Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey and Real Archaeology

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Epizelos (“Eppie”), a Boeotian archaeologist who studies the Mycenaeans. Image: Ubisoft.

Introduction

Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey continues the franchise’s deep dive into Antiquity, featuring over 60 hours (so far, for me) of deep play in the Greek world of the 5th century BCE. The game is archaeologically interesting because for the first time players can explore a living, breathing Classical Greece, one not only populated with architecture that is either new or under construction, but also with remnants of the past, particularly of the Mycenaeans on the mainland, and the Minoans on Crete.

The living archaeology doesn’t stop with sightseeing but includes at least one specifically archaeological questline (a series of related missions/objectives) in which the game’s writers introduce the contemporary debate between artifacts-as-material-culture vs. commodities, and what archaeology might have been for someone living in the age of Herodotus. To editorialize for a moment, it’s a great piece of writing.

What follows is a walkthrough of the first quest, which includes the dialogue between your hero (either Kassandra or Alexios) and the local archaeologist, Eppie, as you discuss the nature of archaeology while searching for Mycenaean artifacts. I have broken the dialogue up in sections to explore a few key concepts, and to draw connections between the game and the actual archaeological and historical record.

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Eppie knows where the bodies are buried. Gameplay screenshot.

Annotated Walkthrough

When wandering in the Reborn Hills of Boeotia, you encounter the local archaeologist Epizelos (“Eppie”) being attacked by wolves. After you successfully defend him, Eppie leads you on the first of a few sidequests, “A Life’s Dedication.” You can watch a recorded video walkthrough of this quest here.

Eppie, a middle-aged Boeotian man, wears sandals and a modest tunic fastened at the shoulders. There is nothing about his dress that remotely signals “archaeologist,” which is a relief—no whip or hat. He looks like a “normal” person, an archaeologist without affect. Eppie is not an academic, but rather a curious, serious hobbyist who knows the local lore and his neighborhood and is curious about the Mycenaeans, people of whom your character is ignorant.

Eppie: Pleased to make your acquaintance. I’m Eppie. Well, Epizelos, but my friends call me Eppie. Not that I have “friends,” necessarily.

[NOTE: “Epizelos” is a name found in Herodotus’ Histories 6.117. He was an Athenian soldier who fought at the Battle of Marathon in 480 BCE. The action of the game takes place 20 years after Marathon, so Odyssey’s Eppie is not the one referred to by Herodotus, although the game does offer phalanxes of other, actual historical figures with whom players can interact.]

You: I’m Kassandra/Alexios.

Eppie: Charmed! You have the look of someone used to being out in the world.

You: You have the look of someone who, um . . . spends lots of time reading.

Eppie: I don’t look like much, it’s true. But when discovery knocks, what other choice is there? I have in my possession a Mycenaean tablet that leads to a sacred burial site. I’m calling it the Cave of the Oracle.

You: Good for you. [Turns to walk away.]

Eppie: Mycenaeans were known for their elaborate grave sites full of precious things.

You: How precious?

Eppie: Ancient jewelry, ceremonial swords and daggers. So, very precious. If you escort me, I’ll show you.

You: How can I turn down the promise of precious things?

[Eppie takes off at a run, and you follow as the dialogue continues on the run.]

Eppie: The Fates have delivered you onto my path, and thus we travel together.

You: The Fates have been known to have a sense of humor.

Eppie: Happening upon you, hero, is fortuitous.

You: Glad to hear it. So you dig through book roll?

Eppie: No! Well, yes and no. I dig through dirt, too.

You: That’s what farmers do.

Eppie: I uncover our history. Sometimes . . . hopefully this time, it will uncover ancient wonders!

You: Hate to break it to you, but clay pots and dirt aren’t that wondrous to most.

Eppie: I’ve dedicated my life to it. It’s so much more than treasure to be looted.

You: Is it though?

Eppie: It’s who we are! Knowing where we come from tells us where we are headed.

You: *Snorts*. You educated people and your riddles.

Eppie: Some people don’t care about the past. They only want to steal something that will make them a few drachmae. Imagine that.

You: Hard to believe.

Eppie: My peers are no more than treasure hunters and art dealers.

You: Well. You did mention precious jewels.

The route Eppie leads you on is long and required dialogue to fill the time, and Eppie makes the most of it by drawing your character, a “misthios” (mercenary), into the discussion. Eppie knows mercenaries work for money, and hires you for protection, but also to access places in the world that he cannot. He knowingly strings you along with tales of treasure, but it is clear that this is not what he is after. He seeks knowledge of the past through its material remains, and indicates his dismay at his colleagues who either collect or sell what they discover. He continues to act the role of local archaeologist and historian while your character offers the other side of the debate with questions often heard from a modern public who are skeptical of specialists, and misconceptions of what archaeologists actually do.

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Eppie on looting and looters. Gameplay screengrab.

Eppie: These ruins and relics are notoriously hard to find. I found this one through clever searching and deduction.

You: Tell me more about it.

Eppie: Mycenaeans held specific rituals. Some tales speak of objects made by the gods.

You: Yes. The gods like to play their hand on occasion.

Eppie: Think of this, misthios! How would you like to have had the gods help you in battle?

You: A good warrior doesn’t need any help from the gods or anyone else.

Eppie: [Arriving at The Oracle of Trophonios.] True. True. But think of what we might find there.

You: You think we’ll find something with this power?

Eppie: [Arriving at the Cave of the Oracle.] See? Now are you interested?

You: I certainly am. [Enters Sanctuary of the Muses.]

Eppie: [Arriving at a crowd of worshippers.] What’s this?

You: Stay back.

Eppie: They seem drawn to this place. I hadn’t expected that.

You: Does this have to do with—whatever that name was you said?

Eppie: The Mycenaeans? I don’t see how they could know. It must be related to Trophonios. I’ll observe them and see what I can learn.

You: Fine. I’ll search further inside.

In Greek mythology, Trophonius was a man who was swallowed up by the earth and transformed into the oracular demigod or daimon (spirit) of a cave near the town of Lebadeia in Boeotia. His name means “Nourisher of the Mind” from the Greek words tropheô and noos. Read more about Trophonius and his cult here. It is both appropriate and accurate to include the cave full of worshippers to this person in this location, and reflects the care Ubisoft took in researching the history of the Greek world, making it a playable and believable experience.

Eppie: Wait! Take this stele piece. See if there are markings that match it.

You: [Receives “Mycenaean Stele Piece” quest item, and then enters the Cave of the Oracle behind the worshippers’ fire.] Not much of a burial site. Mules are buried in higher places of honor.

You (cont’d): The stele piece looks like it can be placed . . . [You wave the stele piece over a doorlock, activating it and opening two heavy doors.]

You (cont’d): This is . . . unexpected. [You begin exploring an underground tomb, which looks like others encountered elsewhere in the game throughout Greece.]

You (cont’d): This is more elaborate than I thought. [You continue exploring, ultimately ending in a buried chamber. You arrive at an inscribed, stone wall.]

You (cont’d): Ahh, this is more like it. Let’s see what we have. The markings match Eppie’s stone!

You (cont’d): [You move to a column marked with a magnifying glass icon.] Hmm. This statue depicts a warrior.

You (cont’d): [You move to an elaborate chest in the center of the room also flagged with a magnifying glass. Activating the “loot” function, you open the chest to recover the item, “Rusty Mycenaean Boots.”] Eppie will want to see all of this.

You (cont’d): [You exit the chamber and return to Eppie.] We’re in the right place. Unfortunately, my friend, it’s been looted. All I found was this armor.

Eppie: That is highly significant. The Mycenaeans were a warrior culture, you know. So this must be a warrior’s tomb.

You: Huh. Well, it’s a decent piece. But where’s the rest of it?

We continue to learn about the Mycenaeans throughout this quest. Eppie lives in the mid-5th century BCE. The Mycenaeans ruled 1650–1200 BCE. Eppie lives in Boeotia in the town of Orchomenus, which housed a Mycenaean fortress. The presence of Mycenaean armor within the tomb makes sense in this context, as does Eppie’s knowledge of his own city’s past. Regarding your actions when exploring the tomb, the trope of “magic artifact” raises its ugly head, but in a relatively unobtrusive way. There are secrets to discover between your character’s past, the overlying macro-game set in the 21st century, and a mysterious “earlier race” which may predate the Mycenaeans, hinting at something too spoiler-filled to mention here.

Eppie: Hmm . . . That was only one part of the stele. If we find the others, I can decipher the text.

You: Maybe that will reveal more armor. The rest of the stele you speak of could be anywhere.

Eppie: If I can find clues for where to look, are you interested in finding the other stele pieces?

You: [Select “I’ll look for the others.”]

Eppie: Excellent! Now I need to see those markings. Let’s go inside.

[The two of you return to the chamber.]

Eppie: I didn’t expect the stele keystone to actually be a key.

You: I wonder what happens when all of them are in place.

Eppie: Even with only part of the stele, I can start to decipher the writing.

You: What does it say?

Eppie: Um . . . I think that says, “of the gods.”

You: Really? To think, you were someone yelling for help not long ago.

Eppie: Look at me now.

You: I think you’re going to need all of them, though.

Eppie: According to this, it seems that the stele pieces have been deliberately separated.

You: I wonder why they were separated on purpose.

Eppie: It doesn’t matter if we can find them. Will you look for the other stele pieces?

You: Of course. Where should I look?

Eppie: According to this, the next stele is . . . Oh, better you than me! I can’t swim. Explore the Ruins of Arne.

While there are no so-called “ruins of Arne” in the archaeological record, Arne is a Homeric placename that some scholars have equated to the very real fortress of Gla, in Boeotia, which is a playable site in Odyssey. The underwater ruins Eppie mentions are a few hundred meters southwest of Gla in the game, appropriate for this context.

You: [You are given a choice of three questions to ask Eppie.] What’s the connection between this tomb and those worshippers?

Eppie: The writing mentions “of the gods.” It’s not clear which gods, though. Once we decipher more, we should understand the connection.

You: The armor must belong to the ancient warrior. But why remove it and spread it out across the lands?

Eppie: Good question. It must have something to do with the text.

You: So these markings are an ancient language?

Eppie: Mycenaean. There are languages even older than that, which have been lost. When this died out, sadly, we fell into a dark age.

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Eppie can read the writing on the wall. In Linear B. Gameplay screengrab.

There is a lot going on in this brief sequence, and the quest itself only takes about 10 minutes to complete. Eppie engages in epigraphy, sight-reading an ancient inscription of what is Linear B (the Mycenaean’s alphabet dating to 1450 BCE) The actual writing on the stone wall uses Linear B characters, and I deferred to my colleague Dimitri Nakassis  who can read Linear B to see if the letters and translation match, or if Ubisoft is trolling us with an Easter egg buried in the text. As it happens, Ubisoft did its homework. Sort of. The text, Prof. Nakassis tells me, is from the “Pylos Tablets”, specifically lifted from the “Ta Series”. But instead of being some sort of incantation, the text is actually a list of luxury furniture.

Eppie also introduces the idea of the Greek Dark Ages and ties that centuries-long period to the notion of the death of language, or at least of the Mycenaean people and tongue.

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Linear B syllabary.

You: Time for me to go. [The first part of the quest chain completes, and you earn 529 drachmae and 12,022 experience points. You then have the option to begin the second part (of six) of the quest chain, “Language of the Ancients.”]

Part 2, “Language of the Ancients”, pits you against a few sharks as you recover a stele piece from underwater ruins.

Part 3, “Chasing Phantoms”, finds you looting the looters, recovering a stele piece from a group of bandits.

NOTE: In modern games, the concept of “looting-the-looters” seems to be a palatable way for game writers to allow characters to engage with artifacts needed for quests, side-stepping the outright looting mechanic. Make no mistake: opportunities for looting is rampant (and even named as “loot”) in AC: Odyssey, but you as the character can opt not to loot while still completing the major storylines. “Looting” in side quests like this one do yield material rewards, but in an arguably more ethical manner.

Part 4, “Origins of a Ritual”, is another “loot the looter” quest.

Part 5, “The Tribute”, retrieves the final stele piece from another sunken temple.

In Part 6, “Keep the Faith”, you return to Eppie via the City of Orchomenos waypoint. Here’s the closing dialog:

You: I found the remaining stele piece. All of the armor has been found as well. [Note: Each part of the quest chain ends with recovering another piece of “Rusty Mycenaean” gear.]

Eppie: I can hardly contain myself. This will be life-changing, hero. Primordial gods, worth . . . what can it all mean?

You: We’ll know soon enough, once you have finished translating.

Eppie: Yes, you’re right. The stele needs to be assembled. Come. This is the cusp of a great discovery. Will the gods speak to us? What will I say to them? What will they say to me? Does it matter?

You: [The wall begins to glow, sending out luminescent letters and symbols.] Perhaps when you read it.

Eppie: Yes. Hmm. “Only those who possess inner vision, a gift of the primordial gods, will be judged able to wield the power of the Great Dipsioi.” Dipsioi? What do you make of that?”

You: I am . . . amazed.

Eppie: I don’t understand. There’s no change that I see. It’s the same place it was when we arrived.

You: Look around you.

Eppie: I see nothing. What do you see?

You: [You have an option to say that the lore is not meant for Eppie, or that you cannot see anything.]

Eppie: I feel ashamed to think I was hoping for more. Knowledge is reward enough.

You: That’s the idea.

Eppie: At least I have this discovery. But you, misthios, all you have is this armor.

You: It’s good armor. You know, Eppie, I think maybe you should carry on your journey.

Eppie: Should I? Hmm. Well, there are other clues to follow.

You: [You can offer Eppie a job on your ship. You also receive 592 drachmae, 19162 experience points, as well as five pieces of epic, “restored Mycenaean” armor, the rusted metal now cleaned.]

The “Dipsioi” are Mycenaean gods, the “thirsty and hence dead ones”, which could be referring again to the “original race” hinted at by Eppie and other evidence sprinkled throughout the game. Assassin’s Creed’s writers continue to weave the series’ own lore with the actual lore of historical places and people within their games. It’s an ingenious method that mirrors what others have done to tie their present narratives and agendas with the past, either real or imagined, to validate contemporary actions because “Great Civilizations” have done so before.

Archaeology is political and can be a weapon. In AC: Odyssey, the weapon is quite literal, but Ubisoft knows what it is doing when it weaves real and imagined narratives together under the cloak of conspiracy. Sure the tombs are just tombs, and the artifacts are just artifacts, but in AC, there is always a deeper meaning, often sinister, that needs to be confronted head-on.

—Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming

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