With the recent release of Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey and its many similarities to The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt I decided to take a deeper look at the format of each game.
Both are critically acclaimed Action RPGs (Role-Playing Games) praised for their storytelling and focus on single-player gameplay. The scope for both games was massive, expanding player expectations of the genre. Yet, as similar as they are, these games feel quite different. I think part of this is due to the way they structure their quests. For the sake of time, I will focus on secondary or side-quests, in particular, The Witcher’s “Family Matters” and AC Odyssey’s “Land of the Lawless.”
These two quests are similar in narrative structure and run parallel to the main quest. In both games, you are in search of someone important to the player’s character. In your search, you are lead to an NPC who has information on the missing person in question and is willing to share this information in return for your services. In the end, the information gained will further the story and will bring the player one step closer to their goal of finding their missing person.
Before jumping in, let’s establish a baseline for what makes a good side quest.
- A good side quest will make use of core mechanics – this should reinforce the narrative and gameplay mechanics without diverting too far creating “special cases” or “new functionality” (Gamasutra).
- A side quest should support the main plot – it should not hinder the main quest or outshine it in rewards, story, or challenge.
- Side quests should allow the player a chance to expand their knowledge of the world and characters – whether it be through a menial, serious, or funny task players should be able to get some sense of the world they are in and have memorable moments with the characters they meet.
!!WARNING SPOILERS AHEAD!!
The following is based on my own playthroughs.
Here is a quick list of characters and the roles they play relative to the quest “Family Matters” and “Land of the Lawless.”
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt – Family Matters
After having been told Ciri has resurfaced in Velen and has been seen with a man known as the Bloody Baron Geralt sets out to find her. Along the way, his journey takes him to Crows Perch where he finds the Bloody Baron: Philip Stranger. There Geralt learns that the Baron has information on Ciri and will trade him this information for his help finding his missing family.
Begrudgingly, Geralt agrees and begins his hunt. He uncovers dark family secrets that ultimately lead to the Baron’s family disappearance. Upon learning of the Baron’s stillborn child, which we are lead to believe is due to the Baron abusing his wife, Geralt must help deal with the unborn child turned botchling. At this point, the player is presented with a choice: either they fight and kill the botchling or they perform a ritual, turning the bloodthirsty monster into a helpful spirit. Either way, the player will discover that the Baron’s wife and daughter are not so much missing as they have run away.
Here the player can set out to find Anna and Tamara or they can return to the Baron with their latest news. If they return the Baron will demand that Geralt brings back his family after divulging some information about Ciri’s stay at Crows Perch, purposely refraining from telling the whole story. The player can choose to move forward, no questions asked, or can challenge the Baron demanding to know why he should help him when it was the Baron’s abuse that drove his family away. The player can choose to hear the Baron’s side of the story, which may have some bearing on the choices they make later in the quest.
After successfully determining the exact whereabouts of Anna and Tamara, Geralt returns telling the Baron all he has learned. Regardless of the Witcher and Baron’s relationship, Geralt will still get the information he came for, prompting another flashback where the player takes on the role of Ciri. It is here that the quest appears to end, instead, it weaves through several other quests before reaching its final conclusion.
- The core game mechanics are used and reinforced throughout the quest.
- Interesting and complex choices are presented to the player. These choices support and do not hinder the main story.
- The linear structure helps keep the player on track and makes it so that you get to know characters a bit better; gaining a better insight into what is going on and who they are. This, in turn, makes the choices the player makes that much more meaningful.
- The player gets to know the Baron and his family, showing them how grey the world of the witcher is. It is because of this that players are able to form their own opinion of these characters and make choices based on what they have learned.
- The weaving of this quest through others (Hunting a Witch, Wandering in the Dark, and Ladies of the Wood) can become confusing and leave the player lost and unsure of where to go next.
Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey
The player’s journey to find Myrrine takes them to Korinth, where they must find Anthousa the most powerful hetaerae and former acquaintance of Myrrine. Upon finding Anthousa they learn that the Monger has been wreaking havoc throughout the city putting every hetaerae in danger. In return for information on Myrrine, Anthousa asks for the players help as a Misthios. They are given three tasks to complete, which can be done in any order; effectively branching the quest.
Each task provides the player with a chance to make a choice. In my own playthrough, I started by helping Damalis with her intrusive client. While helping her the player discovers that the client is working for the Monger and is trying to take Damalis away to his house of torture. In this quest, the player is supposed to obtain the deed to the land. To do so they must decide whether or not they will make use of Phoibe’s help. Depending on the player’s choice, the quest can have either a violent or relatively peaceful outcome.
The next quest, “Follow that Boat” has the player help Erinna. She asks that you retrieve her friend, Kleio, who has been kidnapped by pirates. Yur conversation with Erinna takes the player to the docks where they can board their own ship and attack the aforementioned pirates. At this point, the ship can either be destroyed, killing Kleio, or can be boarded allowing them to talk to Kleio. If this is done she reveals that she had hired the pirates to take her away to Mykonos, too afraid of the Monger and his people that rule in Korinth. She then poses you with a choice: take her back to Korinth or bring her to Mykonos.
The third portion of the quest, “Port of Lawlessness” has the player attack the Mongers warehouse to burn his supplies in an attempt to weaken his hold on the city, as per Anthousa’s request. Once the supplies have been burnt the game will give way to a cutscene where Brasidas enters and helps the player fight their way out of the warehouse. Once finished fighting the player must talk to Brasidas to finish the quest. He will tell them that Sparta wishes to help Korinth by killing the Monger, but they wish to do so quietly, while Anthousa would make a spectacle of it. He then asks if the player will help him. They can answer there and say whether they will help Brasidas or Anthousa, prompting the “Monger Down” section of the quest.
By helping Anthousa the player will have to face the Monger in the theater, but if they side with Brasidas they will face the Monger in a cave; here they can still choose to kill him in front of the people of Korinth by taking him to the theater. This is a choice that will have an impact later on in the main quest. Regardless of the player’s decision, they will be given a short cutscene that sheds some light on Myrrine and her whereabouts, ending the quest.
- Odyssey also makes use of the many game mechanics throughout the Land of the Lawless.
- To help a Girl – In this quest the player had the chance to speak with Phoibe about the client in question. In doing so she will reveal information that can be used to distract him later. This tests the player’s ability to retain information while allowing them to do something a little different with the dialogue system.
- Follow that Boat – This quest allows the player to demonstrate their naval prowess breaking up the monotony of running from one end of the city to the next.
- Port of Lawlessness- While making use of the standard infiltrate and burn supplies gameplay the player is introduced to Brasidas who they fight beside. This is a great moment that shows how impressive Spartan warriors were and makes the player feel every bit like they are one themselves.
- The quest supports and runs parallel to the main quest, albeit vaguely, with mention of the Cult of Kosmos and the short cutscene of Myrrine.
- The return of Phoibe and meeting of Brasidas serve as memorable moments.
- Phoibe: Seeing how she has grown into her envoy role and how she interacts with the player character helps to ground the player in the world and remind them of their place.
- Brasidas – Fighting alongside him makes you feel like the Spartan warrior you are and provides the player with a chance to deal with the Monger in their own preferred way.
- The branching structure at the start of the mission can make the narrative feel disjointed; like you are checking off a list until you find something that will push the story forward.
- Part of this feeling is due to the fact that there is not a lot of time to get to know the characters. When you talk to them it is limited to where you can find your objective and what your objective is. Without gaining the insight into these characters it can make your choices feel hollow. For instance, during the “Follow that Boat” mission you have the option to bring Kelio back to Korinth or to her desired location; Mykonos. Knowing neither the Erinna, who asked you to bring Kleio back nor Kleio herself, you are meant to make this decision and it feels arbitrary. Yet, there is an interesting choice here. Do you do what you were hired to do and bring her back to Korinth? Or do you let her forger her own path and aid her escape to Mykonos?
- I would have liked to talk to or learn about Anthousa and Brasidas more. If not from talking to the characters directly, then by way of conversing with other NPCs like Damalis or Erinna.
Overall, both quests make good use of the core game mechanics, at times adding small twists and mixing up the standard structure of the game, all while supporting the main story without subverting its plot. However, they differ in their ability to showcase quest characters and expand the player’s knowledge of the world.
While the Wichers quest structure is more linear it allows players to choose what they will do within the quest steps (While looking for clues in the Baron’s fort you can investigate any of the rooms in order. Similarly, the player can choose whether or not they will look for the daughter or wife in whichever order they like.) In this way, the narrative moves along and pulls the player with it.
Odyssey presents this kind of choice as soon as you meet Anthousa. The importance of each mission within the quest is told to the player at the start and as a result your reason for helping these people beyond ‘I want information’ becomes foggy and the narrative disjointed. That coupled with the fact that the characters from each mission feel separate from one another, though they are joined together fighting the Monger, can make the “Land of the Lawless” quest feel as though it lacks the body that “Family Matters” has.
Just as a comparison, when Geralt finds and speaks with Tamara, the Baron’s daughter, the player will learn her side of the story. Seeing things from her perspective can influence how the player perceives the situation and informs their decisions going forward. Whereas, when the player speaks with Damalis or Erinna they learn nothing new about Anthousa. If they had it would have helped inform their later decision to either help Brasidas or stay loyal to Anthousa.
CD Projekt Red and Ubisoft took on a huge undertaking in making these games and I’m glad they did. They have shown us different ways to approach and create storylines that can be weaved together with gameplay to create memorable moments and quests. In the end, that is what it’s all about as designers we want to make.
Gamasutra– Designing side quests? Study these 7 games (and some Chris Avellone pointers)