I get paid to play games — lots of games — and write about them. This is a great privilege, but it means I’m forced to budget my gaming time. It’s not efficient for me to play a game for fun when I have a bunch of new titles teed up for work, with deadlines looming.
Yet, here I am, 75 days after I posted my Assassin’s Creed Odyssey review, still playing the same game. I’m 120 hours into this enormous world, with plenty of places still to visit, and missions yet to complete. I’m pretty sure I’ll 100 percent all the quests.
This is a surprise to me. I’m not a huge fan of the Assassin’s Creed series, which has suffered from ludicrous sci-fi nonsense, rushed releases and tiresomely macho heroes. I often find Ubisoft’s open worlds to be sterile and samey. But Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is the game I’ve played more than any other this year. It’s the game I placed at the top of my Polygon GOTY voting form, ahead of Obra Dinn and God of War, both of which are astounding works of originality and design.
GOTY #10: ASSASSIN’S CREED ODYSSEY
For our 2018 guide to the best games of the year, Polygon has been counting down our top 10 each weekday, ending with our top choice — hello! — as well as the full list of our top 50 favorites from 2018. And throughout the month, we’ll be looking back on the year with special videos, essays and surprises!
This Odyssey constancy of mine is a good opportunity to think about why I’m still playing a game that, in the normal course of events, I’d have left behind months ago. The best answer I can come up with is that Odyssey’s world is one inhabited by non-player characters who feel like real humans, who have personalities and narratives that I enjoy. I want to spend time with these people.
I’ll go a little further and say that this game has the best cast of NPCs I can recall, certainly in the realm of games with lots of characters.
The constancy problem
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is set in ancient Greece. I play as Kassandra (or, alternatively, as her brother Alexios, but don’t do that). As a “misthios,” my job is to roam the land, assassinating evil politicians, awful generals and ghastly criminals. I also get paid to take down military bases, stealthing through barracks, thinning the ranks of the warring Spartan and Athenian armies.
It’s an open-world playpen in which I explore tombs and underwater shipwrecks. I fight wolves, bears and sharks. I compete in the arena.
This sounds like a lot of stuff to do, but there are plenty of games that deliver mechanical variety. They’re designed to keep you playing through to the end. On the whole, they fail.
Constancy is one of the biggest problems facing game designers, especially those who make big, expensive single-player campaigns. Players often lose interest in campaigns well before the end of the story. It’s estimated that only 10 percent of players completed the final mission in the original Red Dead Redemption, one of the most popular open-world games ever made. Somewhere along the line, nine out of 10 players got bored.
These are vibrant, exciting playgrounds. They are expensively crafted worlds, packed with mystery, challenge and beauty. Unfortunately, they often lack the narrative and emotional resonance that keeps players hooked long after the novelty of action has passed.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey keeps my attention by delivering a host of stories, fronted by quirky, memorable, believable humans.
The best characters
I’ve written before about how much I admire Kassandra, as a lead character. But I’m also deeply impressed by the care and attention that’s gone into the NPCs that surround her, and even quest givers who pop into the narrative for a short while.
Here’s a quick list of my favorites.
Barnabas is a ship’s captain whose gameplay role is to help Kassandra handle her trireme, while offering barks on long voyages. But the writers give him a charming predilection for mythical tales and the tangibility of the gods. He’s more than a standard superstitious sailor; he’s a voice for all those ancients who believed that the gods existed and impacted their lives. His piety is funny and convincing. When I spend time with him, by the gods, I begin to believe Poseidon is really out there.
Phoibe is a child who admires Kassandra and dogs her steps. This is a familiar device in fiction, and especially in games, a proxy for the developer’s desire to make their hero look awesome. Child characters can be annoying and cloying. But Phoibe has her own agency and aspirations. She’s a risk-taker who’s perhaps learned a little too much, too young, from Kassandra. She’s cheeky and likable, not merely cutesy. The writers give us a person to care about, much as we would a real child.
Nikolaos is the “wolf of Sparta,” a famed general and Kassandra’s stern father. Unlike many of the characters in this game, he has zero humor. His lodestar is the severe values of a militaristic, patriarchal slave state. He will make any sacrifice for his nation. In an inferior story, these qualities would mark him as a villain just waiting for justice. In Odyssey, he is a bolus of agony, a man who is hollowed out by the very system that is designed to favor him and his kind. Not only is he a rounded character, he’s also a modern warning for our own society.
Daphnae is a major quest giver, and leader of the Daughters of Artemis, a female cult. Her gameplay role is to send Kassandra to the four corners of Greece in search of legendary beasts. Daphnae is like many characters in this game in that she goes well beyond the bounds of her gameplay utility. She’s a romanceable woman, a flirtatious soul who plays with Kassandra’s affections (in dialogue trees, I always go full-on for romance). But she’s a steely leader whose first obligation is to her goddess and to her followers. Like Nikolaos, this causes her pain. But unlike Nikolaos, she has chosen this life, a difference that realistically affects her choices and her outlook. Real thought has gone into writing her inner turmoil.
Then there’s the Highly Sexed Old Woman who I want to mention as a representative of minor NPCs. Dozens of speaking parts appear in Odyssey, disposable husks designed to send Kassandra off on simple missions. Quest givers are a standard tool of game designers, and they are usually forgettable. But here, the writers take the time to give them all little quirks that speak to universal experience. Old women who badger their tired husbands for affection are hardly unknown in fiction, and especially in comedy. But they’re rare in games. Auxesia is genuinely funny, memorable and real. And she’s not alone. Lots of the NPCs in this game are weird characters who Kassandra views with mirth and patience. They are a tribute to the truism that “there’s nowt so queer as folk.”
Assassin’s Creed games are famed for making use of historical characters from Cleopatra to Napoleon. Odyssey’s collection is superb. Socrates is a warm, caring man who laughs at himself and the world, while trying seriously to understand both. Aspasia is a political genius, hyper-competent and connected to all levels of Athenian society. Alcibiades acts the party animal, but he’s always working some scheme.
There are a few missteps here and there. I find Kassandra’s mentor Markos to be a little too familiar as the dodgy dealer, forever getting into scrapes. Stentor, her brother by adoption, lacks sufficient depth, given his centrality to the story. But these are minor quibbles.
More serious is the game’s over-reliance on a small number of facial models for its quest givers. I understand the ruinous cost of creating a new face for every last speaking character, and I appreciate the effort that’s gone into the faces of major characters, most especially Kassandra. But seeing the same face again and again, presented as separate individuals, badly undermines the work of the writers.
And it’s their work that that I admire the most in this fantastic game. Series like Assassin’s Creed, Red Dead, Tomb Raider and Far Cry are very good at portraying places, and at delivering the thrill of power into our hands. But they still have a long way to go to bring us detailed, rich characters who speak and behave in ways that feel authentic. Few games succeed in this respect as well as Assassin’s Creed Odyssey.
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