On Monday afternoon, I reached Athena 10 on Sea of Thieves. For those who don't follow the game closely, that's the highest reputation rank that it's currently possible to hit in the game. It's been the single longest video game grind I think I've ever undertaken; it took a little under a year from the game's release for me to reach Pirate Legend (which requires you to reach level 50 with three of Sea of Thieves' various trading companies) in December 2018. It then took me significantly longer than that (nearly 14 months!) to climb the ten ranks of Athena reputation - mainly because earning any at all requires you to undertake a voyage that takes a minimum of two hours to finish, and often more like three or four. In the last couple of weeks, as I saw the reputation level hit 7.5, then 8, and then 8.5, it became something of a grudge match for me. The race had been long, the end was in sight, and damn it I was going to run across that finish line, rather than stumble.
Last weekend, the golden opportunity arose - the perfect storm of a double reputation weekend, a couple of bank holidays meaning I could hit the waves even more than usual, and the availability of Legend voyages from Duke in the Tavern. These voyages sent pirate legends and their crews to Thieves' Haven and the surrounding areas to dig up Athena items and gems, which could then be flogged for double the usual gold and reputation at nearby Plunder Outpost - the only downside being that everyone paying attention to the game knew what was going on and where. The Ancient Isles promptly became the most hotly contested area of the seas. I'll admit to assembling every crew I have to take advantage of this, setting sail with everyone I play with regularly to get across the line. A couple of the guys in that motley crew finished their own climbs to Athena 10 at about 2am on Monday morning - I was a still a slice away. So, on Monday afternoon I set out to finish what I'd started. I started my voyage through the ranks in a solo sloop, so it seemed an apt way to finish it. That final run of Thieves Haven was fairly uneventful - a circling brigantine gave me reason for a little caution, but ultimately I handed in a final Crate of Legendary Voyages and was done. I bought a hat and a figurehead, and sat back and breathed a sigh of relief.
The following night, I set sail again - this time at the helm of a fully loaded Athena ship. I died to skeletons deliberately so I could light the whole damn galleon up with green light, and that night I played Sea of Thieves in a way that I haven't for a long time. I let the emergent gameplay just wash me away... and it was a revelation.
In all the reputation chasing, and the single minded pursuit of one goal, I'd been consciously ignoring a lot of the best things that Sea of Thieves has to offer. I wrote about it here, lamenting that focusing on one single goal has a massive opportunity cost in terms of enjoyment - and I stand by those words. In fact, I almost feel it even harder now that I've accomplished that one goal. That first post-Athena 10 sail reminded me of so many reasons that I love this game - it "allowed" me to just follow the fun. I'll be the first to admit that the focusing on one goal with a laser sight is very much a personal shortcoming, but nonetheless... being able to just engage with the game from one moment to the next without an over-arching and over-riding objective was just SO MUCH FUN. We sailed off-course to raid shipwrecks. I rowed from Shiver Retreat all the way to the Reaper's Hideout with a Reaper chest simply because the opportunity arose.
Spending an evening just letting the seas taking me where they would showed me just how much the cadence of the game has changed - there's always something to chase. If you're not being attacked by a Megalodon there's a Skeleton Ship somewhere nearby. Otherwise, it's a storm blowing you off course, or loot in the water. Other player ships are still an entirely unknown quantity. Washed up loot is everywhere, and if none of that appeals you can fish or (shock!) follow the voyage you've put down. Some games benefit from structure, but Sea of Thieves definitely feels like one where less guided sessions are the ones that end up being the most fun.
What does all of this mean? I'm still not finished with Sea of Thieves. The endless emergence means it's still the single most engaging game I play - and I'm certainly not giving that up just because I have no more reputation to gain (for the moment...). I still have commendations to earn. There are still megalodons to fight and forts to overcome. There are still Tall Tales to fully complete, and crew members to assist. For the moment, I'm looking forward to logging in with my friends and doing whatever they need to do and not quietly counting the cost of NOT doing Athena voyages. A weight has been lifted from my pirate's shoulders - and he's going to enjoy it.
See you on the seas.