Ubisoft may be committed to large expansive worlds but what about a more meaningful, focused story?
When the topic of story-telling emerges in video games, there are varying opinions surrounding it. In Dark Souls, the real story is in the lore and the environments as you piece together these kingdoms and legendary entities en route to linking the flames. For Inside, there’s a distinct lack of unnecessary padding but the tale as a whole lends itself to interpretation. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt balances a compelling, 40 hour long adventure with numerous side quests and missions, some with multiple steps and incredibly deep narratives. Then you have The Last of Us, a cinematic experience that mixes film influences into its gameplay and cutscenes for an altogether thrilling but evenly paced experience.
The point is: There’s no one route to story-telling in a video game. It often depends on the game itself, whether it can support these ambitions and even if it should focus on packing as much story content into a game as possible. In that respect, I feel the Assassin’s Creed franchise stands out. The series is one of the progenitors of the open world, collectathon genre as we know it. With Assassin’s Creed Origins and even more so with Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, there’s been shift towards packing as much story into the game as possible.
In the case of Odyssey, you have a main narrative that culminates in reuniting your family. Now it’s off to hunt down the members of an evil cult. Is it over? Nope. Now you have to discover who your real father is and your true purpose. In between, there are dozens upon dozens of smaller quests, Lost Tales of Greece, hunts, side missions, bosses, camps to assault, wars to wage and so on and so forth. It’s easy to see why Assassin’s Creed Odyssey has garnered some criticism for feeling bloated.
It’s interesting when you think about Greek classics like Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey. Both poems are sweeping narratives with their various events, characters and conflicts meticulously connected. Removing a dozen lines or so would be sacrilege. By comparison, you could remove a few side quests and missions from Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and very few would notice. But I digress.
The quality of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey can be called into question but it’s a different story format. This isn’t a one-and-done read that you might go back to at some point like a poem. This is a video game, that too with a live service infrastructure, action RPG mechanics, loot grinding, leveling systems, DLC, Mercenaries, ship battles and user-created content. It’s meant to be engaged with over a longer period of time. Which is all well and good if you’re a fan of games that can provide dozens of hours of content, repeated and dull as some of that content may be. But what if you don’t want to commit to a game in the long-term?
Well, for starters, you can forget about going back to a shorter experience with Assassin’s Creed 2020 (rumoured to have a Viking setting). Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot was recently asked about the same by GamesIndustry.biz and said that, “Our goal is to make sure you can have an [Assassin’s Creed] Unity within an Odyssey. If you want to have a story of 15 hours, you can have it, but you can also have other stories. You live in that world and you pursue what you want to pursue. You have an experience, many Unity-like experiences.” Guillemot also pointed to the game’s playtime, roughly 60 hours on average, and noted that “players got a lot from their investment in the game, a lot more than they got before.”
From a business perspective, it makes sense why Ubisoft is taking a more measured approach with Odyssey. Even if you account for XP boosters, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey has clearly been designed for its players to engage with a wide suite of content outside of “just” the story. For better or worse, the game pushes you to discover other things in the wilderness. Alternatively, you could just “grind” those levels out, assaulting forts and bandit camps even it quickly got old. Either way, you’re in it for the long haul and Ubisoft releases free content to keep you coming back (with this “good will” philosophy hopefully translating into sales for their paid cosmetic items).
Besides, weren’t people getting tired of the way Assassin’s Creed used to be? Isn’t the current model more successful, especially in terms of sales and revenue? Yes to both. So from a business standpoint, it makes sense to ensure that Assassin’s Creed 2020 is yet another immense open world with loot to earn, levels to grind, side quests by the dozen to undertake, etc etc.
However, when we talk about “investment” from a narrative standpoint, it’s interesting to think that a game like Assassin’s Creed Unity can just “fit” into Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. Hearing that investment broken down into “hours” makes sense but how do you measure emotional investment? More hours spent playing may be better and translate to better sales but does it make for a better story?
Personally, I believe Ubisoft should consider returning to tighter, more focused narratives. Not that Assassin’s Creed Unity was “small” by any means but think of a game like Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. It provided the backdrop for a litany of side missions, each with genuinely interesting stories and characters. You had your share of collectibles, sure, but you never deviated too far from the main narrative.
Even though certain side missions and interactions could be removed from Assassin’s Creed Odyssey without anyone noticing, all of this has been designed keeping the overall pacing in mind. Some side quests and missions may have multiple parts but you’re mainly looking at objectives that require killing X animal or enemy. You’re looking at burning X amount of enemy supplies or assassinating X target. There’s quantity, for sure but when you try to take the narrative of Unity or Syndicate and simply slot it into Odyssey, changes have to be made to properly align it with the game’s core narrative. It’s not going to be the same narrative experience by a long shot.
This isn’t to say that Guillemot’s idea of having “Unity-like experiences” is disingenuous but there’s more to a game’s story and the engagement that it creates with the player than just “number of hours played”. I would argue that Assassin’s Creed as a franchise suffered not because it didn’t have enough content in each game but because each new story failed to really engage the player on an emotional level. These games haven’t been getting smaller over the years but there’s been a clear shift away from “We have an interesting story to tell” towards “We need to pump out a new game every year, no, I don’t care if Desmond is dead.” It finally settled on alternating between Ubisoft open world franchises every other year.
When comparing the overall goals of narrative design between this generation’s Assassin’s Creed and the previous titles, I can’t help but think about Days Gone and The Last of Us. Both take place in post-apocalyptic settings where infected humans are the biggest threat. Both have are pretty character-focused as our heroes struggle to survive in a society where the norm has long since been abandoned. It’s the overall focus of these narratives that determines their scale and how the plot plays out.
Days Gone, for all intents and purposes, is about Deacon finding his wife. The journey is constrained to a single open world, providing ample opportunity to interact with different survivors and learn their stories. The main narrative can be tackled whenever is convenient for the player. By comparison, The Last of Us is about traveling across the country as our protagonists struggle to fulfill their objective. You may not explore the entire country as each Chapter is its own linear level but it suits the narrative at hand.
Other survivors are encountered but these stories are woven into the main narrative, each event influencing the protagonists’ growth in the overall journey and beyond. There is no “start and stop” point for the player – it’s a ride from start to finish.
So while Days Gone may be more open-ended and sand-boxy, The Last of Us fine-tunes its cinematic pacing and story-telling to tell a concise story. You can enjoy the narratives in both games because both games take effective approaches to immersing the player. However, personally, I find the story-telling and characterization of The Last of Us superior simply because the game did a better job immersing me into the story. Quality of writing, cinematography, scripting, plot – a number of factors influence that immersion and it varies from person to person. But both of the above games try to tell meaningful, focused stories within their frameworks.
What kind of story is Ubisoft trying to tell with Assassin’s Creed 2020? If we discount the rumours and believe that it emphasizes a tale of warring Vikings, it would have a completely different treatment from, say, SIE Santa Monica’s God of War. And I say that keeping in mind that even God of War had superfluous systems like loot and larger environments with side missions, secrets and collectibles. With God of War 2, you don’t know what new innovations the studio will bring to its gameplay forefront – all you know is that the story-telling will be similarly engaging with a sharp focus on its lead characters. You know to expect a good story, not to suddenly veer off in the action RPG route, socializing with other players controlling their own version of Kratos in a hub while grinding daily faction missions.
Assassin’s Creed 2020 will likely dabble with Norse mythology, giving the players some mythical weapons and powers to play around with. You’ll still be assaulting outposts, completing kill quests for citizens and trying to grind XP to equip better loot. Maybe you’ll meet different Viking clans and get your daily faction missions that way. If the rumours are true and we’re indeed allowed to influence the economy of different regions, that would be neat. But how much do you want to bet that it would be akin to the Conquest battles in Odyssey – flashy, but ultimately not all that meaningful in the long run?
I’m not trying to say that the next Assassin’s Creed should be like God of War, simply aping that franchise’s new-found direction. But there’s something to be said about the stories that Ubisoft has told over the years. They’re becoming less about memorable characters, fleshed out and unique worlds, and plots that emotionally resonate with players.
The new trend is to cobble as many elements together into as big of an open world as possible, capturing that ever-elusive player engagement and delivering free content for the sake of pushing microtransactions. If the recent Ghost Recon Breakpoint has proven anything, it’s that the company might want to think about its current loot-obsessed, live service model before it risks burning players, yet again.
I remember back in the day when Assassin’s Creed had a “story”. I remember when it was about more than just artifacts, reliving memories for the sake of reliving them, and having interesting characters who we bonded with. Characters who stayed with us, through thick and thin, and saddened us with their passing. I remember when even the historical figures themselves were vehicles for complex sagas – how long has it been since Ubisoft presented a character arc like Ezio Auditore’s?
We might never go back to the old days. But a strong focused narrative, one that favours a highly polished storyline over excessive grinding and tasks, will never go out of style. You could argue that it wouldn’t make the most money or have the longest revenue tail but with the number of samey open world titles that Ubisoft is pumping out, surely there’s a possibility of something, anything different.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, GamingBolt as an organization.