Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey by Gordon Doherty (Ace, 2018).
All readers come to novels with a purpose. One of the key values of franchise novels, whether film or game adaptations or continuations of those stories (as in the hundreds of Star Wars and Star Trek novels), is that they provide a new look at the world, characters, and stories that fans love. In some cases, adaptations and storyworld extensions can compete with the original and even surpass them (that’s how I’ve always felt about Star Wars novels/comics vs. the films). But franchise novels (and comics) have to compete not just with the quality of the original story(world), but also with the medium of the original and its affordances.
In a film, for example, you can use montages of images, cuts, and camera angles to create a mood or convey meaning that, in a novel, have to be described in different ways, and those ways depend on whether the novel is told in third or first person. And so on. Novels that adapt video games face particular challenges, not only because video games—especially open world RPGs that can take 75+ hours to play, like Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey—do things that just don’t make sense in novels, like spending hours clearing out Spartan forts, assassinating dozens of Cultists, or doing narratively facile fetch quests that add no value to Kassandra’s story but give her experience and loot. When you finally do something in a big game like Odyssey that progresses the main narrative, it usually feels like it has been paid off by all the hours in between. Kassandra did many things, she became significantly stronger, she grew and met people and built connections and changed the world one kill and quest at a time. But a novel can’t really do that…it would be dreadfully boring and take hundreds if not thousands of pages.
Authors who adapt video games to novels are thus trapped; they have to figure out how to get the story across while still retaining some sense of the game’s essence and the experience of its world and characters. And that’s really fucking hard.
Unfortunately, most of the authors who adapt video games into novels are also paid pretty poorly to do so, since their writing is seen as mere contract work by the publishing industry, and they are often given short deadlines. Franchise adaptation writing is an industrial mode of production: write write write, turn it in, let the editor clean it up, move onto the next contract. This is not a criticism of franchise novel authors; it’s a criticism of the way the transmedia industries treat franchise writing—not as an art, but as a quickly churned out creative curio. After all, people only buy franchise novels because they’re fans of the franchise. The downplayed significance on quality and the over emphasis on industrial-style production means that a great many franchise novels are, writing wise, of rather poor quality. Franchise authors rarely have the time to workshop and perfect their writing, and it often shows.
So I don’t know what I was expecting when reading an adaptation of my (second?) favorite Assassin’s Creed game, Odyssey, set during the Peloponnesian War (431-405 BCE) across Ancient Greece. As a game, the world is huge, beautiful, and the story somewhat compelling. The experience of hunting deer through the Arkadian forest, chatting with Sokrates in Athens, and wrestling in the original Olympics is unparalleled in video games (I might just like Assassin’s Creed: Origins, set in Ptolemaic Egypt, just a little better). It’s the kind of world that any reader of historical fiction with a love of the ancient world would want to explore, and so it makes sense to adapt it to a novel.
But the novelization not only makes very little sense, it’s awfully written. I couldn’t finish it, it was so distractably bad. It’s as if the author played the game and asked what it would be like if a character in a novel lived with life turned up to 11, everything the most beautiful, the most intense, the most violent, the most painful, the most everything. It’s a common trait in bad writing, that everything is always the most extreme emotion or experience; there’s no nuance, only Intensity. And maybe that’s what game are: characters don’t really sleep and shit and eat, they only do Bad Ass Things. So why not put that in a novel? Why? Because it’s fucking boring. It gets old fast, leaves no room for growth or introspection, and it makes the beats feel worthless when they all resound with the same timbre.
What’s more, the novel form is poorly suited to a 100-hour game for the reasons noted above. Kassandra’s story, if played straight through, with side quests to level you up appropriately, can take maybe 30 hours, but the world of Odyssey is so big that many play closer to 70-80 hours (I’ve put in 110 hours and have completed the main storyline and hundreds of side quests, but there’s still a good 25 hours of DLC, quests, and map points left before I could 100% the game). In this novel, Kassandra’s story moves at a whirlwind pace, with major plot points coming and going every couple of pages as Kassandra bops around the Aegean world simply because that’s what the bullet point plotting requires: get to the next thing, get to the next thing, and do. It. All. So. Hard. It’s boring, it’s rushed, there’s no emotional significance or storytelling quality to any of it.
And of course there’s the prose (some choice selections highlighted here), which is the worst symptom of the franchise novel industrial complex, which requires authors to turn in manuscripts at a certain length in a short period of time. How do authors get there? Not by spending time figuring out how to adapt a 100-hour game into a 300 page novel so that its narrative feels worthwhile (because that time isn’t given to them!), but by telling readers in excruciating detail how Kassandra swung her legs off of a bed and coaxed food down her dry throat and peeled open her eyes and let a grin rise on her face, or how her belly groans, reminding her of the many hours since she has eaten, and so on. At this point I’m wondering why we don’t hear about how
Kassandra flexes her ass muscles to squeeze the shit from her anus, clenching as it passes like a baby from her body, her sphincter cutting off the turd so it drops with a heavy, wet thud to the shit heap at the bottom of the public toilet, the stench nearly knocking Kassandra from her aching feet, which had traversed all of Greece with nary a minute of rest. She felt lighter after her shit, like Ikaros flying on wing in the scorching hot blazing fiery sun of the just-like-the-movie-300 world of ancient Greece.
I stopped a third of the way through the novel, so for all I know, that sentence is already there. And kudos, if so, because too few authors pause to let their character’s have a nice shit.
But this kind of writing infests the novel: it’s all about needless intensity, about writing sentence upon sentence of unnecessary description of common physical actions that take the place of what could be a greater emphasis on character, emotion, worldbuilding, and otherwise useful storytelling. It’s boring, it’s bad, and it’s not doing any good to anyone. Books like this serve to reemphasize the terrible quality of so many franchise novels, add nothing to the experience of the original, and waste everyone’s time: the author’s, the publisher’s, and most definitely the reader’s.
At least the author got paid, and to that I say, good for you! And to the publisher I say, seriously, do better. I know it’s a franchise novel and it’s easy to write them off. But I’d like to imagine we can have a world where Kassandra’s story is just as good, if not better, in a novel as it is in the game. She deserved better. So did I. So did Gordon Doherty.