There’s a famous 70’s psychology experiment, replicated many times since, where a bunch of kids were told to draw some pictures. One group were told they’d get a reward, while another group got no reward. After a couple of weeks, scientists observed an interesting pattern: Compared to the no-reward group, the kids who got a reward were significantly less interested in drawing, and their pictures were worse.
This is called the overjustification effect, and if you wonder what this has to do with a 2018 triple‑A video game, I promise it will become relevant soon.
I feel I have reviewed this game several times before. I could pick salient points (of which there are many) from my reviews of Far Cry 4 and The Witcher 3 and be 90% done with a review of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. But we all grow and learn, and not long before I decided to retire the game, I learned about the aforementioned experiment. It was helpfully explained in the context of game design, and the reason why I found myself unable to really enjoy Assassin’s Creed Odyssey clicked into place.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Welcome to Greece
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is the most recent installment of Ubisoft’s more-or-less-annual franchise (a personal red flag of mine if there ever was one). I have previously enjoyed several games in the series, but we had a falling out during Assassin’s Creed III (for many of the same reasons I was unable to enjoy Far Cry 4 and The Witcher 3) and I have ignored the series since.
Odyssey did receive fairly good reviews though, with hints at some previous “filler content” problems not being as pronounced this time, and since I was looking for aesthetically pleasing games with good HDR to test my new gaming setup, I decided to give it a try.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is set in the Greek world around 430–420 BC during the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, placing you in the shoes of a misthios, or mercenary. The game, as most open-world games do, start out fine. The first few missions take place on a fairly large playground area where you learn the basics. First impressions matter, so it’s no surprise that this area is, to a larger extent than the rest of the game, filled with unique content. Or maybe the novelty just makes it feel like that? No matter; the effect is the same.
Of course, like its namesake epic by Homer, there comes a moment where our hero must depart on a big adventure to seek out their destiny. When the game opens up its world to you, it does so aggressively and unapologetically. Regions are marked on the map with a recommended level, but nothing is preventing you from going anywhere, and even the areas suitable for a low-to-mid-level character are dizzyingly vast.
To explore or not to explore
The first ten hours, the game feels a bit unfocused, but fairly consistently fun. New gameplay mechanics are opened up every now and then, and as you level up, you unlock fun new ways to get rid of enemies. However, when an entirely new system and narrative branch was dropped on me more than 15 hours in, I found myself wishing the “intro” wasn’t quite as long.
One of my issues with the game is that, in some ways, you are punished for exploring “prematurely”. You may have cleared a bandit camp or cave that was just a slight detour on your way from A to B, but when you get to B, you get a mission taking you back to that same area. While it’s a bit comical to hear our hero mumbling “better be careful, there’s a lot of protection here” while stepping over the old corpses on the way into the now empty lair, it’s mostly just annoying. Exploring will also occasionally place several quests in your quest log essentially saying “there was a guy in town X who needed Y, but you randomly happened upon it during your travels, so better just go collect your reward!”
At the same time, you can’t not explore, because there are several areas with no quests and great rewards for those who, well, explore every nook and cranny. This creates a tension that does no wonders for the experience.
Don’t tell me how to play
As the game drags on, though, you start to see the seams in the design. While most areas look unique, they play very similarly. Once you enter any cave, camp, or fort, a window appears telling you that “here you have looted 0/3 chests, killed 1/2 captains, set fire to 1/4 war supplies, and given 3/5 soldiers wedgies”. Well, maybe not the last one, but you get the gist. The window stays there (in minimized form) until you complete everything, after which you get satisfying sound and visual effects and a dose of experience.
One problem is the frequency of it, quickly taking this from interesting challenges to repetitive tedium. As Extra Credits say in their video about respecting the player’s time: Is it actually interesting or fun to to clear out all those enemy strongholds, or is it just something else to… do?
But I think the core of the problem is the locus of motivation, and this is where the overjustification effect comes in. The effect is explained in terms of games by Mark Brown in Game Maker’s Toolkit’s video about the psychological trick that can make rewards backfire: When extrinsic motivation is attached to a task that we already find intrinsically motivating, we suddenly become way less interested in the task.
This is a great way to ruin emergent gameplay in open-world games, and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey takes it very far by not just marking every interesting location on the map with an enticing question mark, but also giving you (mostly the same) bucket list of tasks to perform when you get there.
In games like Skyrim and Breath of the Wild, you are free to do almost whatever you want within the game’s mechanics, and while there are numerous quests, they tend to focus on goals, not tasks, leaving you to explore and discover at your own leisure and on your own terms. But in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, you are told where you can go for a quick dopamine hit and the list of repetitive tasks to carry out when you get there.
This begs a question: If the game, by telling you that you can (and should) do X, and thereby taking away your ability to freely choose (let alone discover) that for yourself, are you really free? I mean, you can choose to ignore it, but the game has effectively taken away a lot of your agency by simply throwing a bucket list of repetitive tasks in your face once you get there. It’s great for completionist junkies (I was one myself at one point), but, and this is the key point:
By being so explicit about extrinsic motivation, the game takes away your intrinsic motivation to explore and experiment, making the game much less fulfilling.
I have certainly experienced this before; in fact, I called it out more or less explicitly in my review of The Witcher 3, I just didn’t know this was a well-known psychological effect.
The I‑can’t-even-be-bothered-to-find-a-good-heading-for-it literal bullet list of miscellaneous negative points
Am I saying that Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is a bad game? No, certainly not. Many players seem to crave just the kind of aesthetically pleasing, quasi-free experience that excels at tickling their dopamine pathways just the way this game does. I didn’t find the story to be particularly captivating, but the female protagonist I chose to play as, Kassandra, was likable, and the voice acting is good for this kind of game. And indeed, the filler content is reduced from what I remember from Assassin’s Creed III and earlier, where the map was little more than a heap of icons that screamed out to be cleared.
But lest you think that I just found a new way of looking at game systems (I did) and chose to focus on that single negative thing over the otherwise countless unextolled virtues of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey (I didn’t), here is a quick list of other things I found problematic:
- The quest log quickly grows to an completely unmanageable size and becomes very messy. Collapsible quest groups and categories is no excuse for a quest log that frequently contains more than 50 quests, many of which were far above my level, while others were “kill X bandits across the whole world”-type quests that would serve better as (hidden and optional) achievements.
- There’s a lot of “social” stuff including real-time daily/weekly quests and player-generated content you have to actively turn off every time you load the game.
- There are microtransactions. Not a big problem, but nothing takes you out of the immersion like seeing a “Store” tab in the menu.
- With the focus on role playing aspects with three skill trees, only one of which has anything to do with classic Assassin’s Creed gameplay, and with a story set hundreds of years before the Assassin order was founded, the most compelling reason to make this an Assassin’s Creed game is simply brand recognition.
- Leveling up and gaining skill points stops being fun when you get more active skills than you have active skill slots to assign them to (not that many), and you have already invested in all the meaningful passive skills.
- This is a kitchen-sink design game with a long list of mini-games that don’t always synergize that well. The core mechanics are exploration, sneaking and open combat, but there’s also naval combat, ship and equipment upgrades, resource management, killing mercenaries, killing cultists, the infinitely replayable back-and-forth-aspect of helping Athens/Sparta take control over different regions, clearing areas, and using your eagle companion to mark enemies before your stealthy (or not) assault.
- Marking enemies with your eagle is little more than a tedious form of proximity-based pixel hunting, where the most effective solution is to do it from far away because then there’s fewer pixels to hunt to cover the entire enemy area. You can’t use your eagle inside caves, but if you use it before entering, it can still tag everything inside (if you pixel hunt well enough).
- Some mini-games are too menu-driven, such as hunting cultists. The cult plays a major part in the overarching narrative, but you just get random cultist tips when you complete a quest or kill someone, allowing you to reveal the cultist in the menu and display their location on the map. Killing them is identical to killing anyone else, except for the icon over their head. It just feels like cheap padding.
- Insert the points from my review of The Witcher 3, sections “The matter of size” (except copy-paste; locations feel more unique Odyssey) and “The matter of play”.
Clearly this is not just about my recent a‑ha moment.
Again, let me reiterate that Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is not a bad game. Many players will find it entertaining. I did, for a while. And even when it started to feel repetitive, the game still found a way to keep me playing (somewhat reluctantly) for a good while. (Though I’m not convinced that’s necessarily a good thing.)
It’s just that I discovered, hour by hour, that this is yet another kitchen-sink open-world game that does not sufficiently respect my time.
Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey fails primarily by ruining exploration and curiosity with too much extrinsic motivation.