When Player Choice Goes Wrong
Exploring the Assassin’s Creed Odyssey backlash from a game design perspective
You may have heard about the recent controversy surrounding Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. Specifically, the game attracted significant criticism related to a DLC where the game’s protagonist was required to get married and have a child. This sparked widespread anger among gamers and led to heated debates between players who were outraged by the decision and those who didn’t quite understand why it was seen as such a big deal. Now that the immediate dust has settled to a degree, I want to reflect on how Ubisoft walked into a trap of their very own making, and how this isn’t the first time such an issue has arisen.
Let’s step right back for a moment and consider first principles. All video games are built upon a set of rules and constraints defined by the developers. As consumers of games, there’s an unwritten contract between us and the game’s developers. That is, the developer agrees to make the best possible version of a game for us to enjoy, and we agree to the rules and constraints imposed on the game’s design. A practical example of this might be a theoretical bad-ass ninja game where the object is to go around killing everyone — in this context, it might be unreasonable for players to expect a “peaceful resolution” mechanic.
The ground rules that exist in each game shape our experience to the extent that they govern what we can and can’t do within a game space. As much as these rules shape our moment-to-moment experience, they also play a role in shaping our expectations around the game.
In this context, it’s worth setting one important element aside for specific examination: player choice.
Choice is power
It’s fair to say that choice — as an element of game design — has become more and more prominent over the years. All choices (including the ability for players to customize or personalize their experience) impact a player’s enjoyment of the game. Choice can be as seemingly insignificant as a palette of hairstyle options, or as momentous as allowing the player to determine the ending of the entire game.
Developers cannot take choice lightly. A player will quickly uncover the rules — and the parameters of those rules — as they play a game. In that process, they’ll discover which choices matter (that is, the ones that actually impact their experience) and which ones don’t. As well, players will tend to gravitate towards the choices that are actually meaningful to them (whether or not they impact gameplay). For example, a player might reasonably become upset if a game offers a large range of personalization options, and yet they are not able to represent themselves in-game.
The crucial sin that Assassin’s Creed Odyssey commits is that it offers substantial player choice throughout the main game and then proceeds to summarily withdraw those choices in the DLC (not only that, but the previous cumulative history of key player choices are disregarded).
I have not played Odyssey myself yet, so I can only go by the reporting and direct accounts I’ve seen. But it’s not difficult to understand what happened here: one of the major selling points of the game was that players could choose from two well-defined characters right at the start of the game (Alexios and Kassandra). Though each of these characters represent something of an in-game male and female archetype, they’re each lovingly crafted, featuring their own personalities, voice actors, mannerisms, and unique dialogue.
Even more powerful was the fact that players could expand upon these well-crafted foundations by making their own choices throughout the game. This extends to how Alexios and Kassandra behave in different situations; how they respond to people in dialogue, and how they resolve significant plot points. The character foundations made these two Spartans believable in the context of the game world, but importantly, these foundations were largely neutral, enabling players to really establish their own personal versions of Alexios and Kassandra as the game progressed. Importantly, this included complete freedom of sexuality. Odyssey includes many romantic opportunities of various kinds, and players can quite specifically decide which paths to pursue (or not). In fact, the level of freedom in this area was perhaps one of the most notable — and genuinely positive — aspects of the design.
Enter the DLC, which completely disregards many of these nuanced choices by inserting an unchangeable plot point: your Alexios or Kassandra will marry and will have a child, no matter what kind of personal relationship narrative you’ve designed as part of your unique experience.
In this case, the developers have obviously prioritised the broader game narrative over and above players’ very personal character choices.
Designing for choice
To return to the core thesis here: deliberately ignoring choices a player has already made — especially when they are ostensibly highly consequential — is a cardinal sin in game design. When players make decisions that are at least implied to be significant in one way or another, there should be clear in-game ramifications.
We’ve seen evidence of poor implementation of player choice before. Bioware’s Mass Effect trilogy is perhaps the most notable offender in recent memory. Here were three large, involved games that offered a wide array of seemingly consequential choices to players. But when it came to the ending of the third game, Bioware condensed all of those decisions down into just three endings — endings which left many players unsatisfied.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Expecting a developer to cover all these decisions is madness!”
But therein lies the fundamental difficulty of choice in video games. The more options you offer to the player, the more work you need to do to ensure they are appropriately reflected in the game.
Short-term choices aren’t as important, but if you’re building a game on the premise that “every choice matters”, players will be expecting that. And if player choice generally does articulate along these lines in moment-to-moment gameplay, players are more likely to expect historical choices to be respected in the future. If you override these choices by fiat, you’re not only taking away control at a point in time, but you’re doing so retrospectively.
Prison of choices
One of the problems here, arguably, is that player choice has evolved into a never-ending cycle of gamers always wanting more. In an earlier piece, I talked about options from a personalization standpoint. Once you start letting players make decisions, you need to keep that in the back of your mind when designing new content and elements.
This problem should have been spotted right away by the designers of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. It is impossible to give the player complete free will in the game, as I discussed in my recent Bandersnatch piece; nevertheless, that doesn’t give you an excuse to retcon choices made by the player.
There is more to talk about when it comes to choices from a customization viewpoint, but I’ll save that for another day. Once you give the player control over an aspect of a character or story, then it’s up to you to figure out how to accommodate that moving forward — especially as you introduce more content to the existing experience through DLC.