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Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and the Spectre of Player Agency in Narrative

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Assassin's Creed

A recent controversy involving a DLC storyline for Assassin’s Creed Odyssey has reignited the ongoing debate over how game developers should balance narrative with player agency and freedom.

The controversy erupted after the release of the Shadow Heritage DLC for Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, where the story involved the player character, either Kassandra or Alexios, getting married and having a child. Members of the LGBT community were particularly upset since the DLC negated the choice to play as gay, lesbian, or asexual.

Though Ubisoft has promised to change the storyline in response to the backlash, the debate on how best to manage a good story while still giving players enough influence over the world remains a pertinent one; sadly, this is unlikely to be the last time such as issue bubbles to the surface.

Video games are becoming increasingly collaborative, with developers setting the scene and players creating their own content. Tabletop role-playing has the concept of ‘railroading’: when a Games Master (or GM) is so focused on telling their carefully-crafted story that they forget, or deliberately block, attempts by the players to make their own choices if they are contrary to the design of the GM. This is widely seen as the behaviour of a sub-par GM, and this kind of behaviour has been shown by Ubisoft, and other developers.

Assassin's Creed OdysseyWhat seems to be most upsetting to players is when they are given a multiplicity of choices, only to subsequently have that choice taken away. Similarly, players have been known to react with anger to being given the illusion of choice. This reaction was demonstrated with Mass Effect 3 and its infamous ending. Players were incensed to discover that all the additional work they had put in and the decisions they had made were, in the end, meaningless, as the result was pre-determined.

Video game writers are like any writer in that they want to tell an engaging, compelling story. A number of methods are used to try and achieve this goal while still providing players with agency and influence.

One of those methods is ‘root and branch’ storytelling. This method means that certain points in the narrative will present a ‘fork in the road’ that can be circumvented with a decision, which moves players to a different story branch. Though this style is good for storytelling, it presents a number of technical and narrative challenges for developers and writers, since all the different outcomes need to be accounted for. These challenges mean that titles created in this way are more expensive to create. As technology advances, the industry may see more games such as Until Dawn which feature meaningful, impactful choices.

A more direct manifestation of this idea is that of multiple endings. The concept of there being a good and bad ending has been in video games for a long time, with titles such as Chrono Trigger and Silent Hill being notable examples. Players are tasked to take certain actions, such as collecting a number of plot tokens, or defeating a certain number of type of enemy before the ‘good’ or ‘true’ endings can be unlocked. RPGs, in particular, have used this method to show a lasting impact on the world, and to demonstrate how player actions can change things. Though this method provides only a limited amount of player agency, it nonetheless has the advantage of providing a sense of accomplishment, despite the limited amount of choices involved.

Chrono Trigger (Chrono Break)Where the multiple endings system can fall down is when only one choice or action is tied to what ending the player receives. Games such as Fable can have the player spend the entire game playing as an evil character, but a single choice near the end of the game means they are hailed as a saviour.

Some video games have chosen a morality system in order to not only influence the direction of the story, but also to let players choose what sort of person they wish to play. Though an interesting idea, in theory, a morality system rarely works very well. Games such as Infamous lock all the best powers and abilities behind the walls of ‘Saint’ or ‘Monster’ with no room for any nuance or shades of grey.

Another strange aspect of morality systems is that the cutscenes are often pre-recorded and rendered, so if the player has performed evil or immoral actions, they will still be greeted in cutscenes as if they are the greatest hero in the world. Often, the evil player will still be given tasks to go save the townsfolk or retrieve a lost kitten from a tree, even though they have spent the last few hours attempting to set themselves up as a despot. This juxtaposition is not only jarring, but such a design choice largely negates the choices the players make and is a cause of frustration. Games such as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim will provide the same quests to save the world regardless of the player’s behaviour otherwise.

SkyrimWhat is clear is that an easy solution to this dilemma does not exist as narratives will always have conflict between what a player wants to do and how the world and story within it are set up.

The source of anger in most cases seems to be where players are presented with an illusion that players called ‘choice’. This choice can be the ability to decide who the player character’s romantic partner is, only to see that choice overridden, or the choice of good or evil actions only to see that complex issue to reduced to a simplistic binary.

Once the illusion is stripped away, anger at those behind the curtain is a natural reaction. Developers need to be aware that video games are more collaborative than they have ever been, and the collaborators are also the customers.

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Editorial

Three Single-Player Games to Watch Out for in July 2019

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Three Single Player Games (July 2019) - Sea of Solitude, Fire Emblem Three Houses, Wolfenstein Youngblood

July, the middle of winter down here in Australia. Even in the bizarre New South Wales climate, the biting cold makes for a great excuse to stay inside and play games. 

Weirdly for single players, quite a few prestige games this month include additional co-op modes. With acclaimed designers behind them, such games will hopefully avoid the pitfalls of accommodating multiple players, as too many games have done in the past.

Sea of Solitude

Release Date: July 5, 2019
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One

At first blush, Sea of Solitude looks like yet another story of a young adult struggling with questions of identity and mental health while exploring a beautiful but harsh fantasy world.

Actually, that’s what it is. ‘Quirky, life affirming indie adventure’ is a whole cottage industry these days, but the fact that such games are now more prevalent should never dismay.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice was a masterpiece of refined design and storytelling, and Sea of Solitude appears be something similar—this time dealing with a fantastical vision of depression that turns ordinary people into literal monsters.

Players take charge of Kay, who has sought out the eponymous Sea—or rather, a flooded city based on Berlin—in the hope that there is a cure for monstrosity. However, despite its name, she is not the only person in the Sea. Avoiding the other monsters of the Sea seems to be a major part of the gameplay. These tense encounters are likely to provide rhythm and variety to the adventure and keep it from being a just walking simulator. (Not that being a walking simulator is inherently a problem.)

Although published by EA Originals, one would do well to remember that EA the company does not actually profit off the Originals that they publish. With a focused story and themes that still are not often explored in bigger games, Sea of Solitude should be of great interest to single player fans in a month otherwise dominated by multiplayer titles.

 

Fire Emblem: Three Houses

Release Date: July 26, 2019
Platform: Nintendo Switch

Almost certainly the biggest single player release of the month, and tied with Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 as another massive Switch exclusive, Fire Emblem: Three Houses might be exactly what single players need right now.

Lately the Fire Emblem franchise has exploded in both its popular profile and sales success, buoyed by a hunger for both deep anime RPGs and polished tactics games. Three Houses seems to have doubled down on exciting trends and features in both genres: particularly a Persona/Harry Potter inspired magic school setting and an even deeper tactical battle system that ditches the rock-paper-scissors for more nuanced character progression options. As with many Japanese RPGs, the story is also a major focus and hinges upon a time-jump.

The early part casts the player as a teacher at the Officer’s Academy, situated in the center of the game world and attended by students from the three most powerful nations. Five years later, the second and likely larger part concerns the drama between the player’s teacher and their former students, whose nations are now locked in a massive three-way conflict.

As is to be expected for a series finally coming back to consoles after a long time on the 3DS, Three Houses is a massive technical leap over its predecessors. The game boasts better realised battlefields, more detailed armies, and a slick animated style that appears much more consistent compared with the three or four different art styles on the 3DS.

With such improvements, as well as the overall pedigree of the Fire Emblem brand, Three Houses should have no trouble satisfying single player fans looking for a meaty middle-of-the-year RPG.

Wolfenstein: Youngblood

Release Date: July 26, 2019
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One

The recent Wolfenstein revival series is such a remarkable achievement in traditional shooter design and great, if goofy, sci-fi worldbuilding that the co-op focus of this latest instalment is somewhat disappointing.

Yes, as with F.E.A.R. 3 and Dead Space 3, following a well-received second chapter the Wolfenstein series now pivots to a co-operative focused chapter. Though the game is not a mandatory multiplayer experience, combat encounters and puzzles have been redesigned to accommodate the two player mode, giving single players an AI-controlled partner and bullet sponge enemies.

However, all hope is not lost for Wolfenstein: why else would it be the third game on the list? The narrative has been pushed forward in time, as B.J.’s twin daughters are now in their adolescence, now giving players a glimpse at the 1980s of Wolfenstein‘s skewed universe. Additionally, the level design itself is more freeform thanks to development assistance from Arkane, the developers of the Dishonored series.

Will Wolfenstein: Youngblood successfully deliver more of the series’s goofy charm and crazy alternate reality? Almost certainly. On the other hand, will the game be as fun to play alone as in multiplayer? That remains to be seen. Last month’s E3 demo that raised such concerns was naturally only a snapshot of a game in development, so MachineGames and Arkane have had plenty of time to resolve these potential downsides to a co-op focused game.

Those are our three big single player games to look out for this month. Other interesting titles coming soon include Stranger Things 3 on July 4 and Attack on Titan 2 on July 5, both games hitting Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.

On July 12 we will see the sequel to an almost-fantastic Minecraft-like RPG spinoff, Dragon Quest Builders 2 on Switch and PlayStation 4, as well as the Switch port of “anime Monster Hunter”, God Eater 3

The week after, July 19 brings us Switch-exclusive Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order, and at an undetermined time during the month Klei Entertainment’s anticipated survival-sim Oxygen Not Included will finally leave early access on PC.

Have we missed anything that you’re looking forward to? Let us know in the comments below and be sure bookmark OnlySP and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. You can also join the discussion in our community Discord server.

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