There are plenty of things wrong with Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, but I do find it ever so hard to care. I’ve spent the weekend falling in love, jumping off hundred-foot statues and galloping around the island of Mykonos dressed as Wonder Woman. I could’ve spent that time thinking about all the cluttered menus and superfluous UI elements, and wondering why, for some reason, so many people love this game when it so proudly displays just so many obvious flaws.
And in doing so I’d have probably had a pretty good point – but it’s not the point, is it? The point is Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is fun. Unbelievably fun. Picking at it for all the ways in which it lacks the poignancy of a Breath of the Wild, or the earthiness of The Witcher and all that austere frowning of Red Dead Redemption 2 would be mistaking those things for things this game cares about. Odyssey’s not just fun, it’s a game about fun itself, and it cares about nothing else.
It feels wrong to think too hard about having fun. Obviously it’s not something you think about so much as just do, in the moment, independent of thought entirely, and so thinking about it directly feels a bit like trying to think about your thoughts. You end up spinning on the spot trying to catch the back of your head. But then at the same time, here’s Odyssey and its hundred-and-something-hour ode to fun itself, a game that seemingly manages to have plenty to say all about it.
I think the secret lies somewhere in all the things that run adjacent. Fun sits, loosely, in the space between joy and surprise, and the two of them seem to be absolutely flooding out of Odyssey’s world. It’s one of the few games I take real care not to spoil, as a result of that – not because the story has any particularly wild turns but because there are just so many surprises, so many gifts waiting for you in hiding. Things that are always best the moment before they’re opened, in the sweaty-palmed minute spent glancing their way, tearing wrapping paper, peeling a game out from its cellophane wrap. Tearing off on horseback towards a big white question mark. All those lovely little neurons popping off in your head.
Odyssey is full of this. Once you find your first surprise you realise, surely, that’s not the only one and so you’re scouring the world not just for collectables and cash and purple shin guards or whatever, but for your next treat. And all the while that anticipation – the creases and tricks that form the obstacles of the world – comes wrapped in joy. It’s in the writing and the performances, obviously, and all the loving, twinkling little refrains you’re blessed with for climbing another tower on certain islands. And it’s baked right into the earth, a world so bright and vivid its own people can’t help but be happy, or silly, or carefree, even when they’re not. As much a sonnet to the Greek people as it is their culture and history. A playground, but one built purely on foundations of happiness and flourishing.
When Odyssey grabs you, when you’re finally embraced by it and folded into all of its great overlapping systems, the result is a kind of weird tranquillity. You’ll find yourself absorbed by beaches, starlight, romance. Or oddly hypnotised by its violence, the same cycles of animation lullingly playing on repeat. And all the usual wrinkles and worries just, ever so slowly, without you even really noticing, melt away. The epic fading into the mundane. Even at the height of Assassin’s Creed’s stupidly galactic drama you can’t help but feel it really, really doesn’t matter. Not if you don’t want it to. This is a game that’s so light and airy, so clear-skied, that it’s transcended its own consequences.
Maybe that’s the key: realising that it doesn’t matter that some things don’t matter. You can’t think your way into having fun, after all. It’s incompatible with struggle. Incompatible with worry, and po-facedness, and self-regard. Fun is freedom, absurdity, comfort. It’s just letting you play, letting your mind wander, sprinkling in the odd bit of magic and burying the odd treat. It’s about ferrying you blissfully away into another world, which is all a good Odyssey really does.