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Narrative showdown: Assassin’s Creed Origins vs Odyssey

By Antony de Fault. Posted

Assassin’s Creed is a series that, generally, plays it safe. Instalments release every one or two years, and rarely does one really deviate wildly from its predecessor. This makes it excellent fodder for examining the slow maturation of its design, and in recent years what’s caught my eye is the games’ changing approach to telling ‘regional’ stories that evoke a sense of place distinct from the other communities on the maps.

Both Origins and Odyssey have a more-or-less linear series of quests leading the player through their maps, from friendly or destabilised regions, through more militaristic places and larger cities, and finally into areas over which the enemy faction has an iron grip. Each has you battling the forces of a shadow organisation which later become known as the Templars. Some of the main story chapters are broad missions, such as the generic ‘Weaken/destroy the Templar presence in X region’, and in both games, the steps to doing so will be contained in a substructure of more localised questlines. This, generally, is where the regional stories have a chance to shine.

ORIGINS

In Origins, the player rides into a new area, unaware of who the resident Templar is. They’ve been told there is one, both by some core character and a pause menu ‘Targets’ screen, which lists the potential targets and their haunts. They will usually find several locals in varying states of distress, often clustered around the largest regional settlement, who each need help with a different problem. The predicaments or their solutions in some way involve one or more of a handful of important community figures. Perhaps the town doctor, a religious leader, and the guard captain.

Here, a player unknowingly dines with a Templar in Origins. These kinds of interactions humanise the targets, making them memorable beyond their death

Each is a unique character with varying relationships to the community, each other, and the local mission-givers. But the player knows there’s a Templar here, that a conspiracy is surely afoot. As they complete each regional quest, rubbing shoulders with the locals, they get to know more about them and their relationships, and begin to narrow down a list of suspects. Is the Templar the town doctor? Or could it be the archaeologist quest-giver? Eventually, they’ll have obtained enough information that they can be sure who the local target is: it was the archaeologist all along! At this point, the quest to finally put that person to rest appears on the map. So ends a compelling whodunit.

ODYSSEY

Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey develops this, but also loses aspects of it. The sequel veered towards each area having one ‘main’ questline, which you started by visiting the big quest marker on your map and compass. The broad strokes are the same, but the structure’s different: rather than multiple entry points bringing you closer to a local ending, Odyssey had a single entry point which would lead you down a sometimes branching, sometimes linear path towards the inevitable kill. It often tells an interesting character- or plot-driven story along the way, and sometimes a single mission reveals a low-ranking local Templar, and you kill them, but then never need visit that village again. Other times the scope might be grander, spinning a large narrative arc leading to a higher-up target, but generally, it lacks that sense of place, the feeling of an interconnected cluster of people forming a distinct community plagued by a common ill.

Odyssey contains a much larger web of targets than Origins’ twelve. Perhaps a smaller number would have made each more memorable?

Odyssey’s most interesting innovation was its Cultists pause menu. Origins’ Targets screen had little function, other than a general reminder of where to go in case you’d forgotten. The Cultists screen, meanwhile, is a key tool in taking down the Templar conspirators. Almost every questline in the game, whether a tiny side mission or the main story thread, leads to uncovering one or more ‘clues’. Clues are unique items catalogued in the Cultists screen, and will pertain to a specific mystery node in the Templar network. Once all the clues have been collected about any given Templar, they become known. Their face, name, and whereabouts will be listed in the Cultists screen, ripe for the murdering. You’d think this would make for more compelling whodunit gameplay than Origins, but you’d be wrong: by turning them into inventory collectables, the clues become irrelevant. There was no need to read them or understand the target as an individual. You simply hoover everything up until a target’s revealed on your Cultist screen, mark them, then merk them. Further, the clues being handled this way meant there was little need for local questlines to interconnect. As long as somewhere along the line the player could loot a bit of paper that said something about a Templar on the other side of the region, it was fine. Thus, Odyssey lost its sense of place.

WINNER IS…

Almost any of the lesser missions in Odyssey could have been relocated to anywhere on the map, and most players wouldn’t have noticed. Finally killing a target you’d not met before, simply because their identity had been revealed through clue-hoovering, was nowhere near as heart-wrenching as killing the councilman who, in an early mission, had fed you at his table, whose niece you’d done a doll-fetching quest for, who’d helped a local beggar build a home. On paper, the gameplay system was technically more impressive. In practice, I can only recall one Templar and location from Odyssey, the game’s main-campaign antagonist Deimos, and Athens, home of unforgettable smooth-talker Sokrates. For me, Origins succeeded by foregrounding the narrative links between its quests, whereas Odyssey’s mechanical interconnectedness replaced that, rendered it not strictly necessary, and thus left it by the wayside.


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