Modern Experiences of the Classical World
Computer games have never figured significantly in my life, I’ve certainly never considered myself to be a serious gamer and despite owning a few of the popular big named games and consoles to boot, I rarely took the pastime seriously, in fact as I write this I’m wondering how much I can flog all the paraphernalia on eBay for! Of course I have dabbled with the usual suspects like Tomb Raider, Age of Empire etc but never in any meaningful sense (if such a notion even exists in a virtual reality situation, but that’s an argument for another time) and not at all recently. That being said, over the past few weeks I’ve noticed a lot of chatter in the Twitter Sphere about the most recent instalment in the Assassin‘s Creed franchise and there’s a lot of hype surrounding the upcoming Assassin‘s Creed: Odyssey, a game that if any, could perhaps entice me back into the fold of casual gaming if only to satisfy my curiosity as a classicist with notions of Reception Studies fresh in my mind.
In the 21st century representations of antiquity are literally everywhere especially if you know where and what to look out for and computer games probably engage more people with the Classical World than you would think, in fact many studies emphasise the primacy of computer gaming over the reaches of Hollywood, a trend that has been observed by Jones (cited in Lowe, 2009, p.64) who has claimed that computer games are…
‘arguably the most influential form of popular expression and entertainment in today’s broader culture’.
As such it’s really important that we consider the part played by computer games as a medium for engaging and delivering receptions of the Classical World to modern day participants. Needles to say, as is often the case, the theories and criticisms that support and challenge the reception of antiquity through the medium of computer games are extensive and in some respects complex, but explaining such theories is not the purpose of this blog post, my aim is to briefly explore how computer games like Assassins Creed deal with the Classical World. Hopefully this piece will elicit some feedback from those who may have experienced, or plan to experience similar receptions of antiquity in the future.
Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey (2018)
‘Write your own epic odyssey and become a legendary Greek Hero in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, an inspiring adventure where you must forge your destiny in a world where every choice matters. Influence how history unfolds as you discover a rich and ever-changing world shaped by your decisions’
So, Odyssey, a name that itself resonates powerfully with ideas and concepts relating to the Classical World is the upcoming instalment of the long running franchise that engages players in a ancient battle between good and evil, a struggle between the Knights Templar (who to keep things simple are the baddies) and the Assassins (who, somewhat ironically are the goodies) for ultimate control of various artefacts that hold the key to human free will. The story is set in the modern day but the action plays out in the past through the use of an invention called the Animus which allows users to ‘re-live’ and experience the memories of their genetic ancestors within their bloodline through a virtual simulation, (which is particularly useful as a means of furthering the continuing narrative of the franchise).
Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey is set in 431 BCE. It recounts the secret but fictional history of the Peloponnesian War, which was fought between the city-states of ancient Greece. Players take on the role of a mercenary and will be able to fight for either Athens and the Delian League or the Peloponnesian League led by Sparta’.
In terms of developing an authentic representation of the setting for Odyssey the creators of the game explain that to aid development they visited Greece, carried out research on the classical past, read ancient texts and utilised the expertise of a specialist in ancient culture all in order to make the gameplay as authentic and historically accurate as possible. Furthermore, the creators of the game state that….
‘Assassin’s Creed games are about experiencing a key moment in history, a place and time that were host to major historical events. In Assassin’s Creed Odyssey players will visit Ancient Greece during the Peloponnesian War, meeting historical characters like Socrates and Hippocrates. With our new dialogue system, players will be able to truly interact with history, which is something we’re really excited about. So get ready to debate with Socrates!’
Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey and all previous instalments of the ever expanding franchise seems on the face of it a terrific romp into the past in which players have an opportunity to engage with many aspects of history that they may have previously not explored. But in terms of Reception Studies what can we take from this example? Well, consider this – Dunstan Lowe (2009, p.65) points out that the post-modern view of the classical tradition has allowed classics as a subject to expand its parameters into many other disciplines and as a result of this, computer games demonstrate in the literal sense…
‘the best example of classical reception’
By playing such a game, an individual is metaphorically playing with antiquity. But for me, the most striking aspect of a game such as Assassin’s Creed Odyssey from a receiving point of view is the ability of the gamer to actively engage with the material and build their own experience of antiquity, be it historically authentic or otherwise.
Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey is released on the 5th October 2018 and I think I might give it a go.
Let’s continue this discussion – What do you think?
Lowe, D (2009) ‘Playing with Antiquity: Video Game Receptions of the Classical World’, in Lowe, D & Shahabudin, K .(eds) Classics For All: Reworking Antiquity in Mass Culture, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle, pp. 64-90.