Based on the two-and-half hours spent playing some late-game missions, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey seems to be improving upon all the changes that Assassin’s Creed Origins introduced to the tenured franchise. By better implementing player choice across every aspect of the game, whether it’s in the skills you equip in combat or by the dialogue choices you use to respond to the game’s hundreds of NPCs, Ubisoft is making it easier for you to put a little bit of yourself into every decision.
Ubisoft Quebec (Assassin’s Creed Syndicate) is leading the charge for Odyssey. Interestingly enough, the studio shared in Ubisoft Montreal’s ambitions to turn Assassin’s Creed into an RPG before even knowing that’s where they wanted to go with Origins. Though the team has had the desire to work on an Assassin’s Creed RPG, it’s been an endeavor that’s challenged them for the better part of the last three years.
At a recent Gamescom event, we had the opportunity to chat with Odyssey creative director Jonathan Dumont. We discussed at length Ubisoft Quebec’s philosophy behind its approach to story and combat, as well as Dumont’s thoughts on why Assassin’s Creed works as an RPG, why Odyssey takes place so far in the past, and what the now decade-old franchise means to him as a creator.
GameSpot: When Origins was first unveiled, one of the biggest changes was combat. What sort of influences did you bring to Odyssey when it came to improving that area?
Dumont: Yeah, it’s interesting because I don’t know if we have something that we looked at necessarily. We did want you to feel like you’re more capable of overpowering enemies. As you grow the strength of Leonidas’ spear [your protagonist’s weapon and a first civ artifact], you want it to become stronger and stronger. You have base combat and then everything we put on top is to facilitate getting the upper hand over other NPCs. We also wanted that to be a player choice, so we tried to have freedom at the core of everything that we’ve added. But in this case, creating your playstyle, creating your class, we were thinking about [it] as, “How cool would it be to mix and match skills?” We wanted to allow players to say, “I want to do these four things in the game and that’s it. And that’s the way I want to play the game!”
We were looking at it more from a customization perspective instead of trying to enforce a certain way to play the game or unlock things in a certain order. Invest the points where you want them but map them like you want them and create your own playstyle. Because Assassin’s Creed has been around over 10 years now, and we all play different. Some people just want to play stealth and others might want combat, so we want to make sure that your playstyle is the right playstyle for you and that the game allows you to play that way.
Was player creativity and freedom the core design tenants this time around?
Yeah, and it goes with the story too and how you role-play the character. It goes into picking your character at the start of the game. It’s even present when you’re recruiting your ship’s crew. So how do you want to make it your own in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey? Trying to make it feel like what I do as being a reflection of me and that the game offers more choices to do so was important for us in our push to make Assassin’s Creed a full RPG.
What fueled the decision for the main character to have a weapon that’s essentially a piece of Eden?
So, I played all the Assassin’s Creed games. In most of them, you end up fighting a boss that has a piece of Eden, and I have always been intrigued by that. Why can’t we see that from the start of the game? If you’re going to implement that into a game set in the 1500s, it would be tough to introduce, but if you’re going back 2,500 years and, in a setting, where it’s [more] tied closely to the first civilization, it makes more sense. They’re seen as gods still, so it fits within that setting and the traditional hero of that time, which is typically someone elevated by some power or chosen by the gods.
I always wanted to see what would happen if you could manipulate [a first civ artifact] and control one throughout an entire game. It’s not usually present in our games, but with Odyssey I felt like [it’s the] right time to try something a little bit outside our typical pillars.
I heard that both the Montreal and Quebec studios logically came to the conclusion that the RPG genre is where the series should go. How did that epiphany come about for the studio? And why do you think the RPG is where Assassin’s Creed needs to go?
I think we spent a lot of time creating these huge open worlds and we wanted to give more incentives to explore it. We also prided ourselves in creating these credible worlds where you meet historical characters and dive into history, but we still wanted to explore it in a deeper fashion.
The RPG was a no-brainer for us and where we wanted to go with the series, which is funny because the Origins team felt the same way. We were looking at what they were building, and we were pretty much on board, so we took their code and decided that where we wanted to push further was the role-playing elements and combat customization. The RPG genre really opens our franchise to a much deeper and richer experience where you get involved and care more about what is going on than in the past.
Assassin’s Creed has always been a historical fiction series closely grounded in real-world timelines, but it’s intriguing to see how you’re allowing players the choice to change how the story plays out a bit. Not only that, but you’re also introducing these surreal elements fueled by mythology, like Medusa and the Minotaur. How do you balance these inclinations to introduce unearthly aspects while staying within the confines of reality?
Well there’s two parts to that. Even though we have choices, we don’t change history. Your story changes and some of the relationships you have with some characters will change, but history will follow its course and have the same conclusions you know from real life.
For what’s mythological, these are small pockets out in the world. You won’t see Medusa walking around or anything like that. The Greeks valued adventure, but they also had fears about adventure. The woods were dangerous so those are places you’d find the myths and legends because that’s what they thought were there. In that sense, it’s more of an interpretation of what they saw. But is it a simulation within a simulation via the first civ artifacts? You could ask: “Are they really seeing these things?” And some of these things will open up more as you play the game on some explanation. We don’t answer all the questions, obviously because questions are interesting and are sometimes even more interesting than the answers.
But as an RPG, we wanted the player to take on bigger things. Mythology was the right choice for us in exploring that. As a whole, 99% of the world is grounded in reality. You’ll get to go to see Athens and we made it just as the city was. You’ll get to go to where the Oracle of Delphi was, and it looks just like what the place was. But then there’s that 1% where we tapped into that first civ to allow some of these mythological elements to come out more. Typically, we do a scenario where a drug allows a character to see these things, but now we’re trying to make it coexist a little bit more with the world.
What fueled this decision for this game to be pushed even further back into the AC historical timeline?
With the introduction of choice, we were looking for a setting that was culturally rich, that exposed a lot of values dealing with chaos and order, which I feel to be the thematic root of Assassin’s Creed. We ultimately fell on Ancient Greece because they were asking questions, trying to find the truth. Everybody’s a philosopher. There’s conversations, dialogue. We wanted that to be sort of what’s going on around the world because we’re introducing choice into the franchise. If you meet Socrates, you talk to Socrates, you ask questions. You’re looking for answers. You’re trying to see what’s good, what’s bad, what’s true, and what’s false. So that is something that we felt that if you’re going to introduce choice, we needed a setting like Greece to facilitate that.
I know you can’t say much, but can you tell us a little bit about what the modern day storyline will look like this time around?
It’s definitely a continuation of Layla’s story, and it will evolve the story quite a bit. You’ll get some character development in there. She’s going to change and take an adventure that goes to places that you don’t expect, which is an interesting way of looking at it. Layla was introduced in Origins, but now we’re digging into what she’s looking for.
I don’t want to talk too much about it because when it comes to the present-day, some people like it, some don’t. You know how it is.
Jonathan Dumont, Creative Director
I don’t want to talk too much about it because when it comes to the present-day, some people like it, some don’t. You know how it is. But the way we do it is if you want to dive a little bit more into it, you can still explore, and we have optional dialogue choices you can pick to ask more questions about what’s going on. Or you can choose to get it pretty straightforward, but we do have a little bit more action thrown in as well to keep it engaging for those types of players too.
Assassin’s Creed has been around for 10 years now. It now has a legacy. So I’m just curious: how do you approach working on a franchise that is so tenured? And for you as a creator, what does Assassin’s Creed mean to you?
Assassin’s Creed means something different to everybody, and people are interested in it for different things. Some are interested in more of the mechanics. Some are interested more in the lore. Some are interested in the history. Personally, I like the fact that it allows us to explore a part of history, and I like that it allows us to recreate a world that we can’t go to see now. So we put a lot of effort into documenting and building those worlds.
But the coolest thing I get to experience while creating Assassin’s Creed is that the series sort of reinvents itself depending on the setting. So, if you want to be true to the setting, you need to implement aspects that fit. In Odyssey’s case, we have Hoplite warriors and we get to introduce large-scale battles because it’s Greece and it’s the middle of the Peloponnesian War. Depending on the setting there’s decisions that we need to make about gameplay that depend on the character and the setting. I personally love the creative freedom that it gives us when we switch settings, since it allows us to try new things.
As a creator, it’s really interesting because, yes, Assassin’s Creed is a running franchise that goes on for a while and we do games one after the other. But man, they’re really different when you look at each one. You go from the French Revolution to Industrial Revolution to Egypt to Greece. That’s crazy! And that’s really interesting in my opinion. And I think that’s why it’s a franchise that people love because they get to be carried somewhere new. And we try to cater to that and make the series a fun place to discover. So, in my opinion, it’s those aspects that interests me most.
That’s really what drives me into making another one. Because you learn quite a bit as you develop them. You learn while making it. We’re not historians. We like history, but we surround ourselves with specialists. We surround ourselves with people that know more than we do. And that first year we sort of try to become experts in a field that’s not our field. Our field is making games, telling stories. But really, it’s like going back to school every time you start making a new Assassin’s Creed, so there’s a lot of growth I get to experience during the development process.