A philosopher plays Assassin’s Creed Odyssey

As a philosophy prof, of a generation that got a lot of Greek and Roman voices in my education, I was very excited to play AC Odyssey. The game takes place during one of the historical periods that I have been studying as a philosopher for most of my adult life. Throw in a few recommendations from my students, and the fact that one of the game’s writers is a friend of mine (hi, Susan!), I decided to sit down and play.

Me, contemplating the sacred domain of Eleusis. (Well, my screenshot, anyway.)

(Well, I played one of the Ezio Trilogy games first, because it takes place in Renaissance Italy – another historical period that philosophers traditionally give a lot of attention to. And it was wonderful. But leave that aside for now.)

So, here’s a running impression, since I’m writing this blog post a few entries at a time, over the space of several weeks as I snatch an hour or two of time to play.

Spoilers, obviously.


My first impression, like most people’s first impression, is that it’s stunningly beautiful to look at. I graduated from the Xbox 360 to the Xbox One only three weeks ago, and the gear-up in graphic detail astonished me. Photo realistic landscapes, volumetric light rays for the sun and moon, a very long draw-distance, the rustling of tallgrass and tree leaves—it was a wonderful experience just to walk around the island of Kefalonia, the place where the story begins. Having lived some of my life in Europe, this was familiar ground for me – and so I am predisposed to love this game from the beginning.

My experience with console RPGs is relatively limited; prior to playing AC, I played Mass Effect, Elder Scrolls, Dragon Age, Fable, the whole series for each of these, and almost nothing else. Those are games with excellent worldbuilding and in which it’s possible to simply explore. What’s the view like from the top of that mountain? What characters or creatures might be hidden in that town, that forest grove, that sheltered bay? And the first few hours of the game, which limit you to the one island (like a starter-dungeon, I suppose), still delivered lots to explore. I’m running errands and odd jobs for someone named Marko, who seems to be in debt to everyone and who more or less expects me to fix his life for him. All his quests felt like side quests. They made me wonder, does the game have a main quest at all? Not that I would mind a game that didn’t. In fact I wonder what that might be like.

I absolutely adored what Kassandra did with that guy’s obsidian eye. And the look on his face when she did it! Whichever member of Ubisoft’s writing team thought of that, she deserves a raise.

I respected that the Florence of AC II could not have the street layout of the real Florence, because it would take up too much computing time and memory, and because the map is supposed to be an obstacle course more than a real city. But I felt more comfortable in ACO’s Kefalonia, whose towns looked and sounded like real towns, having a more naturalistic layout. And as the story took me to other areas of Greece, the cities remained consistently life-like. Assuming (trusting, hoping) that Ubisoft consulted with historians and archaeologists to design the world, I feel like I am now better able to explain to my students what life in classical Greece was like. It’s crowded and messy. Even the rich parts of town are crowded. The disparity between rich and poor is very stark. Everything is hand made. In fact I now finally understand why the Greeks built those stoa in their agoras. Everybody does everything outdoors, so if you want some shade from the sun or shelter from the rain, you go to the nearest stoa.

Incidently, when I arrived at Athens’ famous Agora, I didn’t realise it at first. Trained for decades to expect an open square with clean granite paving stones and serene white marble columns, I instead found a crowded and disorganized market with a dirt ground, and merchant stalls covered in awning. Aristotle wrote that the agora of an ideal city should be reserved for politics and philosophy, so there should be no commercial activity there; in fact he says that people whose livelihoods are too involved in practical matters (farmers, for instance) shouldn’t enter unless summoned. (That area to the side of the Temple of Hephaestos, with the olive tree that Athena planted, might be that Aristotelian philosophical space.) But the agora of ACO is obviously exactly what the real Agora of Athens would have been like. A public place where all kinds of public activities: commerce, politics, art and music and culture, and the like, come together. In the colonies of Magna Graecia, they built their agora before building temples and private houses. They did everything outdoors and in public.

Well, they had that lovely Mediterranean climate for it.

But I realized I was in the Agora, not just when a headline came up on the screen to say so, nor even when I saw (and was warned away from) the temple of Hephaestos. The magic moment for me was when I passed by some women singing the Seikilos Epitaph. I knew the tune from its appearance in Civilization VI, and I also already knew it was very old. But I didn’t know there were lyrics. So I looked it up, and found that it is the oldest recorded music in the world. It’s a song of love, but also of mourning: perhaps something that the author composed for the grave of his wife. And its text is a set of propositions about how life is both brief and tragic, and yet it should be good:

While you live, shine.
Have no grief at all.
Life exists only for a short while
And Time demands his due.

How wonderful, how absolutely uplifting, to know that this musical thought survived history, not only in point of fact that the words survived, but also in point of principle that the human experience it expresses is so universal: that we are mortal, and that we struggle with the immensities, and yet, sub specie aeternitatis, life is good.

The next day at work, I sang it for my students. They were a little astonished to hear their philosophy prof singing in class.

The inclusion of that song is another thing in this game, for which Ubisoft should give a raise to whoever decided to include it. Such a beautiful moment.

It’s just kind of too bad that the only merchant in the Agora that you can talk to is the blacksmith. It might have been nice to be able to buy and sell goods whose utility in the story is about something other than combat. There are trade goods you can find in the field and sell in the market, but otherwise they’re not used for anything. What if you could buy clothing: something to wear in town, or when doing social quests. Or, it might be nice to go to workshops and make things out of all iron metal and olive wood. To buy a house, and outfit it with your own furniture and art, for instance.

But if I couldn’t have that, I could have something else that felt just as good: a ship’s crew who sing old Greek poems. Now I’m looking up the lyrics, so I can learn to sing with them.

I met Herodotus!
I also made a superficial comparison of the map of Greece in the game, to the map of Greece in the real world. Not only in terms of scale – for obviously the Greece of the game could not be 1:1 to the real Greece. But the relative position of islands, lakes, and such. There’s a lake in Boeotia which doesn’t exist in modern day Greece. Also, Euboia isn’t an island. But I wondered if there was a lake there in ancient times? A quick look through my Britannica (I still have a complete 1984 edition) and I find that there was. Lake Kopais. Respect for the game designers is increasing.

In the midst of the same research, it occurs to me that the total playable area of ACO is probably 250 square kilometers. Or, more than six times larger than Skyrim! Granted that a lot of ACO’s playable area is water for sailing, nonetheless that’s huge. And although the landscape tends to be relatively homogeneous, the towns are distinctive and memorable. This is my new favourite exploration world.

The wish is also increasing in me, to have enough time / money / resources some day to create a game like it.

Selfie, while contemplating the Greek islands and the sun, as the real Socrates used to do. It’s really no wonder that western philosophy was born here.

The game took me back to the future briefly. I’m reading Layla’s emails and documents. Philosophers Martin Heidegger and Nick Bostrom are mentioned by name. Heideggarian concepts like Dasein and Alethia, used correctly. I’m impressed.

At the bidding of Pericles, I just rigged a vote to have the philosopher Anaximander ostracized from the city. I have to say, I feel rather unhappy about it, being a philosopher myself. There’s a hint that the ostracism might have saved his life from something else. But I’m beginning to wonder if I’m supporting the wrong side of the Peloponesean war. Wrong, not in the sense of who will win (I know my history, I already know it’s Sparta) but rather, wrong in the sense of: I should be supporting the democratic, artistically vibrant, and intellectually flourishing Athens, instead of totalitarian, war-obsessed, and bullish Sparta.

Also, I met Socrates! It was fun to see what the designers thought he should look like – and it was true to my impression of him too. Various textual sources say that he was a big, ungainly, and uncomely fellow, who galumphed when he walked. He engaged me in some light philosophical banter about knowledge. I would like to have had more dialogue options, but I suppose it makes sense that Kassandra is a mercenary and her relationship with knowledge would be practical and technical (and violent) rather than knowledge-for-knowledge’s sake.

Also, there’s one major feature of Socrates’ character that seems missing: his sly sense of humour. The Apology (the speech he made at his trial for corrupting the young) is riddled with it. My excitement on meeting him wore off a bit too soon.

But all that was forgiven when I met him again at Pericles’ symposium, where he and Thrasymachus hashed out some of the arguments in Book 1 of The Republic. I liked the touch about how he decided to wear shoes to the event – famously, Socrates went barefoot everywhere. (Imagine what his feet must have looked like.) Also, I loved his big happy smile when Aspasia entered the room. It was first smile I saw in this game which was bright enough to show teeth. Xenophon said that Socrates and Aspasia were having an affair. Maybe the game designers knew!

You know, when the game offers me a moral choice, I usually pick the one that involves talking to people instead of killing them. For instance, when the lions were terrorizing a village, I found the guy who was trying to live like one of them, and got his medicine for him, instead of killing him and his lions. But as for that pirate who makes you swim through shark infested water to get her a treasure, and who then doesn’t pay you – I made sure that she died. Painfully. And then I destroyed her ship, too.

The moral choice regarding the man and his lions, is like a moral choice between killing someone to save others, or not killing them with the knowledge that others will therefore die. It’s very stark, and not very philosophically interesting. In effect it’s only a trolley problem. So it’s nice that ACO gave me more options.

(As an aside: Fallout III has a worse version of this problem. In the settlement of Megaton, you meet someone who will pay you a lot of money to help him detonate a nuclear device, or you can kill him and so save the people who would have died in the nuclear blast he plans to ignite. It’s such a stupid choice. Game writers can, and I think must, do better.)

In the games I design as teaching tools for my students, I try to lean away from choices between good and bad, and away from choices between bad and worse. I definitely lean away from the kind of problems in which someone dies, or is killed, no matter what you do. Instead I want to lean towards choices between different (competing) concepts of goodness. Red or green or blue or yellow, so to speak, instead of black or grey.

I’m soon to publish a tabletop game of my own which attempts to do exactly that. And, sorry about the plug there.

At this point, by the way, I’ve been playing long enough to feel some of the same problems noted by critics. Chief among them: the grind. Events in the main quest line require some levelling up, which I suppose in principle is fine, but those events do not, by themselves, give enough experience points to allow me to level-up fast enough to continue the quest line. I suppose the idea was to force players to take on side quests. Still, it feels jarring to have a good story interrupted this way, for reasons related to the game mechanics and unrelated to the story itself. Levelling up, by the way, also feels like a bit of an illusion, for the reason that all the game’s antagonists level up with you, and so in effect nothing changes. I understand that the game must continue to be challenging. But it seems somewhat absurd that a run-of-the-mill guardsman, who was a tough nut to crack when I was 3rd level, should not be dispatched with relative ease when I’m 10th level. As it is, I’m 23rd level and I just had my ass handed to me by the exact same kind of bandit who has been handing me my ass for hours. I’m turning the combat volume down to ‘easy’ and I’m not ashamed of it.

Ah. Less grinding. More story. Much better.

I’m beginning to wonder if it is possible at all to create a large open-world RPG that does not feature combat so prominently. What would a game like that be like? Would it feature logic puzzles? Moral dilemmas? Racing and chasing? Detective deduction? Social manipulations? The other thing I’m doing with my (increasingly small amount of) free time is edit and lay out my tabletop RPG. I’m placing the rules for social actions ahead of the rules for combat action, as a subtle signal to players that there’s more to life than hacking and slashing.

For instance: the sight of that valley in Arcadia, with the colourful farms, was a wonderful reward in itself. Long after I forget what ability perks I chose when I levelled up, I’ll remember what it felt like to quit all the quests and go exploring at my own initiative, looking for the city of Sparta, and to unexpectedly come across that valley on the way.

That scene where my Kassandra met her mother. So lovely. So human. Great work.

Also: I’m beginning to think Aspasia knows things she’s not telling me.

I’ve now had a few more dialogues with Socrates in which we discuss whether someone can change their character over time, and whether some kinds of crimes (like horse thievery) could be morally justifiable under some situations, such as when you need the money (from selling a stolen horse) to feed your family. They’re the kind of Jean Valjean questions we debate in first year philosophy classes, and it’s nice to see them here. I chose dialogue options that I thought were at least consistent with each other, if not exactly reflecting my own views. For instance, my Kassandra said that it could be justifiable to kill someone if doing so would save the lives of some number of others. That’s a sort of trolley-problem question, to which the correct answer (as I see it) is “There’s something wrong with utilitarianism”. But it is also a question at the heart of the Assassin’s Creed world. The assassins do, after all, believe they can improve the world by killing people. It’s the very reason they exist as a secret organization. In other AC titles, this is referred to as one of the Three Ironies, part of the ‘creed’ of Assassin’s Creed. If Kassandra were to doubt that, she would doubt her entire purpose in life.

Socrates asks Kassandra whether a bad man could over time become a good man. And, in very Socratic fashion, he observes that if it’s true, then the converse must also be true, that a good man could become a bad one. That, right there, could affect how the Assassins see their mission. If a bad person could become a good one, then there are other things the assassins can do about bad people besides kill them. I wonder what an AC game might look like if it explores that possibility.

I enjoyed the scenes which take place in Athens during the disease outbreak. Historically, it was Pericles’ greatest military blunder; it cost him his own life, too. I say I enjoyed those scenes, but they were, after all tragic scenes. Here’s a city I had grown comfortable in. It is the setting where I met Socrates, and a dozen others whom I have been studying my whole life. It’s where I heard someone singing the Seikilos Epitaph, as mentioned. So to see it gloomy and grey, populated by suffering people, was emotionally rough. Phoebe’s death was so awful, that I sat for a while, just looking at her, before continuing with the story. But it ended on a harmonious and satisfying note: Socrates, at the dockyard in the Piraeus, choosing to remain in Athens, saying that there has to be someone willing to challenge people’s ideas and to speak out against injustice even when everyone calls it justice.
“I have lived as an Athenian, I will die as an Athenian”, he said.

Yes, he will. And I am sure he knew what was likely ahead of him.

Now that, my friends, is what moral courage looks like. That’s what made Socrates a hero.

I wonder if the story will take me to his trial.

The other reason the Assasins organization exists is to search for Precusor artifacts. And in my last session, I found a big one: the entrance to the lost city of Atlantis. (And by the way, the game offered what has become my new favourite theory of where the ‘real’ Atlantis, if there ever was one, might have been.) I thought the shape of the endgame would be the killing of whoever is at the centre of the Cult of Kosmos. It may still be that, but it now seems it will also be the closing of that gate to Atlantis. And I see by Ubisoft’s DLC offerings, that Atlantis is an explorable area too.

This seems like a good place to end this blog post. I’ll leave you with these summary thoughts:

  • I have a new favourite video game series. My previous favourite, the Elder Scrolls series, now feels pretentious and small by comparison.
  • But having said that, I think I like designing and worldbuilding my own games (and novels, etc) better than I like playing other people’s games. Anyone got ten million dollars to spare, that I can spend on creating my own big RPG?
  • I likely wouldn’t use AC Odyssey to teach Greek history or to teach intro philosophy. But I certainly would invite students of mine to make references to the game in their essays and projects if it helps them understand the classical Greek world better.
  • It is my wish that everyone should study philosophy, so that they can dive into our world in the spirit of the Seikolos Epitaph, and in the spirit of Socrates: questioning everything, searching for what is true and beautiful and good, seeing the world’s tragedies and injustice and darkness, and yet finding that the world still deserves our activism and our love.
Yes, I know that Kassandra is Greek, female, and a fictitious character, whereas I am male, Irish-Canadian, and probably not a simulation. Nonetheless, I still feel like this is a selfie.
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