[Warning: Right from the first paragraph, this story includes spoilers for Assassin’s Creed Odyssey’s new downloadable content, “Shadow Heritage,” the second episode of the Legacy of the First Blade expansion.]
Kassandra settling down to the life of a housewife and mother is one of the worst betrayals of a fictional character that I can recall. The narrative crime occurs at the end of “Shadow Heritage,” a downloadable story chapter for Assassin’s Creed Odyssey that was released Tuesday. It is entirely at odds with Kassandra’s journey to date, and with her personality. It is also a startling misstep by a writing team that has hitherto delivered a world rich with believable characters, sharp dialogue, and human motivations.
In “Shadow Heritage,” Kassandra completes a mission to destroy a tyrannical, murderous pirate. She works with a father-and-son team of assassins, from Persia, whose goals align with her own. The son, Natakas, fancies Kassandra and pursues her, in a dreamy, drippy sort of way.
In dialogue options, Natakas fishes for compliments and signs of mutual admiration. My Kassandra is having none of it. My Kassandra sleeps with people I like, and rejects those I don’t. Natakas is a nice enough fella, but I don’t appreciate the way he moons over me. There’s something desperate, even vaguely douchey, about his demeanor. Yeah, we enjoy getting drunk together — Kassandra always loves to get wasted — but that’s about it. Put it this way: He’s definitely no sexpot love god, like Alcibiades.
As a player, I know that the game is trying to wheedle me into a romance that I don’t feel. I make every effort to reject Natakas. When it’s time for him to sail off into the blue beyond, I wave him off. But then he returns, and the story makes me fall into his arms. We cut to some time later, with a scene of Kassandra fetching groceries and cooing over her baby. It’s a travesty.
(If you play as male lead Alexios, the love interest is a woman named Neema. The story plays out the same way.)
Grocery shopping sim
Kassandra is emphatically not the settling-down kind. She is a mercenary, a traveler, a free spirit. Her life is filled with adventure and danger.
She is the greatest warrior in the world. She can topple regimes, reshaping the political landscape of her country. She is a slayer of monsters, a demigod. Men and women desire her. She can take them or leave them. Occasionally, she will pursue a love interest, and she’ll be rejected. That’s life. She’s not one to dwell on failure. She’s amazing.
Occasionally, Kassandra is drawn into the contemplation of a quiet life, raising chickens and smelling roses. But these fantasies never last long. She is certainly not on a narrative arc toward domestic bliss. When I’m given a dialogue option to celebrate my badass life, or to yearn for an arcadian existence, I take the former every time.
The only way this domestic turn in the story works is if Kassandra has become increasingly disenchanted with her life. This does not happen in the main game or in the Legacy of the First Blade expansion. “Shadow Heritage” forces domesticity upon her. No matter how furiously I try to wriggle free of this fate, there’s nothing I can do.
I have no inside knowledge of the story’s future, but this happy scene looks designed to go awry. Perhaps her family will be taken or destroyed, giving her a motivation to hunt down bad guys.
This is a pointless exercise. Kassandra is a paid assassin who has expressed no great qualms about the dubious morality of her profession. She is in pursuit of an evil organization that wants her dead, one that is the root cause of a war that has killed thousands, including her closest friends. She already has plenty of motivation.
It feels like a clumsy swing at a big emotional hit, in which Kassandra will maybe face intense worry or grief leading to a vengeful rampage. It’s so far removed from the rest of the story that at one point I hoped it was a dream sequence or some alternative universe nonsense, which would somehow not be as bad as Kassandra actually getting hitched.
Some Assassin’s Creed players are expressing annoyance at developer and publisher Ubisoft for betraying their own, personal Kassandra choices. If your Kassandra is only romantically interested in women, or refuses all romantic approaches, it doesn’t make sense for her to suddenly fall in love with Natakas.
Having given players the freedom to express Kassandra’s romantic life in a variety of ways, the game then forces a traditional familial relationship, one that flies in the face of player freedom and her central personality.
It’s especially galling that Kassandra becomes girlishly delirious as she fetches the milk and rocks the baby. This is perilously close to the notion that a person can only be truly fulfilled by raising a family.
My sense of ownership over Kassandra is a carefully manipulated fantasy, one that’s been nurtured through smart writing and good game design. Perhaps this is what makes Ubisoft’s decision to domesticate Kassandra so baffling and infuriating.
Leaving aside its dreadful denouement, “Shadow Heritage” is a serviceable slice of video game storytelling. It’s a balanced confection of Odyssey’s many activities (explore, investigate, chat, sneak, sail, kill).
Its story includes a character called Kleta, a mother whose regrets and aspirations for her daughter are convincing and touching. Kleta’s dialogue, animations, and eye work combine to create a real person. It’s a lesson in narrative game design and one of the reasons I admire this game.
Game stories seek to tie player and character together in ways that are not available to other art forms. During my time with Kassandra, I’ve dressed her, directed her actions, influenced her moral outlook, and guided her relationships with other people. I’ve spent more than 150 hours with Kassandra. That’s a time commitment I haven’t given to any novel, narrative game, or single character-driven TV show in my life.
But I don’t think it really matters that Kassandra is a character in a game, as opposed to one who appears in a movie or novel. The rules of character consistency are the same in all forms of fiction. Surprises ought to work within the framework of the character’s personality and circumstances. If the nice young war hero becomes a murderous gang boss, we’re generally shown his journey. We know why that happened.
When the writers of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey decided to suddenly turn Kassandra into a housewife, they betrayed the person they’d spent so much time and care creating. They made her into a cutout for a hackneyed plot.
At the end of “Shadow Heritage,” I return to Kassandra’s adventures; she’s back to slaying her way across ancient Greece. But she is diminished. She is not the person I thought she was. No matter what happens in the next slice of the story, I doubt she’ll ever be quite the same person again.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey: Legacy of the First Blade – “Shadow Heritage” was reviewed using a final “retail” PlayStation 4 download code provided by Ubisoft. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.