What would modern media be like without the Greek Myths? It would be whole lot less fun, that’s for certain. From Children’s books, to TV shows, films and video games, the media we consume is inundated with the distinctive presence of these larger than life mythological personalities.
Indeed, the (mis)adventures of Zeus, Hera, Poseidon et al. have been told and retold in our cultural stories for millennia. Just in the last five years alone we’ve seen numerous reimagining’s of Ancient Greek mythology in the video game world – which leads to a question, is a fresh take on the myths even possible? Ubisoft Quebec seem to think so and have put their money where there mouth is, creating Immortals Fenyx Rising, a comedic action adventure cram packed with Greek Mythology.
With the game out later this week – and our Immortals Fenyx Rising review is live right here – it’s a perfect time to chat with the the narrative director and lead writer on the project, Jeffrey Yohalem. We talk all things mythological, but first, that fresh take, is it possible? How do you make something so old, new? Especially when so many people have been there and told the story before you?
“I knew what other people had done,” Jeffrey told me. “I think I probably consciously didn’t want to do what they had done, but also the lens that I had chosen to examine this all through was humour. I already knew that was a pretty fresh take. Taking the myths and looking at them through the lens of something like ‘Robin Hood Men in Tights’, ‘Princess Bride’ or ‘Naked Gun’, I felt like that was new.” Well, Jeffrey, you just listed three of my favourite comedies of all time there – if you had my curiosity before, now you really have my attention.
For those who’ve already played the demo of Immortals Fenyx Rising on Google Stadia, I’m sure you’ve come away pleasantly surprised with just how funny the game is. Genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. A feat in and of itself, even more impressive when you consider that humour and action adventure games rarely go hand in hand. Key to the appeal are the divine double-act of Zeus and Prometheus. Ostensibly the narrators, these two bickering gods are much more than that. They bring plentiful silliness, occasional slapstick, big chuckles and an improvisational lightness of touch that feels remarkably original.
“They feel like the original odd couple” Jeffrey explained, “they were cousins and Prometheus fought beside Zeus in the war against the Titans and then Prometheus goes off and steals fire for the humans and Zeus was very unhappy with that. So he has Prometheus chained to the mountain and has this eagle pecking his liver for all eternity. Now Zeus needs Prometheus’ help after doing that to him. They have this old friendship which has really soured and now they need to work together. The comedy of that forced relationship really propels you through the open world.”
It really does. Zeus, in particular, appears to be making up the story as he goes along, adding extra events to heighten the drama or lobbing different beasties into the fray, seemingly just for the sheer hell of it. I wondered, was this freestyling plot a nod to the original myths primarily being of an oratory tradition?
“Yeah, it’s both that” Jeffrey replied, “and also that in a game a lot of times the main character talks to themselves, which is a little awkward. Here you have two characters commenting on everything the player does. You basically have these interactive narrators following you around and cracking jokes about what you’re doing, and that felt very good.
“Also, as you said, the oral tradition, the idea here is that the story of Fenyx is contained in a lost poem, which told the story of the battle between the Titans and Zeus. That would have been a spoken poem, but we don’t know what the contents of it were as they’ve been lost to time.”
This seems a wonderful idea. No longer do I need to listen to my player character banging on about how “I can’t carry any more”. It drives me crazy. You’re already carrying enough weapons to arm a small country and so much ammo that you could build a staircase to the moon with it, what difference are two glass jars going to make?
“I got to do jokes about those moments too” said Jeffrey, who had interrupted my inner monologue, but let’s not be too harsh – my ranting really wasn’t going anywhere. “It’s a lot of fun to examine video games from the perspective of the Ancient Greek gods. That kind of anachronism was fun.”
Okay, so we’ve got humour and we’ve got a pair of bickering narrators doing their best to emulate the leads in a buddy cop movie. Were there any issues with, when it came to making these character likeable, the fact that both the gods and heroes of Greek mythology could be so thoroughly unlikeable? When a supposed paragon of heroism like the legendary Theseus also enjoyed dabbling in a spot of kidnapping, are you going to have trouble getting the audience on their side? Is the answer just to hide those negative traits and behaviours?
“No, quite the opposite” Jeffrey suggested. “I feel like a lot of modern retellings just brush the more problematic aspects of mythology or the most twisted behaviour of the gods under the rug. Because this is a comedy I wanted to bring those elements to the forefront and examine them from a modern perspective. I felt that all of these things that were problems in fact speak to our current political climate and who we are as human beings on social media.
“Right now our heroes are being shown on camera all the time. We see them being selfish, we see them being clumsy falling down stairs, we see them making all kinds of mistakes. At the same time everyone is under such pressure to curate their Instagram story to have the perfect relationship, the perfect food, the perfect house, there’s all this pressure to be perfect, but it’s also increasingly impossible to be perfect.”
Jeffrey continued, “I feel like mythology is the perfect lens to examine that. The Greek’s believed in balance where what makes us human and makes us complete are both our strengths and weaknesses.”
And what do these unpalatable aspects of Greek Mythology tell us about the past? That the denizens of Athens were a bit pervy perhaps? “The funny thing is that most of the incredibly weird gratuitous stuff is Roman. A lot of the incest, a lot of the rape, is from Roman additions to the material. Nowadays you’d look at the Roman’s views of sexuality and violence as pretty unhealty, whereas the Greeks were more balanced and healthy.”
So, what have the Romans ever done for us? Made teaching mythology in Primary Schools much more difficult than it would otherwise have been, it seems.
I thought I’d best wrap things up and that led me to my final question for Jeffrey. The original Greek myths are the primary source for the inspiration behind Immortals Fenyx Rising, that means the storylines that infuse the game are over two millennia old. Did Jeffrey ever have any concerns that these stories would no longer be relevant to a modern audience? Was there a need to freshen the stories up and significantly change them?
“No, the humour is sort of modern but again it’s all based on stuff that’s there in the original myths. A lot of it is just bringing to the forefront some ideas or concepts that were present in the myths but that a lot of very serous mythological work tries to paper over because it doesn’t fit with modern sensibilities. When you really look at the content of these stories, what happened in them, the reactions, there’s all this comedic gold in there. When you do a comedy you can examine all that, rather than just adhere to it mindlessly. I think the texts were rich with the opportunities to talk about the failure of human beings and the weirdness about our behaviour in the past and the present.” What could be more relevant than that?
Thank you to Jeffrey for taking the time out to talk with us during the Immortals Fenyx Rising Virtual Press Event – you can also catch our Immortals Fenyx Rising review. Immortals Fenyx Rising will be released on December 3rd for Stadia, Xbox Series X, Xbox One, PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and PC. So, everything basically!