I really want to get laid in Assassin's Creed Odyssey. Or at least, that was my goal when I played through its opening five or so hours last week. I thought the dream was dead too. I had dilly-dallied around the opening area of Kefalonia a fair amount, and had already set off across the sea with a whole crew at my behest to row when I told them too. I was playing as Kassandra, the woman option of the two protagonists. (I'm told there is no canon protagonist.) And I thought I lost my chance at lust.
But there was a surprise waiting for me when I came ashore to Megaris. There was my lost booty call, Odessa, aiding her ailing father. It felt like fate. I flirted with her again, to which she once again slyly rebuffed my advances. Then word got to Kassandra: Odessa's causing trouble in the area. Odessa insists she's being framed and targeted, and urges me to collect proof. Honestly, I was a bit uneasy with Odessa. Ever since I had rescued her from a cage in a heavily guarded camp, she wasn't acting too grateful to me. I wondered if this lustful chase was even worth it.
I caved though. I found the proof. At last, Odessa didn't reject my advances. We entered her home and came out glowing, assuming we did the deed. And then Odessa joined my ship crew. During separate interviews with Assassin's Creed Odyssey's director and narrative director, I wondered aloud whether all the romance quests would feel so… fleeting.
"There's a variety," director Scott Phillips tells me, who also directed Assassin's Creed Syndicate and other Ubisoft Quebec-helmed entries in the series. "Odessa's is a certain style. There's others that are even shorter than Odessa, and then there are some that are longer as well. So there's a variety of them. It's an important aspect to bring to Assassin's Creed, to bring a more human [side], sort of to touch on other aspects of what a person might have done in Ancient Greece rather than just run around murdering everybody. You're also engaging in another big part of what human beings do. So I think it's up to you [with] how much you engage or don't engage, but it's not a romance game in the end."
Narrative director Mel MacCoubrey, who began her work at Ubisoft as an intern on Assassin's Creed Black Flag, has steadily worked upwards in the past five years. The new inclusion of romance for her, in particular, is a special sort of challenge; she calls it "experimental" for the future of the Assassin's Creed series. "We're trying it out, we'll see how it goes," she adds with a laugh.
How the romance in Assassin's Creed Odyssey works ties into the new mechanic of dialogue options. As MacCoubrey explains, it's not just about giving people gifts or mashing the heart button so you can make out. In Odyssey, tapping that heart option just leads you to a new section of choices, and it's very possible to make the wrong choice if you're not considering the context of the situation and the person you're trying to woo. In playing through Odessa's island-hopping quest, I experienced that first hand, because apparently hitting on someone while they're trying to save their dying father isn't an ideal romantic scenario. Instead, I just pissed Odessa off.
"I've found in real life that giving people presents over and over doesn't really matter," says MacCoubrey. "So we wanted to treat romance differently. [...] We have a handful of romances around the world that have their own enclosed stories and they're all different and it doesn't matter who you play as—you can access all of them, or none of them, or some of them. It depends on who you are and who you want to be. And they all have their different stories, different conclusions, different consequences to the choices that you're going to make. You can also engage with these quests even if you don't want to get with romance, a lot of them were built for the purpose of being a romance but you can always do the quest [and] just totally forget about that."
The choice-driven dialogue system is new for Assassin's Creed. It's a particularly risky experiment for Ubisoft Quebec, considering that it's the first entry in the entire series to have it. And it's not being held back with just romances either: It carries over into the main quests (including different endings), the side quests, and well, just about everything. In my relatively short playtime of a little over five hours, I saw the smaller sides of choices working their magic.
"Writing for choice initially is a very daunting task especially because we've never done it before and it's not like we had an interactive dialogue system at our disposal. So we had to create it from scratch and we're like, 'Oh man, how are we going to do this,'" says MacCoubrey. "It's not just branching dialogue, it's branching dialogue for this character. And it is daunting but it's also very exciting because it forces you as a writer and a narrative director to really do, especially with historical characters, a ton of research to make sure you know who these characters are inside and out. [To] iterate a lot on the process and be able to write these characters with different consequences in mind based on how I talk to you and how I do the quest, but it's really exciting because we get to write multiple dimensions of the character instead of just one or two like we maybe would have done in the past."
One of the biggest choices I happened upon in my demo I came across by accident. I was following a separate quest, and along the way stumbled upon a burned down town. It looked like someone dropped a bomb onto it—this is Ancient Greece, of course, so fire is the obvious perpetrator. There, I found a family huddled on the ground, with some guards pointing weapons at them. I approached the situation, and it came rushing back to me what happened. This was the family of Kassandra's sorta-surrogate little sister Phoibe's friend. Earlier, Phoibe told me about how her friend had gotten very sick with a "blood sickness." The remnants of the town revealed how the island's leaders were taking care of the situation.
I was left with a twisted moral choice. I could kill the guards and save the family, allowing them to live their lives. Or I could turn away, ignoring the situation. An Ubisoft developer stepped in to tell me the outcomes after I asked, since the situation left me more than a little conflicted. She happily divulged the details of the outcomes. If I were to choose the former option, the sickness would slowly infect the majority of the island. If I were to return later in the game, I'd find the plague had killed the majority of its population. Death and sickness would be everywhere. If I chose the latter, my relationship with Phoibe would sour. I sat on it, and opted for the latter decision, valuing the lives of many over the lives of the few. It didn't feel great, but hey, I think I made the right decision in the end.
"Like the plague quest is something that, if you chose to save them which seems like the good choice, you actually then later on learn that the plague has spread, so you can come back to Kefalonia," says Phillips. "And there's people that are dead or dying and the plague is there. So it's that level of grayness and that level of impact is, I would say there's several of those throughout the entire game. And that one for instance was a side quest, like you don't need to go do that."
According to MacCoubrey, that particular quest served as a benchmark quest too. It's also an example of the different layers of choices, many of which are tethered to particular characters or regions, with short, medium, or long-term results. Choices, even ones that are perceived to be as small as The Blood Plague's, can sometimes have dire consequences. While Phillips doesn't have a "number" for the amount of world-altering decisions, considering the many choices I made in just its opening hours, I can imagine it's a staggering amount.
"We don't flash it in your face and we don't show you a chart of all the outcomes. It's something that we expect players when they talk to each other about the game and the choices that they made that they'll realize, 'Oh wow, okay, I didn't know that that could do this,' which I think is cool," says Phillips. "[It's] also sort of a risk for us to really expose that things are actually changing because of this. [...] [It's] total side content, it's things you don't need to do but it can have an impact in other elements of the game or in ultimately where the story ends up for you."
Dialogue choice is just one option, really. There's also the new nation power, where islands are controlled by either Spartans or Athenians, and as a mercenary you have the power to sway the power in either favor, leading to a massive, brutal Conquest battle. This section, which is largely optional except for the story moments that require it, was inspired by the actual Peloponnesian War, and the role mercenaries had in fighting it. As Phillips explains, "They were not sort of monolithic one country versus another country. [...] It was something that I felt like [after] reading [historian] Herodotus and reading about the Peloponnesian War that it was just basically very chaotic, like they were constantly changing sides, allying with each other one season and then the next season saying, 'Screw you, I want to ally with them now.' So we wanted [the nation power system] to be very dynamic and have this feeling of the things you do, the actions you take within the world, will impact the power of that army of that state."
Choice doesn't seem to be shaping up to be an illusion in Assassin's Creed Odyssey, and I'm intrigued to see how far my choices can really go when it releases next month. I wonder if more plagues will destroy other islands and if moral choices bear similar changes, if I can make countries oscillate between dueling powers with a wave of my handy spear, if romances will be more involved than my short fling with Odessa. (One big question I still have is if there will be a Yennefer equivalent, a big romance to overcome the hook-ups.) Odyssey will be the first true experiment for the RPG-embracing future of Assassin's Creed. But as Phillips tells me, that RPG inspiration has existed in the series all along, from that very first progression system. It just took a little over a decade to finally get here.