2010). Useful, too, is Simon Hornblower’s The Greek World, 479-323 BC (fourth edition, 2011). Hornblower’s introduction to his chapter on the Peloponnesian War should be required reading (p. 156):

So why should we read Thucydides? Here we should perhaps be frank and admit that in terms of the effect of the Peloponnesian War, i.e. the importance of Thucydides’ theme, there is no real justification for the extravagant and lopsided treatment which the twenty-seven years 431-404 get in modern books. We should be bold and plead the analogy of the Trojan War. It seems that if the Trojan War did happen, it was a laughably tiny-scale affair. And yet for thousands of years, readers have occupied themselves with just a few days of it, simply because it was written about by Homer. Thucydides, then, in a sense created the Peloponnesian War. In other words, we could give a purely literary answer and stop there; Thucydides (it can be said) is worth reading less for what he writes than for how he wrote it.

As Hornblower makes clear, some things did profoundly change after 404 BC, not in the least the fact that Athens (and arguably Sparta) never fully recovered from it. But a good story well told will always draw interest, whether it be historians or archaeologists or game developers.

Now, if you don’t mind, I have to get back to the game.