Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and the Power of Nostalgia
Reconnecting with enriching hobbies
In Mad Men’s first season finale, ‘The Wheel’, Don Draper famously sells the executives from Kodak on the power of nostalgia. Recalling the old Greek copywriter from his first job in advertising, Draper explains how he was told that “in Greek, ‘nostalgia’ literally means ‘the pain from an old wound’.” It’s a brilliant scene, made more powerful by the fact that Don is selling a specific idea, and in truth this translation is up for debate. The ‘pain’ part — algos — is about right, but nostos is meant to express a sort of homecoming. The term is thought to have originated in 1688 to describe a sort of severe homesickness. Algos is a word from the Homeric Greek, which is appropriate since Homer’s most famous work, The Odyssey, is all about Odysseus’ nostalgia for his homeland. As one of the first recorded texts, a story that is enthralling in its own right but which also serves as a de facto history listen about the history of narrative, The Odyssey is intrinsically tied to the concept of nostalgia, and the idea of missing something that feels like home.
In an early mission of last October’s Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, your character (Kassandra or Alexios, but everyone went with Kassandra, right?) is sent to scout out the ruins of Odysseus’ palace in Ithaka, just off the coast of Kephallonia — the same one he spends most of The Odyssey trying to return to. You’re sent to find the shroud of his wife Penelope, an early-game item that, as is so often the case with RPGs, you’ll treasure for a moment but fast abandon.
Right out the gate, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey’s obvious goal is to hit the points of Greek history and mythology you’re most likely to be familiar with. At the very beginning of the game you’re thrust into the most famous battle of the Persian Wars, controlling Leonidas himself as he and the 300 Spartans prepare to dine in Hell. You don’t need to have studied the Greek classics to know what’s happening here: Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300 grossed $456,068,181 worldwide, and, for all its numerous faults, it had great trailers full of scenes that have stuck around in the collective pop-cultural consciousness (This! Is! Sparta!). The early trip to the ruins of Odysseus’ palace — and a lot of what happens in the hours afterwards — is geared towards an audience that can, at least, say that they’ve heard of that thing, place or person.
But Assassin’s Creed Odyssey hit me a little harder than that. When I was asked to go and visit these ruins, I found myself wondering why no game had ever asked me to go and explore them before, because surely this was the entire reason games were invented, right? When I met Odessa — a woman claiming to be a descendent of Odysseus, the mythological figure that The Odyssey focuses on — my immediate hope was that the game would let Kassandra at least hook up with her. The dream, right? And, lo and behold, the game anticipated this, and a few questlines later (and a nice little chat about forging your own legacy instead of being beholden to your ancestors) it was so.
The important thing about these early plotlines, for me — and about the game’s obvious ancient Greek touchstones — was that they dragged me, less reluctantly than usual, back to my teen years. Back in my final year of high school, when I studied Modern History and Classical Studies (covering The Odyssey, Herodotus’ The Histories — he’s in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey too, naturally — and a few tragedies), I was surprised at just how passionate these topics made me. Studying The Odyssey was the highlight of that year, and I always found the Greek mythology — the hierarchy of often capricious gods, who were mean with little provocation and who occasionally came down to earth to assist the chosen few — much more honest than anything I’d seen in my school’s weekly chapel sessions.
When I finished high school I studied history at university for a while, but eventually realised that it wasn’t the right path for me. ‘No matter’, I thought, ‘because this can be a hobby. I can learn more and become better educated on these topics outside of my formal studies. I can keep that fire alive’. Easier said than done, of course.
I have not finished Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. In fact, I don’t think I’ve gotten even halfway through it yet. What I have done, though, is pick up Emily Wilson’s recent translation of The Odyssey, the first widely published translation of Homer’s epic ever released by a woman. Unlike the copy I read in high school, it’s written in iambic pentameter verse, with Homer’s repetitions and pacing kept intact to feel as close as possible to the original. It’s a wonderful, clever translation, and it has recontextualised a lot of Homer’s writing for me. I feel good when I read it.
But about three weeks ago, I put it down and haven’t picked it up again yet. I’m too busy, I tell myself. It’s like work that I can keep putting off. As a games journalist, I feel the same way about a lot of games I haven’t finished — including, at this point, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey.
In the months since I last played the game, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how hard it can be to maintain personal hobbies and interests outside of your work and social lives. I have hobbies, but they’re not as self-guided. My podcast (Pods in the Key of Springfield, don’t forget to rate and subscribe) is a two-person operation, so we can both kick each other’s asses when necessary. My weekly trip to pub quiz is one of the social highlights of my week. Re-reading The Odyssey, and learning more about history, is entirely about personal improvement. Working on yourself, and reconnecting with the things you know matter to you on that level, is a difficult hobby to maintain.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey reminded me of a part of myself that I had let go, let me reach out to it, and has, since then, sent off on what I suppose has been a mini existential crisis. Perhaps nostalgia really is about the pain of old wounds.