Lately I have been playing Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. Bought it cheap on the Sony store’s Black Friday sale, it’s your basic sprawling open world full of marginally small variants on the same three or four gameplay units. It’s impeccably crafted but it really feels like its biggest virtue is that there sure is a hell of a lot of it; I keep on scrolling through my inventory and marveling that every single thing in it has a sentence or three describing it. Every sword. Every dagger. Every spear, every bow. Every piece of armor. Every piece of loot that I interact primarily with by hitting the “sell all my miscellaneous loot” button when I’m looking for a few more drachmae to throw into upgrading my favorite sword at the blacksmith’s stall. Someone sat there and wrote all of this stuff.
There’s also this thing going on where you get registered in the Mercenary Ranking and are kind of casually murdering your way up their ranks as they keep on getting sent your way after someone puts a bounty on your head for, I dunno, “shanking their kid as you slaughter your way through a Spartan war camp” or “setting a minor local functionary on fire to destabilize the region so you can join in a battle between the Athenians and Spartans to control the area”, or… whatever. It’s not really a goal (unless you decide to make it your goal for a while; climbing the rankings gives you assorted bonuses in other parts of the game), they just kinda show up sometimes and try to kill you if there’s a bounty on your head.
Each mercenary, of course, has a name, and a paragraph or two about them, and a set of body sliders and a list of gear they come with. You kill one and another pops up in the All-Greek Mercenary Ranking to take their place. I’m guessing there’s probably a few hundred of them; I’ve been murdering my way through them and haven’t seen any repeats. Someone had to name and describe every one of these guys. Or maybe someone built a really finely-tuned Mercenary Paragraph Generator, I dunno.
They’re all pretty much disposable.
But I read the description of one of them. “Isildros the Tamed” was known by this epithet because he’d lost a certain amount of his edge after having kids, and grandkids. And, I dunno. I just didn’t feel like I wanted to murder him because of that. Murdering a grandfather just felt really wrong.
So the first time he showed up I just ran away. And every time a mercenary popped up on my screen, I’d make sure it wasn’t him, and refrain from murdering him if it was. It added a little narrative tension: there I am merrily sneaking my way through a Spartan fortress, popping out from the shadows and high places to kill them one by one, occasionally getting seen and leading a mad chase through the whole place until I could find some cover long enough for them to stop hunting me… and in waltzes Isildros, and I suddenly have to be aware of where he is and do my best to not get him involved in a big battle.
I kind of wrote a story in my head that he’d developed a glancingly polite relationship with my character. Here she is again with another bounty, and he rides off after her. And even though she’s a good ways up the Mercenary Ranking Table (he was in the lowest tier, and has pretty much remained there while I kept on killing my way through the ranks) she never kills him. She’ll kill other mercs he teams up with right in front of him sometimes, but she just nods at him and vanishes. They know each other by name and are perfectly cordial, even in the heat of battle against each other.
And then finally when he popped up nearby as the subject of a “kill a random character from the Mercenary List” mission, I decided to try something. I saved my game and I went off to hunt Isildros… non-lethally. Stun arrows and bare hands only. I didn’t want to kill him. I just wanted to knock him out and walk away, making it absolutely clear to him that I’ve singled him out for Not Dying in the hopes that he’d just stop coming around.
We had a lengthy battle in the middle of a modest city. Another, much-higher-ranked mercenary showed up in the middle, which complicated things immensely. But I hid and waited for him to leave, and smacked Isildros on the back of a head with a stun arrow before he left as well.
Eventually, of course, it ended with him knocked out. And I stood there next to his motionless body, looking at the plume of light coming from it indicating he had rare gear to loot. And I contemplated the two options that showed up on my screen, as they do for any character you’ve knocked out: I could kill him while he lay there helpless. Or I could recruit him for the crew of the ship I’d become the commander of for no real good reason beyond “they gave you a ship like five AssCreeds ago and it was a big hit so they’ll keep putting it in next year’s AssCreed”.
And of course there was the third choice, just walk away and have him keep on showing up, and keep on dodging him or knock him out. It’d be a good running bit of flavor to my game, you know?
But I recruited him. And my headcanon here is that this took place over an amphora of nice wine, and ended in my character hiring him to train the crew of her ship in the fighting arts. Because if you are a career soldier who has grandkids, you are going to have accumulated a lot of dirty tricks in the course of your life, and that’s a valuable resource.
She probably slipped him a few extra drachmae to send home to the grandkids, too.
And then I saved the game and turned the PS4 off because I wanted to go out and try and get something done despite my Seattle winter habits wanting me to spend several months under a blanket in front of this sprawling pile of virtual Spartans who aren’t gonna shank themselves.