Monthly Archives: July 2019

Aegean Aexploration

Somehow, I’ve managed to clock in upwards of ninety hours in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey since I started playing it a couple months ago. I’m nowhere near done with the story; heck, I’m not even too sure I’m that far into it. This isn’t so much a case of my having lost the thread as it is a merry exploration of Ancient Greece and all the fun it entails. 

The lengthy playtime is especially impressive when one takes into account the fact that I’d just about given up on the series after Black Flag back in 2014. It wasn’t that the games were bad; I really liked the whole running around history, rubbing shoulders with important people, and stabbing bad guys (sometimes sneakily). Plus, there was this whole super-advanced ancient civilization and modern-day conspiracy narrative weaved into it. There’s a lot to like.

My complaints stemmed more from the games’ lack of polish. Revelations, the third game in the Ezio Trilogy that started in II and was the precursor to III (their numbering system is almost as bad as Kingdom Hearts), saw the action move from Renaissance Italy to Constantinople, but gameplay remained frustratingly samish and the narrative a stopgap. As awesome as it was running around the Grand Bazaar (and the fun context it would provide to my own trip to Istanbul a few years later), I didn’t really care too much about Ezio’s adventures and honestly couldn’t tell you the story now if I tried. Black Flag focused on pirates, which was really cool, but suffered from a similarly disjointed narrative hampered by how much fun sailing the open seas in a pirate ship was. I know Kenway had some adventure or other to be on, but there were ships to sink out here!

I missed the next few Assassin’s Creed games, feeling that my goodwill to the games was tied to being able to captain a ship. Odyssey appeared on my radar due to its RPG elements, ability to romance other characters, and finally finally featuring a female protagonist, albeit an optional one (but why would you want to play as Bland Dude #38 when you can choose Kassandra?). 

And I get a ship again, so there’s that too.

Oh, and it was on sale on Amazon.

Somehow, I’ve since clocked two entire workweeks exploring Greece, and I’m still not tired.

Why? I’m not terribly attached to this franchise, so why am I so invested?

I’m not so sure it’s the story. I get it in broad strokes, and I am onboard with Kassandra’s hunt for the cultists who ruined her life, though I could do with the fun of a little more detective work. Kassandra has a winning personality, owing much to Mellisanthi Mahut’s performance; she’s wry and, based on the choices I’ve made, not someone who cares about your sob-story so much as the drachmae. It’s pretty fun playing a character who’s above all the squabbling in the local city-state and just wants to get paid.

More than anything else, though, I think I’m just enchanted by the world the makers created. Sailing the Aegean and finding new islands somehow doesn’t get old (and I’m putting off exploring some places because I want some places left to uncover). There’s a cave with cultists, here’s the home of a Spartan leader I’m going to assassinate, I’m going to fight against the Athenians alongside the Spartans to conquer Malis (and get a share of the spoils). How sneakily can I infiltrate this fort?

In many ways, it reminds me of Breath of The Wild; it might not be quite as gorgeously lush as Hyrule, but, dude, I get a pirate ship. I loved Assassin’s Creed II for the catharsis it offered after a long day at work, and Odyssey is much the same. Here’s a world I can quite happily get lost in and find my own sort of fun for hours on end. Seems like there’s always something more to do.

I recently made port in the island of Keos and, upon finding a viewpoint to take in the island, couldn’t help but be delightfully enchanted by the place. I know it’s probably not all that different from the other islands in the archipelago, but there’s a part of me that can’t help but surrender to the wonder, to that little spark of glee at uncovering a new island and joy of adventure. Perhaps that’s why I’m really falling in love with Odyssey: the game lets me chart my own path, figure out my own path, and really explore this new world. There’s a new fort or cave behind every turn, and I feel like I did twenty years ago popping Pokémon Yellow into my GameBoy Color and uncovering its secrets. 

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Delicious Stakes

There’s a common maxim in storytelling stating something to the effect of how you should always raise the stakes. Don’t make it just a friend at risk, make it a sibling. Instead of it just being the neighborhood affected, have it be the town. If you’re gonna have to save a city, it oughta be a major metropolis like New York. And why stop at saving the city when you can save the world?

High stakes usually mean high thrills. The Battle of New York at the climax of The Avengers is epic because they aren’t just fighting for the city but the entire world too. Lara Jean’s predicament in To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is so dire because it’s her entire high school reputation at stake. Inigo Montoya wants vengeance because the Six-Fingered Man killed his father, not a mentor or neighbor. 

And yet, sometimes there’s something so much fun about a story where the stakes are low. Too much life-or-death can be tiring; there’s a point where having every conflict with the Avengers being about saving the world where it starts to seem very same-old-same-old.

That might just be why Ant-Man and The Wasp is a movie that’s so delightful: the stakes are just so low. There’s no risk of some powerful tech/weapon falling into the wrong hands (Iron Man, Ant-Man, Guardians of The Galaxy) or some vengeful figure from the character’s past threatening the hero’s life (Iron Man 2, Thor Ragnarok, Captain Marvel). It’s not even the question of a Very Important Friendship that Civil War presents, one with ramifications for near everyone. 

The stakes at the heart of Ant-Man and The Wasp is the question of if Hank and Hope can rescue a Janet from the Quantum Realm. Complicating it is a Scott who wants to help but doesn’t want to violate his house arrest. There are also some villainous black market dealers and a woman named Ava who’s adversely affected Pym Particles. And that’s really about it, there’s no true villain; not in the way that Civil War presents flawed characters warring amongst themselves, but in a way that’s pretty, well, chill. By the end of it, everyone is more or less happy to get along with one another. 

Sure, the day’s been saved, but that just means that Janet’s been rescued from the Quantum Realm and they’re working on a way to stabilize Ava.

In a Marvel universe where the fate of the world is quite frequently at stake, it’s downright refreshing to have a movie where that’s really about it. No cataclysm, no Hydra takeover, just well, a small little side-adventure. It’s refreshing, especially sandwiched as it is between Avengers: Infinity War and Captain Marvel (and then Endgame). Similarly, although Spider-Man: Far From Home does have some pretty high stakes, it feels kinda low compared to the existential threat that was Thanos. Sure, you’ve got these potentially world-destroying Elementals, but far more important is Peter’s relationship with MJ and his friends. These dumb villains are getting in the way of his vacation, man!

Honestly, it does feel like his friendships are the more important stake, and that’s okay. When it comes down to it, stakes only matter if we care about it and one way to make us care about it is to see a character care. When Peter frets about sitting next to MJ on a plane ride, we care about it too because we’ve invested in Peter Parker. Lloyd Dobbler and Diane Court’s relationship in Say Anything… isn’t gonna change the world, but it’ll change theirs. Daniel winning the tournament isn’t a life-or-death thing in The Karate Kid, but it’s the fruition of his relationship with Mr. Miyagi, and so much of the movie’s stakes are within the question of whether or not Daniel will be able to find a sense of belonging in the new town and, in turn, self-actualize.  

Perhaps the maxim is a little misguided. Bigger stakes are really only bigger if they mean something. The Earth is destroyed at the start of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy but that’s not really so much as important as poor Arthur Dent yearning for a proper cup of tea. The Earth is generic, but that cup of tea means everything. So really, the size of the stake doesn’t matter so much as it’s well treated and given the proper time it needs to stew. Then bam, your stake is delicious. 

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