November 10, 2020

16 Min Read

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Assassin’s Creed Valhalla – Why Changes To Storytelling and Quests Made Sense For The Viking Saga

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is now available worldwide, meaning you can start storming castles, raiding monasteries, taming wolves, and leaping into conveniently placed piles of leaves. Taking place primarily in ninth-century England, Valhalla follows the story of Eivor, a fearsome Viking raider, as they lead their clan into a hostile land, searching for a new home and propelled by a mystical prophecy. The game is out now on Xbox Series X | S, Xbox One, PS4, PC, Stadia, and Amazon Luna, and will come to PlayStation 5 on November 12.

In a first for the Assassin’s Creed franchise, Valhalla’s campaign is broken into relatively episodic stories about such endeavors as overthrowing a corrupt ruler, making peace between rival factions, or finding allies in unlikely places. While there is a main storyline that runs throughout the entire game, each region offers a self-contained story with its own set of characters to meet, decisions to make, and outcomes to bear. With such a variety of storytelling within the main campaign, the narrative team decided to eschew typical side quests in favor of World Event Mysteries, which dot the landscape and offer everything from lighthearted environmental puzzles to heartbreaking decisions.

To find out more about why the team decided to overhaul Assassin’s Creed’s open-world storytelling formula, we spoke to Narrative Director Darby McDevitt.

Assassin's Creed Valhalla does away with the more traditional side quests that we saw in Origins and Odyssey in favor of World Events. What was the reasoning behind that?

Darby McDevitt: When we started this game, we started to reflect on the actual purpose of the traditional RPG quest structure. We take it for granted that you're going to have a central storyline, and then a bunch of side quests, and that central storyline is going to take you through some sort of grand adventure – but along the way, you're going to vacuum up these side quests, and you're going to get to them when you feel like it. If one doesn't feel like it's your mood at that moment, you let it sit there in your quest log. Maybe sometimes you just do it right away.

What we found was that the traditional RPG actually assumes that you are the hero in this world, right? You are somebody who has their own personal motivation to go through this world, and as you wander through the larger world, people see you as some kind of hero, somebody who they can trust with their problems. In Origins, for example, Bayek has his own story, but everyone sees him and his medjay badge and they go, “Oh, that's the person that I can talk to to help me with my problem.” Same thing in Odyssey; you’re a misthios, so you have your own story, but other people see you as a mercenary. You can help them. When we started thinking about being a Viking invading England, that structure didn't make any sense. We didn't think that you could wander around England and just have random Saxons go, “Hey, can you help me with this problem?” Like, sure, I'll put in my quest log and get to it when I can.

[UN] [News] Assassin’s Creed Valhalla – Why Changes To Storytelling and Quests Made Sense For The Viking Saga - Crypt

At the same time, we had this idea that if you're coming to England, you're going to want to make friends, make alliances, and those alliances need to be earned in some way. So we pushed side quests into these shorter things called World Events, and we pushed the main-path quest up into this series of more self-contained adventures where there's going to be, like, two dozen self-contained narrative arcs, and each one of them is going to feel like a two- or three-hour movie. And once you come out of them, you're going to have an alliance.

On the other hand, the World Events are these bite-sized narrative events where we just want your own curiosity to suck you in. If you see somebody trapped in a tower who needs help, you can go up and say, “OK, I'll help you get out of this tower right now,” or if you're not interested, you just walk away and there's no quest that goes, “Did you help the person in the tower?” because it just doesn't make sense for the character. Now, of course there's gonna be that dot on the map to remind you where it was in case you ever do get interested. But in terms of a narrative wrapper, there's no reason why I was going to write this down and say I'll come back to that later.

Once we decided on that structure, then this idea of these episodic, big, long-form quests came in, and we realized that kind of felt like what the actual Icelandic sagas feel like: these long stories that are broken up into episodes that don't have, like, a full redemption-arc journey. It's more like if you've ever read “Don Quixote,” it's just a series of adventures starring the same people. And that really fit, that structure fit with our source material -- the Icelandic sagas, the Viking sagas.

After two and a half years working on it, I think it actually worked, and we felt like, well, this feels different. It feels like a different way to consume an RPG. Big episodic stories on one hand, tiny little World Event moments on the other, and I hope that that pace — that push and pull — really creates a variety that that resonates with people.

Speaking of being an invader in this land, there are times when Eivor can feel like the villain. Times when innocent people are running away from you screaming. How do you balance player actions like that with the story of being a hero?

DM: Yeah, it's definitely a tricky one. We experimented with a lot of different forms of this game early on. There was a version where you could not only raid, but you could actually go attack big castles. That felt like one step too far. How do you just randomly go up and attack a castle when at the same time you're involved in this quest to help the people of that territory? So we actually pulled back from that. We made sure that all of these big attacks actually happen in the course of a story, and that you’re narratively led to it, and that took some of the edge off this feeling of being a total villain.

[UN] [News] Assassin’s Creed Valhalla – Why Changes To Storytelling and Quests Made Sense For The Viking Saga - Combat

It is true, though, that if we had just made a game without the settlement, where you were just doing these hit-and-runs, you were raiding and you were just collecting treasure and that was it, you would have felt much more like a bad guy. I think by anchoring this in the settlement, we say you're doing this because you're trying to build up and protect your own people. Everyone is the hero of their own story.

With the main questline taking place in episodic-style narratives, did you see that as an opportunity to have more memorable moments and characters that might usually be reserved for side quests?

DM: Well, I think just by virtue of the fact that there are, let's say, almost two dozen territory quests, and each one of these is two to three hours long, each one of them is going to have a handful of characters that you're going to know and love. And then, in some cases, they come back for a second or third territory.

Just by dividing the world up in this way, I think you'll have a higher percentage of memorable characters in this game, because you're going to spend a couple hours at a time with them. The thing with Origins and Odyssey is that each one of them had maybe 100 side quests or more, but you'd only spend 10 or 20 minutes with them. By pushing that kind of event to the World Events, and then putting a lot more resources on these territory stories, every territory arc is going to have at least three or four characters that you spend a couple hours with. And I think that by the time people finish this game, they’ll have lots of characters they remember fondly.

Is it difficult to maintain a through line of a story through all of those different regions?

DM: No, it actually became easier. We do have an emotional through line in this story. We call it the Sigurd storyline, or the prophecy storyline, which we introduce at very beginning of the game, and which carries through the whole game. But we deal with that storyline only in a handful of the territories. Those are the territories where you meet with Sigurd, and the other ones are kind of one-off episodes, like a monster-of-the-week story, right? And then there are ones that tie together and pull through the main story.

[UN] [News] Assassin’s Creed Valhalla – Why Changes To Storytelling and Quests Made Sense For The Viking Saga - Dice

For every storyline, we crafted a five-act structure on a single page, a single piece of paper. And I said, “if you can't summarize this story and all the important beats in one page in five acts, then your story is too complicated.” First act, you set up everything. Second act, you complicate the relationship. Third act you make the climax of the story. Then in the fourth, oh my god, you're at the point of no return. Then, all this stuff tumbles down the hill, and the fifth act resolves everything. And we did that for every single territory, and the results were that it was actually really easy to tell a story and to keep track of it.

I think, actually, this structure made it easier for us to tell compelling stories, because I think videogames suffer from taking what is about three hours’ worth of story and stretching it into 20, and what that means is, you get a lot of filler. You get a lot of, “where's the story going?” or it’s not moving fast enough, or it's getting needlessly complicated because you're spinning too many plates. By saying each territory is self-contained, you're actually saying, “here’s a three-hour story; that's all you need to pay attention to.”

One of the things that surprised me about the World Event Mysteries is that there’s no quest log for them, there’s no waypoint telling you where to go or specifically what to do. Even in the way that Wealth, Artifacts, and Mysteries are presented to you on the map and on the compass, it feels like there’s more of an onus on the player to investigate things for themselves. Was that a deliberate choice? [Minor World Event Spoiler]

DM: I think the goal of any good game is to allow a player to make interesting decisions. The more you allow players to make decisions for themselves, the more on board they will get. So if you show on a map, “here is a bandit camp,” and you know exactly what you will get from that bandit camp, then yeah, you just robbed them of that sense of discovery.

[UN] [News] Assassin’s Creed Valhalla – Why Changes To Storytelling and Quests Made Sense For The Viking Saga - Raven

This way, they don't have all the answers. You know you want to surprise them. That combination is a really beautiful one. Take, for example, The Last Leaf To Fall World Event. [Eivor comes across a young child anxiously starring at the last leaf on a tree because they were told their father would return home before the final leaf fell to the ground.] Imagine how much less interesting that one would be if there was a quest marker that said, “Talk to the girl” and then it said, “Shoot the leaf” right? The fact that we give this player the ability to make an interesting decision themselves is important. You know, I've seen people play that, and it doesn't even occur to them to shoot the leaf and so they just leave. And there's some decisions you can make where the girl decides to leave and go inside the house so she's not even there to see the leaf fall down, so it can go in many different ways. But by removing the quest marker, by removing the directions, we give you the sense of surprise, and that's that feeling of the power of decision-making; I decided, myself, to do this.

It also means that as designers, we had to be very, very inventive with how we designed these, because we couldn't say, “Go here, kill these three guys.” Just by removing that, by making that constraint that there's no quest log, the designers actually got more creative, which is cool. Putting constraints on yourself actually is the best thing an artist can do, because you challenge yourself to go outside your comfort zone to make better stuff.

Speaking of the designers being more creative, a lot of the lot of the World Events turn into environmental puzzles, which is new for Assassin’s Creed. Were you inspired by anything? They felt reminiscent of Far Cry 5’s prepper stashes.

DM: Earlier influence was The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but prepper stashes were definitely some of our favorite things in Far Cry 5, so again, it gets down to making interesting decisions for the player. I like when you see a puzzle and you know there is a real treasure here in this location, but there are no other signposts on how to get that, and you see it's buried 200 feet below the earth. You have to look around; you have to use your environment; you have to figure out how to get in there; you have to shoot this or blow up that wall or scale this wall. This is, again, all about letting the player make interesting decisions, rather than just saying, “come to this location, there is a treasure chest.” This is a location – explore, investigate. Figure out what is needed to actually acquire it, and then try to do it. Experiment a little bit.

At one point, I came across a man who had an axe stuck in his head and had no idea. The entire interaction only lasted two or three minutes, and I eventually pulled it out and ended his life, but it’s one of the Mysteries that has really stuck with me, because right before pulling it out he started telling me about a past relationship of his ,and I thought, “I’ll let him have one last happy memory before I put him out of his misery.” How do you craft such memorable stories in such bite-sized chunks?

DM: It's the magic of the writers and the designers. That's a lot of experimentation. Really early on, I wrote the recipe for a World Event. It was very high-level; it has to be an immediately memorable story moment. It has to involve an interesting gameplay interaction. Try to use the gameplay that we have in a way that we haven't used it before. It has to be almost Aristotelian. It has to be unity of time, place, and action. It can't send you somewhere far away to do something, because you might not remember what to do when you get there.

[UN] [News] Assassin’s Creed Valhalla – Why Changes To Storytelling and Quests Made Sense For The Viking Saga - Gear

But that was it. That was the higher level, and especially the memorable story and memorable gameplay interaction. Those two instructions alone had the designers and the writers going, “OK. What do we do? What we do? What haven't we used?”

What you mentioned about pulling the axe out – the original version of that, I think, was when you tell him, “hey, you have an axe in your head,” and then there was a choice in dialogue there was “I can take it out for you” and then it just automatically happened, and I think, again, it's that interesting decision thing. At some point, the designers decided no, let's pull out, and now the interaction is in the player’s hands. You have to make the decision when to do it. And yeah, he just starts talking and telling his story, and sometimes we see people start to press the button and then stop because he’s not done talking, and they'll just listen to him for a while, and he has a lot of dialogue. I think that was in an excellent decision by the designers to put [the decision] there, instead of just right there in the cutscene.

Are there any World Events that really resonate with you? Do you have a favorite? [Minor World Event Spoiler]

DM: Well, I mean, we've already talked about The Last Leaf To Fall. That was actually the first one we ever did, and it was our first experiment. Like, how? How does this work? What is this doing?
One of our writers wrote the first version of it and when we talked about it in one of the first meetings, we were like “Oh, you should be able to shoot the leaf,” and David, our designer, was like, “No problem. Let’s make it happen.”

And so, just the way we iterated on that one – that is the most important one in the game for me, because it was our first. It's kind of a heartbreaking one. I tend to like the heartbreaking ones more than the funny ones, but there's some funny ones that are great too. But [The Last Leaf To Fall] will always stick in my mind as the benchmark, because it was our first.

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is out now on Xbox Series X | S, Xbox One, PS4, PC, Stadia, and Amazon Luna, and will come to PlayStation 5 on November 12. For more on the game, check out our previous coverage.

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