A lot of popular historical fiction—the type we see in games and movies and television—is full of shit. We’re so used to it being full of shit that, when Assassin’s Creed Odyssey opens during the Battle of Thermopylae, which, because it’s set in ancient Greece, is apparently obligatory, the player is mentally prepared for a very stupid video game.
Thermopylae is probably most associated now with its portrayal in Zack Snyder’s meat-headed 300. The movie’s depiction of the clash between Spartan warriors and invading Persians recast it as a heroic clash between the forces of the freedom-loving, honorable West and the nefarious, totalitarian East. This understanding of history is a fiction useful only to racists and morons. It’s best taken about as seriously as the physics of Gerard Butler’s slow-motion combat acrobatics, and it represents a historical stance that Odyssey, thankfully, rejects and complicates within its first hours. From its very introduction, the game makes clear it is uninterested in the dopey simplicity of ancient Greece as envisioned by Snyder (and Frank Miller’s comic book source material), preferring instead to embrace a more cynical, but honest, look at the fifth century B.C.
For a series that’s spent so long trying to jam real-world history into the black and white confines of who was “right” and “wrong,” it’s a welcome change. Instead of having to look at the past as a continuous struggle between rigidly binary terrible and wonderful groups of people, Odyssey’s happier to inhabit the murk and muck of its setting’s complicated circumstances.
At the outset, the plot is typical Assassin’s Creed: a historical nobody, living in a time and place of great international importance, discovers their role in a centuries-spanning battle between secretive forces sworn to promote either freedom (the other games’ Assassins) or authoritarianism (their Templars). (Odyssey takes place before either group has been formally established, but the gist is the same.) In previous entries to the series, this fundamentally goofy framework has hobbled more than aided the stories. Each game, regardless of its respective strengths and weaknesses, has tried to flatten the complex tapestry of, say, the French Revolution or the culture and politics of Renaissance Italy into a structure too confined to do justice to reality.
It’s a framework for history that results in unintentionally hilarious scenes where, for example, Queen Victoria titters magisterial gratitude while knighting a trio of ludicrously robed British assassins or a young Leonardo da Vinci outfits a character with a wrist-mounted spring blade for more efficient dude-stabbing. At times, as in Assassin’s Creed III’s take on the American Revolution or last year’s Assassin’s Creed Origins’ depiction of late-period Ptolemaic Egypt, playing with the formula can have compelling results. Both of these games, even within the absurdity of running missions for Cleopatra VII or Paul Revere, portray the intricacies of their time periods with more impact than many of their pop culture counterparts. For the most part, though, the Assassin’s Creed approach takes eras whose intricacy academics may spend a lifetime grappling with and boils them down to digestible and ultimately misleading narratives of good versus evil. This is how Queen Victoria—the ruler who presided over the height of the British goddamn Empire—somehow ends up a figure on the side of the liberty-devoted Assassins in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, and it’s how the complex revolutionary legacy of Maximilien de Robespierre is reduced to being simply an authoritarian Templar.
It’s not fair to say this is a problem only in Assassin’s Creed—pop culture action like this is, as mentioned above, often quite dumb, or at least factually challenged, whether it’s 300's Manichean narrative, Gladiator’s flattened portrayal of the Roman Empire, The Last Samurai’s white savior take on Meiji period Japan, or the bulk of Mel Gibson’s slimy oeuvre, especially Braveheart’s gloss on 13th-century British politics and The Patriot’s American Revolution fan fiction. And so it’s a pleasant surprise when, in Odyssey’s 300-adjacent prologue, the Spartan King Leonidas I is a tired-looking, gray-haired man rather than an energetic, muscle-bound bro. The Persian forces are ordinary humans wearing a different kind of armor, not an ocean of mutant freaks led by a villainously effeminate demon. The battle itself is still bookended with the requisite patriotic speeches and martial hagiography expected of any summary rendition of Thermopylae, but it’s noticeably subdued in comparison to its closest pop culture analog.
This is an approach emphasized as Odyssey continues, its first act picking up decades after Thermopylae and the Greco-Persian Wars have ended and shifting focus to a young mercenary—players choose between either a woman named Kassandra or a man called Alexios—living on a remote Aegean island in 431 B.C. Soon enough, as is custom for role-playing games and young adult novels, the character is swept up into seismic events. In this case, it’s the first year of the Peloponnesian War. On a quest to learn more about their long-absent Spartan parents, the protagonist travels through a laundry list of city-states under the control of either the Athens-led Delian League or Sparta’s Peloponnesian League. Each area, mapped with colored bars indicating either blue Athenian or Spartan red domination, can have its power shifted by burning war supplies, assassinating generals, and slaughtering hapless soldiers. Either choice, Odyssey says, is okay in its books. Many of these regions, too, host famous figures from the era. The mercenary, in the Forrest Gumpian tradition of all Assassin’s Creeds, just happens to end up hanging out with Athenians like Perikles, Kleon, and Sokrates (Odyssey doesn’t use the more common Latinized spellings), Spartans like Brasidas, and many others. The game takes pains to note that neither side is made up of wholly villainous or virtuous people.
It would’ve been easy for the game’s designers to cast the Peloponnesian War-era Spartans, who practiced eugenics and maintained their society only through the violent subjugation and labor of the indigenous helot population, as the villains, with the democratic Athenians as the purported “good guys.” But Odyssey takes a different, more nuanced path. The story of the game is initially shoved into the background. For long stretches of time, it seems important simply to clear question marks off a frighteningly vast map full of side objectives, murder enemies for experience points and better gear, sail the Aegean picking fights with other ships and using their cargo to upgrade your own ship-fightin’ stats, or simply wander the rolling hills and white sand beaches of the game’s gorgeous, lavishly produced version of ancient Greece. The real pleasure of Odyssey, as in almost every Assassin’s Creed, is simply touring a vision of the past that only millions of dollars and countless hours of talented artists’ work can create. It isn’t until more time is spent completing “story missions” that force the mercenary to visit a wider breadth of the city-states and meet their population that the point of the game starts to become clear.
At roughly 30 hours into this thing, stabbing and climbing all over fifth century B.C. Greece like a homicidal Spartan spider, there’s still a sense that the other shoe’s about to drop and the series’ typical good-versus-evil framework will take center stage. Fortunately, the game seems uninterested in this direction, instead channelling series tradition mainly through scenes devoted to its immensely campy sci-fi meta-story. Not only does the entire game take place within a high-tech VR device, but after a long while you eventually make detours into high-flying magic and, no shit, Atlantis.
Despite all this, Odyssey distinguishes itself as a uniquely restrained Assassin’s Creed game, if only by refusing to “pick a side” in the Peloponnesian War. As a result, the player gets a better idea of what the war, which was spurred by territorial disputes and imperial tension between competing power blocs of Greek states, really meant in a larger context. The game’s mercenary protagonist fights against the more nebulous forces most reprehensible at the time: profiteers and political opportunists (best exemplified by its biggest enemy, the shadowy Cult of Kosmos) instead of evil Spartans or Athenians. Though this sometimes results in watery stretches of plot where those not already familiar with the era’s history are likely to wonder what, exactly, the war is being fought over, it coalesces into an impressionistic argument, refined over time spent in plague-ridden Athens or amid the corpses of yet another pointless battle, that the true enemy is war itself.
As goofy as its brand of historical fiction often is, Odyssey uses this approach to deliver an unexpectedly honest version of the past. It’s a distillation and continuation of the series at its best, balancing camp ridiculousness with a sober representation of history to create something as (gulp) educational as it is entertaining. Following on from last year’s similarly expansive and clever Origins, it feels like a renewal of Assassin’s Creed—a future where the enjoyment of exploring the past in intricate, CG detail doesn’t need to be coupled with stories too misleadingly simple to do it justice.