Some 3,000 years ago, a chap we know as Homer had an idea for a rollicking adventure, filled with curses, an epic journey across the sea and mischievous gods. We know it as The Odyssey, and it’s one of the most important stories that you’ll ever sniff the pages of before being chucked out of the library. If you’ve somehow found yourself indulging the vice of epic fantasy, then you have Homer to blame. Its beats and themes have even slithered into video games.
While countless games, from Titan Quest to God of War, have appropriated Greek mythology, it’s in the JRPG that we see classical epics less awkwardly mimicked, both in terms of the structure and narrative. Final Fantasy, time and time again, plays with the ancient themes from The Odyssey, but it is in series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi’s overlooked gem, Lost Odyssey, where the connection might be at its strongest.
Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven
far journeys, after he has sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.
Many were those cities he saw, whose minds he learned of,
many were the pains he suffered in his spirit on the wide sea,
struggling for his own life and the homecoming of his companions.
The Odyssey of Homer, Book I, Stanza I-V
Like most epics, The Odyssey begins with the poet invoking a muse, which also brings its audience up to speed. Serialised TV and games that seek to ape such shows–Life is Strange, The Walking Dead–use it in exactly the same way. So you can thank the Ancient Greeks for ensuring that you don’t get too lost if you miss an episode of your favourite show.
With the Lost Odyssey not being Greek or a poem, we should perhaps forgive it for not summoning a mythical being from the depths of time to give us a sense of place. Mistwalker’s RPG does, however, very quickly reveal its themes and protagonist, Kaim, an immortal fella with lovely, long silky hair.
We begin in the middle of a battle. This event takes place not right at the beginning of Kaim’s epic tale, but in media res. It jumps into the action, absent much exposition. This is typical of epics. The Iliad begins, after the invoking of the muse, in the middle of the Trojan War, while The Odyssey starts with Odysseus stranded on an island after he’s already gone through many trials and adventures.
By kicking off in the middle of a battle, Lost Odyssey avoids the most dismal of RPG tropes, where the hero is a happy bumpkin living in a idyllic village before the villains arrive and burn everything to the ground. More than a few fantastic RPGs have been known to fall into this trap, and it’s a horribly trite way to begin an epic. We always know upheaval is coming, that the hero is going to be plucked out of their life by some awful tragedy. Like Homer, Mistwalker cuts out the boring bits and throws us in the deep end, where we must swim with the sharks and fight a gargantuan apocalyptic army.
It’s through this battle that Lost Odyssey establishes many of game’s themes, like the industrialisation of magic, the rapid evolution of technology and the proliferation of superweapons. It also makes it damn clear that Kaim is exactly the sort of person who you’d want in a scrap. This fantastical fight, with Kaim dancing across the battlefield, fighting man, machine and magic, is probably more impressive than what the Greek heroes faced, but the general badassery on display is very much what you’d expect from Achilles, hero of The Odyssey’s older sibling, The Iliad.
The man with the dodgy heel is how he’s best remembered–a later addition to his legend, no doubt made by Achilles-haters–but before he was defeated in such an embarrassing way, he was the greatest warrior in the world. He was also a bit of a dick. Not as much as his chum Agamemnon, king of the Acheans, but he would definitely be the douchey high school jock if The Iliad was a teen drama.
Kaim is more like Odysseus, though. Measured, thoughtful and maybe more like a person than a warrior archetype. And like Odysseus, Kaim is on a journey, one that’s got its fair share of tragedy. In the Greek Epic Cycle, there are two kinds of heroes: there’s your Ajax and Achilles types, full of bluster and bravado, all testicles and chest pounding, and then there’s the more accessible heroes, like Odysseus. He’s the one you’d want to marry, probably, while Achilles would probably be more of a riot in the sack.
Ajax? Well, you’d likely want to kill him.
Similarly, your JRPG heroes tend to fall into two groups: the immature, constantly hungry, eternally optimistic idiots; and the sad, sorrowful emo chaps, like Kaim. He’s an immortal who has lost his memories and purpose, and like Odysseus, he is lonely and adrift. He is an enigma to himself, just as he is to us. But through flashbacks and eventually the recovery of his memories, we get to learn all the intimate and often dramatic details of his exceedingly long life.
Homer’s Odyssey also makes great use of flashbacks. Indeed, it’s one of literature’s first examples of the technique. Odysseus and the poet have a rapt audience as they detail the traveller’s adventures and tragedies after being cursed by perpetual wanker and god, Poseidon. It’s through these flashbacks that Odysseus is established as cunning, resourceful and honest – a wily, very human hero.
The dreams and flashbacks in Lost Odyssey–appearing as short stories and visions–were written by Kiyoshi Shigematsu, a best-selling Japanese author, and feature the most emotionally gripping writing in the entire game. This is where we really get to know Kaim, as we experience his personal tragedies and moments that defined him. They haunt Kaim, as he relives heart-breaking events like the apparent loss of his young daughter. He’s a man who has lived for a thousand years, yet he’s still a man.
Both Kaim and Odysseus are victims of the machinations of powerful beings. Meddling gods is a theme typical of, but far from exclusive to, Greek myths, and it kept that famous hero of antiquity, Kevin Sorbo, in work for years. For Odysseus, that meddling takes the form of Poseidon’s aforementioned curse. Odysseus had blinded the god’s cyclops son, Polyphemus, who had captured him, in a rather violent (and successful) escape attempt. Daddy’s reaction? He curses Odysseus to sail the seas for many years and lose his men and ships in the process. There’s also Calypso, who keeps Odysseus captive because she thinks he’s hot (he is), and Circe, who turns all his men into pigs (appropriate). I’d suggest that it’s maybe his companions who really get the raw deal out of this curse, as their lives are taken, essentially, to to fulfill Polyphemus’ desire to see Odysseus only return home once he’s a broken man.
Kaim has been doubly cursed. There’s his immortality, which ensures that his relationships are fleeting and his long life is overflowing with loss, and his loss of self, of his memories. The former is really his nature, rather than an actual curse, but the latter was caused by his fellow immortal, the extremely unpleasant sorcerer, Gongora, whose sinister nature is revealed early on thanks to his evil beard. Just look at it.
Not only do both of our handsome heroes fall foul of immortal mischief makers, they also have a blood connection to them. Odysseus is the great-grandson of the Hermes, the most cunning and fleet-of-foot of all the gods, whose uncle is Poseidon. And Kaim is, like Gongora, an observer from another world, another dimension. Thus, neither of them are truly of the worlds they inhabit, but they are grounded by the importance they place on things like the mortal family they have seemingly lost, a theme repeated throughout both of their adventures.
Central to both heroes’ trials is a voyage across the ocean, a typical element of the traditional hero’s journey. It emphasises the global, epic nature of their quest and is especially prevalent in JRPGs. Ships, whether they are on the sea or in the air, are particularly prominent in Final Fantasy, Lost Odyssey’s progenitor. The era of fast travel has revealed just how important they are. Worlds shrink when you can jump from one side to the other quicker than you can ask for directions, and the physical, sometimes exhausting, journey is a core part of the adversity heroes have to overcome before they complete their trials.
Epic voyages, thoughtless, meddling immortals, the repetition of scenes and themes, the massive, global scope, superhuman feats in the midst of battle, lost family, the reclamation of identity – there’s hardly a single element of The Odyssey that isn’t shared by Lost Odyssey. Broadly, they both follow the monomyth, the hero’s journey, which breaks down the heroic narrative into 17 stages. It’s so broad that most adventures adhere to it, but The Odyssey and Lost Odyssey’s similarities are undoubtedly more specific.
It could be argued that the original oral transmission of Odysseus’ journey is even closer to Lost Odyssey than the written version. Greek poets would perform the epics with little flourishes and changes depending on their audience–who they were and where they were from–giving it a more intimate, personal flavour, comparable to the player’s control over Kaim, which gives them authorship over the adventure.
Ultimately, all epic fantasy has sprouted from seeds scattered by the tree of epic poetry. These tales are in the DNA of our fiction. They are so compelling because, despite their grandiose scope and silly wizards and angry gods, they’re really human stories, of family, loss and surviving not just because of personal strength, but because of the people we surround ourselves with. Our companions. They might be hundreds or thousands of years old, but they remain as relevant today as they were when Homer, Vyasa, Virgil and Milton first told them.