Assassin’s Creed Odyssey Director Talks Story Details And RPG Inspirations

During a recent trip to Ubisoft Quebec, we had the opportunity to play about five hours of the highly-anticipated Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. It was a small sliver of the huge open world of Ancient Greece, set in 431 BC during the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. We spent that time on the Delos Islands leading a rebellion, completing side quests, and engaging in many of the RPG elements that are new to the series. Dialogue options aren’t the only thing that are new, as facing the consequences of your choices was very much part of the demo. You can read about our experience in an in-depth preview of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and how RPG elements seem to make it a better game.

In addition to getting our hands on an early build, we had the chance to talk with Assassin’s Creed Odyssey’s director Scott Phillips. The following interview digs into the inspiration for the new direction, what players can expect throughout the story, and how the team is working in the rich history of this time period.

For more on Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, be sure to check out our breakdown of the six biggest changes for this entry. If you want to see more of the game in action, we have a bunch of gameplay videos that show off ship combat, dialogue sequences, and large-scale battles.

GameSpot: The first thing that struck me when playing the game is the heavier RPG elements. How was that decision made and what other games did you draw inspiration from? Where did that start?

Scott Phillips: It was early on, three years ago, we were coming to the end of Syndicate. When talking about what Assassin’s Creed Odyssey should be, we asked where do we want Assassin’s Creed to go, what does it need to evolve into? We talked with the Assassin’s Creed Origins team to see what they were doing. We both had the same sort of idea of where the series should go–RPG choice, we wanted to push it forward. We knew Origins was doing some of those things, but for us, we had the time to really go even further to focus on the two characters, Alexios and Kassandra, to focus on choice within the stories and within the dialogue, to give you special abilities, to build your own play style.

In terms of inspiration, I play a lot of RPGs and I would say open-world is my favorite genre. The RPG is something [that] fits together super, super well. And I play everything that comes out; games like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and obviously Assassin’s Creed Origins. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Fallout, those two are probably some of my favorite[s]. And if you look at those games, they give players a lot of options. For us, that was what we wanted to push Assassin’s Creed as a franchise into: more choice for the player.

This is the first Assassin’s Creed that’s moved into branching dialogue and consequences for your choices. In the playable demo, decisions were made, side quests were completed, and two hours down the line, the consequences play out. The end product of the decision wasn’t clear right away. How hard is it to keep it cohesive?

It’s super hard, I’ve got to say. There’s no other way to put it. We try to think of every consequence that can happen. We write all those, we move forward with structuring the quests and all of the quests that could be impacted in a way that’ll work. Then we play it a lot and ask ourselves, what did we miss? What doesn’t connect? What doesn’t pay off well enough?

Something we had a while ago and tried was including a sort of the Telltale-style “your choice will have an impact” notification afterward. Ultimately we felt that the player is better off making those connections themselves and we didn’t want to put too much in their face. We wanted the feeling of, “Oh, wow, that thing I did back then…” or when they talk to someone else and say, “Oh, I had no idea that those connections were made.” We felt after play tests that it was the stronger way to go rather than being in the player’s face with the decisions being made.

Male protagonist Alexios speaking with Socrates, one of the many ways Odyssey incorporates Greek history.
Male protagonist Alexios speaking with Socrates, one of the many ways Odyssey incorporates Greek history.

Assassin’s Creed always told a contained story within history. But choices seem to play out in the larger, main narrative. Is there going to be bigger payoffs or consequences of larger scale, maybe multiple endings? How much can you change the world and how much will it be reflected in the world as the game goes on?

We have to make decisions about how big are we going to go with certain choices. Obviously, we want some to have massive changes to the story, but we have mid-scale changes and small changes. Some parts of side quests can impact the main quest: who appears, who’s around you, who’s dead, who’s alive, who you’re friends with, who hates you. Those sorts of things all sort of feed into both the main story, and all of the side stories, and in the world itself because the world is constantly changing. The mercenaries that are alive in your playthrough, I may never see in mine or maybe I killed them in my playthrough. The leaders can also be different. So, there’s a lot of activity and change and when players talk to each other about what their experience was, or some great fight they had with this mercenary, or the choice they made in that quest, it’s going to be a very different experience for each player.

I love the Mass Effect series, but with Paragon/Renegade, I know straight up if my decision is good or bad. But we’ve also had games like The Witcher 3 that just give you options, and who knows how they’ll pay off in the end. From the slice we played, it seems Odyssey is going the latter route.

Making the game morally gray and not black-and-white was important to us. We didn’t want it to be like past games where you’re not forced to not kill civilians, as a simple example. The Creed doesn’t exist for your player character in terms of restricting you from doing that. That’s your choice. But we’re going to impact the player, we’re going to show you that it means something in the game world. And it’s going to give you feedback, you’re going to feel those choices you’ve made in small-scale and in these large-scale choices across the game.

Do you want to encourage players to do more side stuff, especially those who tend to mainline games? Do you kind of accept that they might be missing out on some really good story bits and narrative arcs?

Yeah, I think the easiest example is if you look at our E3 demo, you don’t have to play any of that. That’s all side content in the main game, and that’s true throughout huge parts of the game. We want you to do that, we think you will enjoy it. And as balance between players that want to rush the game and players that want to complete every single piece is a challenge for us, because we want both play styles to be valid and work well. In an RPG, making sure that the player who does 100% of the content and that player who does only what they want, we want both to have a good experience. Balance for both player types is something that RPGs have struggled with quite a bit. I think we have a very good progression system, a very good way of balancing the game that makes it so everyone, no matter what they do, is going to have a great time.

Character relationships are a new thing, along with choice-based dialogue, of course. For example, I tried romancing Kyra but it didn’t work out. How deep are relationships going to go and how impactful are those relationships?

It depends on the character. I would say Kyra is a mid-level romance to put it in a weird way. There are some side characters, and other characters where it’s a shorter thing, but you can still recruit people to be on your ship crew. And with some of these romanceable characters, you can recruit them to be on your ship and with you for the rest of your journey, or you can never see them again. It’s sort of your choice. There’s also family relationships which you’ll make decisions about, and will impact, ultimately, who’s around or who’s there for help as you get further in the game. You’ll see a lot of variation based on the way you’ve played the game.

With choice-based dialogue, there are many directions it can go. But it’s all contained in Greek mythology and the Ancient Greek historical time period. How do you balance between using history and creative freedom? Are we still going to have that rich, historical backdrop along with the story that you’re trying to tell as well?

It’s fun. It’s always a back-and-forth of how far can we push it: when do we need to focus more on Greek history, when do we need to focus more on Assassin’s Creed lore, and when do we need to just give the player something really cool to do? We’re constantly making those choices. On a small scale, it’s things like how buildings and structures look. We maintain historical accuracy, but some of our statues are way bigger than they would’ve been in this time period. Or the look of Sparta in our game is more grandiose than what Sparta actually was, because the Spartans, the Laconians, were very minimalistic. They focused solely on war; they didn’t try to build big statues. But we wanted Sparta to be this awesome, amazing, epic-looking Greek location, and we had to push it forward.

Skyrim, Fallout, those two are probably some of my favorite[s]. And if you look at those games, they give players a lot of options. For us, that was what we wanted to push Assassin’s Creed as a franchise into: more choice for the player.

When it comes to ships, there are simple things about how the triremes would have to be pulled out of the water to avoid getting waterlogged and sinking. Obviously, we’re not going to do that. But we also need to make decisions about ramming, shooting javelins, and firing arrows; how far are we going to push it? Did they have catapults? Did catapults exist at that time? Well, sort of. It’s always a fine line, and we’re pushing and pulling, and trying to make sure that we’re true to both the vision we want to have for a game in 2018 and what this period of time would’ve looked like.

When you meet with Socrates, you have discussions of philosophy. You meet with Hippocrates, who’s the father of medicine. You talk to Herodotus, who’s the father of modern history. You engage with these characters and develop details about what their thought processes were, and you affect it as well. But then you also argue with Socrates even as you have him as an ally. So, it’s a constant battle between too little and too much. And I think we found a really good balance, especially with the mythology of Ancient Greece. It’s a super deep, awesome mythology of legends and gods with the mixture of history. And it’s also Assassin’s Creed, which has a ton of characters with names from the first civilization that come from Ancient Greece, and they’re coming from that sort of lore. We had a good backdrop to sort of mix the two. I don’t want to spoil stuff, but there are a lot of really cool ways that pays off. If you really engage in the game, there’s some really amazing stuff that ties it all together.

As for the modern day storyline, are any of the RPG elements going to play into the modern day storytelling?

So, there is definitely modern day gameplay with Layla Hassan, but I don’t want to go into that just yet.

Origins was big in terms of scope, and this game seems big, too. How do you answer those worried about series fatigue? Even though there’s a lot of new stuff, they might just not be in the mood for another huge open world.

We’ve worked on the game for three years, and in terms of what we’ve done, we put in a huge amount of effort. We had a big team for that period of time. We focused on making this huge, huge game. I think fans will really see, when they play it, that what we brought is something new and fresh to Assassin’s Creed with choice, with RPG elements. And I think it is and will be one of the favorite Assassin’s Creed games.

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Author: Michael Higham

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