The Assassins faction of Assassin’s Creed are all about freedom and free will. But the characters in Ubisoft’s long-running game series haven’t always offered players a raft of choices. But Ubisoft hopes it has accomplished something different with Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey.
The massive new game, set in ancient Greece, debuts on October 5 on the PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4. I played the first four hours or so of it — the first full chapter in a very long game — at a Ubisoft event last week in San Francisco. I got to make choices, such as playing as a male or female protagonist, Alexios or Kassandra. And in the gameplay, I could be cruel and ruthless. But if I went too far, someone would put a price on my head and mercenaries would chase me down.
I interviewed game director Scott Phillips about the Odyssey’s design. You can see my gameplay on the video below.
“Early on, we decided choice was going to be essential to the game,” Phillips said. “Choice within an role-playing game setting. Greece became a great setting. Then we thought about the great iconic battles and moments in Greece, and the battle of the 300 and Thermopylae. It’s a persistent thing in movies and stories. That’s something we wanted to hit on early on, to start with a bang. We wanted a story that was very personal. It’s also a small scale story about reuniting your family. But that small scale blows up and amplifies into these world-changing events. At its core, your goal is to reunite with the family you’ve been torn apart from.”
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: It’s the first time I’ve seen how the game starts out. You made some interesting choices. As you were thinking about this, how did you decide to set up the story this way? What were some decisions you made about what you wanted to put first?
Scott Phillips: Early on, one of our first ideas was that choice was going to be central to the game. Before we even had a setting, choice was vital to the game — choice within an RPG style of game. Greece became a great setting for us. Once we picked that, we looked some of the iconic, well-known historical moments in Greece, like the battle of the 300 at Thermopylae. That’s been written about for 2,500 years. It’s been a persistent theme in stories and films. We wanted to hit that early on to start with a bang.
As far as the story, we wanted a story that’s very personal. It’s a small-scale story about reuniting your family. But that small scale blows up and amplifies into these world-changing events. At its score, your goal is to reunite with the family that you were torn from in the past.
GamesBeat: Are we jumping around in time a bit, between the Persian war and the Peloponnesian war?
Phillips: That’s really the only time skip we have. We start at Thermopylae, but most of the game occurs during the Peloponnesian war in 431. There’s a strong connection that develops over the course of the game, though. The spear you have is the spear of Leonidas, that he used and lost in the battle of the 300. It’s also a First Civilization artifact. In the lore of Assassin’s Creed they’re the society that existed 70,000 years ago, and they’re woven into all of the conspiracies and mysteries of Assassin’s Creed. We wanted to have this connection in your bloodline between you and Leonidas, and really kick off the game with a strong moment. That moment then connects us to Layla, our present-day protagonist, and to Alexios or Kassandra, the character you play as in the Peloponnesian War era.
GamesBeat: Does it matter which of the two characters you choose?
Phillips: You’ll get the same story and have the same skills and all that stuff. The main difference will be in the voice actor performance, as well as just your personal preference in playing one or the other. That sort of choice, again, was an important aspect for us, to give players a choice between a man or a woman.
GamesBeat: At the last preview event, we fought the Medusa. That was interesting, seeing the shift into mythology, those creatures and monsters. Here I thought I might end up fighting a cyclops.
Phillips: But it’s just a man, yeah.
GamesBeat: Why did you go for that contrast?
Phillips: The mythology is so key to ancient Greece. The gods and legends and myths of that time were so central that we had to deliver on them within this experience. I think we found a nice way, as you saw as Gamescom with Medusa — an apple of Eden is involved with her, which is that iconic Assassin’s Creed artifact. But we take that myth and wrap it in the lore of the First Civilization, because all of those myths come from some sort of kernel of truth. We take that and say, “That came from this piece of our lore. That’s why it works.”
We wanted to play with your expectations a bit at the beginning of the game, wondering who the cyclops is. But there are several of those First Civilization connections. Since we’re so far back — we’re at the earliest point in time Assassin’s Creed has ever gone — more of these legendary artifacts and sites are still present. People are still aware of them and know they’re out there. In other time periods they’ve all been destroyed and lost.
GamesBeat: Where did the Odyssey name come in?
Phillips: Well, the Iliad and the Odyssey — the Odyssey being such an iconic Greek story, the story of a struggle to reach something you lost in the past, that was super powerful for us. We wanted this to be a big, epic journey. “Epic” and “Odyssey” were key words, key elements for us from the beginning. We knew “Odyssey” was the strongest word and the best description for the game we wanted to make.
GamesBeat: As a mercenary, do we necessarily care who we’re fighting for? Whether it’s Athens or Sparta?
Phillips: As a character we wanted to give you a role that allowed you to make those choices. We didn’t want to say, “You’re a Spartan, so you have to fight for the Spartans and you believe in their ideals.” We wanted you to have options. If you want to be nice and help people because you’re a good person, that’s your choice. You can role-play in that way. If you want to be a cold-hearted mercenary who only fights for money and doesn’t care, you can role-play in that way as well.
GamesBeat: The quests that start out at the beginning, how did you approach those as far as what you wanted to present first? Some of them almost seem like training missions?
Phillips: Yeah, it’s the beginning of the game, so we wanted to onboard people to a lot of the mechanics. It’s always a challenge, how fast or how slow we introduce new mechanics. We wanted to wait on the naval gameplay for several hours until you’re more comfortable with the land-based gameplay. We wanted to get you into the structure of the game, how mercenaries and bounty work. It was an iterative process. We do a first pass, we put it into playtest, and we see what happens. Okay, players have no idea how mercenaries work? Let’s change how we introduce that.
GamesBeat: How straight a line did you want to draw with the story? I’m sure you want to hook people in, but you also want them to explore this open world.
Phillips: It’s a challenge, for sure. We’re a big open world game. We know players get distracted and go off and do other things, and we want that. Providing the player with a big goal that’s potentially out of their reach–for instance, getting to Megaris, you have to find the wolf. But you can’t get to the wolf right away, so you have to go through some steps in order to reach that. Along the way, if you decide you want to level up for a while and go off and explore, or you feel like doing some other quests, or you want to go read the message board and find some local quests, or you want to gear up — there’s a lot of motors, a lot of different things that will engage the player and get them to move the game forward. It’s not just the main story.
As the game goes on, as we said, we have three major story arcs, but then there’s also a lot of other small ones. They all start at different times within the game. We wanted to pace it out such that you’re getting new stories, long-term stories and short-term stories, over the course of the game. You can constantly get distracted by something new.
GamesBeat: Talos was interesting, the level five guy. He wasn’t too tough. I think my partner on that mission took him out.
Phillips: They can be killed by animals, too. We wanted to have a systemic, living world, where anything can happen. We’ve definitely seen wild animals kill quest characters, and either that quest fails or maybe it succeeds. They can do your work for you.
GamesBeat: Does that become a tactic, potentially?
Phillips: You can definitely tame animals and have animals attack, or you can trick a mercenary into coming to fight someone else and then get the guards to attack him. There are lots of ways to play with the systems.
GamesBeat: The point where the Assassin’s Creed Odyssey title comes in, where it flashes in on you. …
Phillips: At the end of Cephalonia, yes.
GamesBeat: Is that because it’s the first time you get off the island, or the first time you find out what your real mission is?
Phillips: That’s exactly it. It’s where you learn the secret of, okay, that member of my family is still alive. That starts your journey from this island of lost hope to, okay, I need to resolve some of these events from my past. That kicks off the real Odyssey of the game.
GamesBeat: You guys are just a couple of weeks away, then?
Phillips: October 5, yeah. We’re just wrapping up the last little economy tweaks to make sure the systems are fun and fair and exciting, and all the difficulty is tuned properly. Everything needs to be as nice and tight as we can make it. We’re happy with the game we produced. As a gamer, I really like open world RPGs and dialogue and choice, so I’m happy to have been able to bring that to Assassin’s Creed and push the franchise in a cool direction.
GamesBeat: And then you take a year off?
Phillips: Yeah, that’s what Yves has said. No Assassin’s Creed next year.
GamesBeat: How did you feel about that? It was a surprise for a lot of us.
Phillips: Yves is the CEO, so he gets to make any decision he wants. For us on Assassin’s Creed, we have a very strong post-launch plan to keep players full up with content and keep them engaged with the game. We consider Odyssey a really strong platform for people to buy and keep playing for a long period of time.
GamesBeat: Skull and Bones is coming next year. That should keep some people satisfied.
Phillips: Yeah, that has some of the Black Flag elements and multiplayer naval. That’ll be very interesting. I’m looking forward to playing it myself.