Creating a city built on science, paying homage to myth.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is the 11th core game in the franchise, averaging one a year since the original’s launch back in 2007. Considering this, it’s no surprise that they’ve honed their collective skills to a fine edge when it comes to crafting digital reproductions of historic locations, and that in addition to creating one of (if not the) best-looking game in the series, Ubisoft Quebec has poured more effort and detail than ever into their rendition of ancient Greece – and nowhere in it’s massive world map is a better example of this than the city of Athens.
“It’s that booming city of antiquity,” says Odyssey’s Creative Director Jonathan Dumont during a recent interview, “That we tried to picture as a city of light, as a city of the future, for them.” As the cultural, social and political hub of the Grecian world, Athens was many things to many people. A trading port, a center for academia and philosophy, an artistic haven or hotbed of political revolution and more, the diversity of 430 BCE Athens is difficult to put together. This largely stems from the fact that while one of the most famous cities from the era, it had already existed for thousands of years, constantly changing hands between rulers and societies, and would exist for thousands more before Ubisoft’s research teams could begin exploring it.
Speaking to Ben Hall, Odyssey’s World Director, and their on-staff historian Stéphanie-Anne Ruatta, Hall likened it to sifting through layers of sand, explaining that, “We had to try to understand which parts of it were contemporary to our time period, because… it’s been built on by so many different civilizations over the years that it was important for us to figure out which layer of this was the correct layer for us. That’s where Stephanie came in.” Mz. Ruatta adds with a smile, “I had to break a lot of dreams.” The two explained how their teams created their version of ancient Athens with blueprints and information from as many sources as they could deem accurate, from broad-strokes “History Of”s to impossibly obscure plays written about farmers in specific parts of town, and watching them explain their research felt like listening to a kid tell you about their favorite movie. Hall said the ultimate goal was “to make sure we create the most authentic, credible greece we can while making it beautiful and fun at the same time.”
Greece isn’t the white and cold it’s often depicted as.
At this point, Hall and Ruatta proceeded to dive into the purpose and function of each district of the city that they had recreated, providing what may qualify as the most abridged historic tour of Athens ever. Starting at the famed Port of Piraeus (one of the oldest seaports on earth and one that is still in use today), they worked their way through the outer walls of the city, past Spartan encampments laying siege to the city – it is wartime, after all – and past the Temple of Hephaestus into the artisan districts where marble sculptors and potters crafted their wares to be put on display or used to various ends around Greece.
“We wanted to show how the people used to work and the tools they used to use,” said Hall as he steers Kassandra through the Marble District, where massive blocks of stone are carved into intricately detailed statues before being painted and loaded onto ships or carts. “We broke the city down into different thematics… Greece isn’t the white and cold it’s often depicted as, it’s very colorful and vibrant and we wanted to make sure we reflected that in the world as you travel around,” Hall says – before admitting that giving each area of the city its own iconic feel wasn’t simply an aesthetic choice. “A player can understand ‘I’m now this district and what I see around me helps define where I am in the world… Athens being one of the oldest cities…it has a history, it has an element of chaos in the way it’s been built, so we wanted to reflect that… [but] if it’s too chaotic it’s impossible to learn, it’s impossible to navigate, it’s impossible to understand.”
As we traveled further into the city, passing through more notable landmarks like the Agora, where citizens would come to trade goods or argue philosophy, or the Pnyx, whose famed view of the city served as a backdrop for political speeches, it became apparent that the Athens of this era was a city that embodied a strange dichotomy of ideas. Ancient Greece is, after all, almost synonymous with the founding of democracy and philosophy as we know it – along with (then) revolutionary medical and scientific techniques – yet every structure, statue, and accent belies a society fully engrossed with the mythos of their gods.
“The goal was to make a massive ancient Greek world that was based in history and then drenched in mythical wonder as you travel around,” says Hall. “So that’s what we set out to try and do – contrast runs through the pillars of the game, across the board.” You can see this theme all over Odyssey’s Greece – which makes sense, considering the central theme of the story is the beginning of the conflict between Order and Chaos. “It was super important,” Hall continues, “That because the Ancient Greeks truly believed that their world was created by the gods, we wanted to try and depict that the best we could.”
It wasn’t, like, a big, big thing, but it was important we got it right.
Seeing this dichotomy in action is possible all throughout Athens, but it’s no more apparent than in the Parthenon, where a shrine to Athena boasts a massive ivory statue of the goddess standing over a reflecting pool. However, what the team initially thought was an aesthetic choice was, in fact, an ingenious bit of engineering. Ivory being an organic material, it runs the risk of cracking or breaking when left in too dry a climate – the pool wasn’t there to serve as a nice spot to pray, it was there to regulate humidity inside the temple.
Of course, sometimes these interesting realities aren’t necessarily the most visually or narratively interesting. After learning about one ancient monument known as the Temple of the Twelve Gods, Hall says the team was excited for the design possibilities for such a grandiose-sounding locale. However, according to Mz Ruatta, the “Temple” wasn’t anything of any particular note – more of a local landmark used as a meeting place by people who live nearby. Hall said, “The people knew of it… so even though it wasn’t like a big, big thing, but it was important we got it right.”
It’s this sort of commitment to the little details the team managed to uncover which make me eager to explore more of Athens and the rest of Ubi Quebec’s version of ancient Greece. It may not be a 100%-accurate reproduction, but I doubt anything could be without a time machine. The amount of care and effort that’s gone into creating these historic locales – along with the RPG style mechanics and rebuilt naval combat – is, to me, a good indicator that I’ll enjoy the rest of my time in the Greek Isles when Odyssey launches in October. At the very least, we know it’ll be damn beautiful and built with care.