This essay was written for the “Self Before Selfies,” under the Engaging Humanities initiative.
“All that we do and all that we are begins and ends with ourselves.” These words from Ezio, a character in the second installation of Assassin’s Creed, capture Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophy that one’s choice is central to one’s individuality; it is distinct from simply being alive. The Assassin’s Creed franchise is a series of historic and science fiction games that speculate the course of history and its many great leaders have been guided by an elite group of assassins. In most editions, the story-line follows a battle for free will and peace, exploring the notion that man’s capabilities are solely up to him. In the franchise’s most recent release, users follow the timeline of Kassandra the Eagle Bearer, a mercenary during the Peloponnesian War who would do anything to be reunited with her family. Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey exemplifies existentialism through Nikolaos and Kassandra’s anguish and the duality of essence and existence.
According to Sartre, an important aspect of existentialism is the feeling of anguish. Sartre expresses that anguish is felt by “the man who realizes that he is not only the person he chooses to be [since he] cannot escape the feeling of his total and deep responsibility” (280). Therefore, only a person with morals and choice is subjected to feeling anguish. Kassandra and her father Nikolaos epitomize this. As a young girl, Kassandra’s infant brother Alexios is prophesied to be the downfall of Sparta. To prevent this, the only solution is that he be thrown off Mount Taygetos. Feeling a responsibility to protect her brother, Kassandra chooses to stop the execution, except she accidentally pushes the Spartan official and is led to believe that she murdered her brother and the man. For defying Spartan law, Kassandra is ordered to be executed by her father, a well-respected general of Sparta. With some hesitation, Nikolaos grips her by the wrists and tosses her, leaving her to fall to her death.
Nikolaos was strictly adherent with Spartan law no matter his internal struggles. As Kassandra’s father, he loved her and trained her frequently in hopes that she would take over his duties as the Wolf of Sparta someday. When the Oracle decrees the prophecy and Spartan officials command that his children be killed, he hesitates and is visibly conflicted, revealing his experiencing the anguish of Abraham (Sartre 280). Nikolaos is conflicted with the authority of these commands, just as Abraham was conflicted with sacrificing his son. What tangible evidence was there that Alexios would leave Spartan in ruins? Like Abraham, he is obligated to listen, and as Sartre points out, “all leaders know this anguish” (281). Nikolaos had no assurance that he would be doing the right thing. He only felt pressure from the authority of the law he defends. If the most respected general defied Spartan law, he would surely have been made an example.
Later, as an adult, Kassandra confronts him, revealing she survived. Nikolaos has aged considerably, looking almost three times his age. His guilt wore him down. He shakily informs Kassandra that “[he] did what was required of [him] as a Spartan. [He] made [his] peace with that,” and encourages Kassandra to do the same (Odyssey). However, she calls him out on his cowardice and says he hid “behind [his] sense of duty,” and that excuse would no longer suffice (Odyssey). As a result, Nikolaos leaves his camp and tells Kassandra that he is going to search for his honor. For most of his life, Nikolaos did not realize where his loyalty should have been. As a leader, it was to his nation, but as an individual it was to his family and his values, which align with Sartre’s assertion that a man who is aware of his circumstances is responsible for knowing how to implement changes in his life.
From the moment on Mount Taygetos, Kassandra’s life was filled with anguish, and she was compelled to correct her mistakes after surviving her fall. She could not escape this feeling of accountability. The commander of her ship speaks of her as “an individual built by family, love, loss, war, and bloodshed” (Odyssey). Eventually, Kassandra became a mentor to a young girl named Phoibe who lost her family and was about the same age Kassandra was when someone found her and took her in. After some time, Phoibe was murdered by the same who ordered Alexios’ death because Kassandra uncovered the truth about what happened. Kassandra was burdened by Phoibe’s death, and she could not help but feel responsible for it. She vowed to avenge Phoibe and Alexios, even if it were the last things she did. These events acted as catalysts in Kassandra’s character arc, driving her to make something of herself after living in exile. Since “man is nothing else but what he makes of himself,” it is only through such experiences that Kassandra was able to craft her essence, recovering from devastation through resilience (Sartre 278).
Furthermore, common tropes in science fictional universes blur boundaries between what is established and what could be, like the binary between mind and body. Odyssey maintains this tradition, focusing on the duality of essence and existence. This is accomplished through past and present settings, where the main character who exists in 431 B.C.E. is played through a character in the present day. In this case, Layla Hassan accesses the genetic memory of her ancestor Kassandra through the Animus, a machine that allows timeline hopping. Through the dimension of time, Sartre’s assertion that “man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterwards defines himself” is upheld more than once(280). Both Layla and Kassandra are searching for answers, and they find what they are looking for through one another. Eventually, the two meet in present day at the Gates of Atlantis, where Kassandra has been kept alive by the Staff of Hermes. Through their shared experiences and family lineage, they recognize that their respective existence is influenced by their timeline, which maintains the notion that existence precedes essence. This is further established through names and family legacy.
As Shakespeare poses in Romeo in Juliet, what is in a name? An important component in anyone’s existence is what they are called, and whether the individual lives up to their name borders between choice and destiny. In literature, names provide characters authenticity, relatability, and core essence. This reinforces the ambiguity between the balance of essence and existence in the game. Kassandra’s name in English translates to “to excel, or to shine upon men,” and as the savior of the Greek world, Kassandra lives up to her name and builds a legacy around what it means to be the Eagle Bearer. She shares a name with the princess of Troy who was once desired by Apollo. When she rejected his affection, he gifted her with the ability of premonition. Even though she loved the gift, she continued to reject Apollo’s advances, so he cursed her, making it so that none would believe her premonitions. As a result, she foresees the Trojan War but is unable to prevent it (Waterfield). Odyssey’s Kassandra shares similar experiences, since very few believe her warnings of the Cult of Kosmos until after the fact. In a sense, the meanings assigned to names challenge essence and existence because it postulates that our names affect how we craft our essences, and this is an overarching theme in the game.
Similarly, the duality of essence and existence is portrayed through family legacy. After long voyages, Kassandra discovers that Nikolaos is not actually her father and that she is the daughter of Pythagoras. Pythagoras explains that Kassandra was made so that she may save the world from its evil. This causes Kassandra to have an existential crisis, believing that she was not brought into the world out of love and that her one purpose was to feel anguish and guilt for the sake of mankind. Relative to Sartre’s philosophy, this connects to the idea that in choosing to accept one’s essence and the responsibility of carrying out self-assigned purpose, one chooses all of mankind (Sartre 280). While Kassandra must sacrifice a part of herself and actually choose all of mankind because of her lineage, her circumstances grant all of humanity the opportunity to find its values.
In addition, the notion of family legacy in essence and existence plays out through King Leonidas I, Kassandra’s maternal grandfather, who led 300 Spartans against thousands of Persians in the Battle of Thermopylae. When Kassandra survived the fall as a child, she carried one thing with her: the spear of Leonidas. Unbeknownst to her, the spear possessed Leonidas’ essence. With it, Kassandra channeled him and formed her essence because of his influence. Any time she would falter or question herself, her friend and historian Herodotus would remind her “[she] carr[ies] the blade of Leonidas… [and should] act like it” (Odyssey). Her grandfather’s spirit left an impression on her, “mak[ing] [her] aware of what [s]he is and… [making] the full responsibility of [her] existence rest on [her]” (Sartre 279). If Kassandra were not a descendent of Pythagoras or Leonidas, her being would not have actualized the way it did. Ultimately, Kassandra’s character arc blurs the distinction between essence and existence, illuminating that the binary is not as it may seem.
Essentially, this historical, science fictional universe toys with the classic archetype of a character. Like true existentialist works, it requires that the individual undergo this transition so one recognizes that their purposes are left in their own hands. The game depicts existentialist characteristics through Nikolaos and Kassandra and the duality of essence and existence. While the assassin’s creed requires that its members act in compliance with its rules about killing, the existentialist’s creed pushes us to consider how we will use our freedom to make something of ourselves.
Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey. Xbox One version, Ubisoft, 2018.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism. Philosophical Library, New York, 1947.
Waterfield, Robin. The Greek Myths: Stories of the Greek Gods and Heroes Vividly Retold. Metro Books, New York, 2013.