Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey accurately portrays and condemns a perpetual war machine, but it doesn’t have anything substantial to say about it, leaving the player unsure of what to make of the war machine.
I’ve been playing Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey. I hadn’t played an Assassin’s Creed game for ten or more years, but AC:O was heavily on sale, the newer games have RPG elements, and I heard it takes a loong time to beat this game. All of those are selling points to me.
If you haven’t played a modern Assassin’s Creed game, they feel similar to Witcher 3 – open-world, similar leveling system, similar dialogue and discovery systems etc, mixed with the open-world stealth gameplay mechanics like from Metal Gear Solid V (although more combat-oriented).
The main focus of Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey is that you survived murder from your dad as a child, then grew up to be a mercenary in the Peloponnesian War. As you look for family members, you get more wrapped up in the war, working for both sides.
The game ends up having some (not a lot) to say about perpetual war, some of it is really good (although not necessarily highlighted all the time), and some of it isn’t so good.
Once out of the tutorial area, you’re doing quests for the Spartan military. But you know Sparta’s at war with Athens. I wanted to work with Athens more, so I was confused, until I realized that, as a mercenary, you have no allegiances, and will do plenty to help both Sparta and Athens.
The gameplay elements create a world where you don’t pick sides, and war goes on forever. It’s not just a a story element, it’s embedded into the systems of the game world themselves.
But it’s also in the story too. The chapter 2 plotline involves you helping the Spartan army, in order to meet the general of the army, and either kill him or not (because he’s your father, who tried to kill you). If you kill him, you’re playing both sides in the war, and if you save him, you will end up playing both sides in the war, for other reasons anyway.
Either way, you’re sustaining the war in different ways, for totally non-war related reasons.
This is complicated because there’s a villainous cabal cult who wants the war to last as long as possible, to profit off of it. It’s not highlighted that our protagonist is doing the same thing as the cabal. Both the cult’s, and your own, corruption is highlighted, they’re just rarely juxtaposed.
This brings me to the main positive of the show: The “shadowy cabal” fueling both sides of the war approaches right-wing conspiracy land, but the game undercuts this conspiratorial trope.
The game, instead, presents the war as something that structurally and systemically benefits many people. The shadowy cabal isn’t singularly keeping the war going indefinitely, but they do benefit from it, as do many people.
In the game, the protagonist kills people on both sides, for both personal and monetary reasons. Both sides of the war know this, and don’t care. There are many war profiteers who sell weapons to both sides. The fact that there’s an endless war machine is not the primary conflict in the game, it’s simply the set piece for other conflicts to play out.
The reason this is a great description of the war machine is because it’s not like a few “bad actors” – even the worst, most evil people like Dick Cheney and Henry Kissinger – stoke the war machine because they’re evil. They do it because the economic political system structurally necessitates it.
For capitalism, it’s the continued growth of capital. Under something more like feudalism, it’s the continued growth of land control. All economic systems have a motivation, and wars are fought to preserve, or gain more, of these motivations.
When an economic system is formatted in a particular way, it becomes beneficial to continue doing certain behaviors. When a war goes on as long as the Peloponnesian War (almost 30 years), the economy has to format itself to sustain that warfare. Once society galvanizes its economy to sustain a war, it will benefit some in society to continue that economic formation.
I praise Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey for its portrayal of the war machine being endless due to structural and systemic factors, which is more true to life than the reductive perspective that it’s spurred by some evil bad actors.
However, it has a few problems with this portrayal. For one, as mentioned earlier, the protagonist who is just as guilty of propagating the endless, isn’t really indicted for these “crimes”. The game doesn’t see you in a negative light.
This begs the question: why is the cult evil for propagating the endless war machine, but the main character isn’t?
The main difference is the cult does it for profit, and the main character does it because they’re partaking in a war-torn society for interpersonal reasons.
But then this is undermined by the fact that the main character also profits from the war. The only meaning to extract from this is that there’s a difference between constructing a society where people systematically benefit from war, and partaking in that system.
This is, however, undermined by the fact that the main character, acting in their own individual interest, also is helping that war-based system sustain itself.
All that’s left to consider is that, simply, Ubisoft didn’t think through their messaging. They managed to accurately describe a political economy, but they also didn’t have a diagnosis for that description. It simply is.
Yes, the game accurately describes an eternal war machine, but also doesn’t say much about it. There’s a big reason for this: they don’t talk about how the war materially, economically, and culturally impacts society. You don’t even have to make a “point”, if you make the impacts clear.
The game doesn’t want to dig beneath the surface of what endless war means.
In fact, they’re unable to “truly” dig in, because their portrayal of war is ahistorical. For example, what does it even mean for a “cult” to “profit” off of endless war in Ancient Greece? Cults, as we understand them, didn’t exist in Greece. All, or most, religious groups in Ancient Greece were cults, in the sense that they were small and focused communal groups. They didn’t have the negative connotation of “cult” that we have.
Not only that, but the idea of being motivated by profit in Ancient Greece is a misnomer. In Ancient Greece, people weren’t rich because they had the most money/drachmae, they were rich because they had the most land and slaves. In other words, unlike in contemporary times, where money is the motivating currency, the elites of Ancient Greece didn’t maintain their power and access to things simply by having more money.
It’s anachronistic to present it this way, and consequently, can’t say much about the nature of the war machine, because the game lacks an accurate representation of the economy, and even the bits they do have, are not historically accurate.
And on top of that, there’s no way for this game to meaningfully comment on the neo-Imperialist nature of the US war machine, because both of the military forces in this game are equally powered. That’s not pertinent to our current world, where warfare is heavily asymmetric.
You could, for example, see the cabal as a stand-in for the US, and the “both sides” that are being compelled to fight against one another are, say, the sides in the Syrian Civil War, or the Iran-Iraq War, or any other middle eastern conflict. But at that point of analysis, we’re not really playing with the text of the game.
Ultimately, I respect Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey for highlighting an endless war, and occasionally commenting on it. Overall, the game has an anti-war message.
The game succeeds best at portraying endless war not as the product of specific actors and people with bad intentions. Instead, endless war is a systemic consequence of a political economy desiring to take more, and then the domestic economy galvanizing itself behind those goals. Once the economy is formatted for wartime, people benefit from the war. This means that systemic and structural elements create endless war, not individuals.
The issues come from the fact that AC:O doesn’t make an argument, or claim anything about endless war. Ubisoft describes that it exists, how it works, and is bad, but we don’t understand the impact of this.
AC:O writes itself into a corner, because even if they wanted to make a bigger statement about war, it doesn’t have the means to. They don’t portray the way economics and culture interact with each other, and how those things change in the context of an endless war. Since these elements of the game’s world are brushed off, it becomes hard to make any statement about them.
Since the game makes lukewarm statements about endless war, without delving deeply into the worst downsides, it can be read as non-criticism. The main character is not trying to end the war. The war isn’t the main source of conflict, it’s just the backdrop.
AC:O denounces the war machine that it portrays, but it doesn’t show us why its bad. It just is. It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of the war and its accompanying economy. Greece is perpetually in a state of war, and you have to live with it.
My biggest fear is the game verges into a “capitalist realist” mode. To the more initiated reader, that can be seen as a critique. But to the uninitiated, the war machine is perceived as a fact of life you must deal with.