Philosophy, myth, and discovery: Assassin’s Creed Origins with Creative Director Jean Guesdon

During a recent preview event, I had the chance to speak with Jean Guesdon, Creative Director of Assassin’s Creed Origins. We talk about the philosophy behind the game’s development, explore the mysteries of Egyptian mythology, and go deep into the changes to their combat system.

The last game this team directly worked on was Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag. What is the philosophy carrying over from that game to Origins?

What we learned to do with Black Flag, and we saw that people were liking, was the immensity of the world. On Black Flag, I think we did very well when it comes to exploration, visiting the world, having a varied world, etc. And so we wanted to do the same for Assassin’s Creed Origins, but to the next level. Roughly, the world is the same size as the Caribbean in Black Flag, but it’s mostly ground, and so we literally filled it with locations. So the first aspect, exploration, we wanted it, but we wanted it better in the sense of the discovery feeling.

This is why we also worked a lot on the way you interact, the way you understand the world. For example, we removed the mini-map to avoid the chase for icons; we replaced that with the compass. We added the eagle, Senu, which is the perfect tool to understand the world at the macro level. From really high distances, you can see the world very far away and see what’s happening because the world is much more living and dynamic. This is, I would say, the first philosophy pillar kept from Black Flag. And the second one was the RPG progression, because we touched on a bit of that with the Jackdaw. . . . This time we really wanted to push even further in that direction. This is where we shifted more towards an action-RPG adventure.

A big part of making that discovery enjoyable is the setting Egypt. How early on did you guys decide to go with Egypt, and what were some of the most attractive qualities that it had to offer?

We finished Black Flag four years ago. Then we took some weeks to just open a window, get some fresh air, have some crazy ideas, just have fun. Then we refocused on this setting, and I really wanted to pick this setting, Ancient Egypt. First, we knew for years that it was one of the most anticipated for fans, so this was good. Second, it was also very attractive for us. Third, we finally had the tech to do it properly, to deliver a full country in terms of ground, in terms of water, having all kinds of vehicles–horses, camels, feluccas (the little boats), etc. We could do it. We wanted to do it.

That being said, why this particular Egypt? Because we’re talking about Ptolemaic Egypt, so 49 B.C.E., and not the one that is maybe more famous, the building of the pyramids. This was really conscious, and we made this decision based on the potential of the time period, because now we’re playing with an Egypt that is also 3,000 years old. This makes it very varied, very rich in terms of diversity of people, of locations–Alexandria has nothing to do with the old capital Memphis, for example. You have Greeks, you have native Egyptians, and you have, once again–looping with the exploration and discovery–tons of locations that have been already forgotten.

Just as a quick anecdote: there is more time between Queen Cleopatra and the building of the pyramids than there is between Cleopatra and us today. So when she was looking at the pyramids they were older than when we talk about Cleopatra. This was key to us to really be able to bring mysteries, discovery once again, and all this mysticism. This is a very old and rich society.

You say mysticism, and that’s intriguing because in the first trailer at E3 we saw the big snake, and everyone talks about the snake. Assassin’s Creed lore has the first civilization. Ancient Egypt has is its own mythology. Are we going to see any crossover?

For us it was the perfect setting to play with that notion while remaining true to history. We made Assassin’s Creed Origins the same way we made the others. So, we documented ourselves a lot. We met with consultants, with Egyptologists, with specialists. That being said, we did not ignore the fantasy people have about the mysticism of Ancient Egypt. And so, I think we treated it well, in the sense that we’ve shown how important it was for people back in the day.

It’s the first Polytheistic setting that we’re exploring, multiple gods all around. Gods that are part of the daily life for people. For Egyptians, these gods were real and existing, so we talk about that a lot. . . . Egypt, still today, has a lot of mysteries around, and so we kind of played with the two mysteries. Ancient Egypt on one side, those who came before on the other, and I think that those who will create the link will appreciate it.

This game is called Origins, and the big thing is figuring out how this Brotherhood began. At the same time, you want to tell the story of Bayek. How do you bring those two narratives together?

The thing is he is one of those who are behind the creation, the foundation, of this first brotherhood as an organized structure. This origin story we wanted to tell is really to make people understand how all of this came together, how all of these iconic elements that our universe carries since Assassin’s Creed one [began]. The cut fingers, the hidden blade, the feather ritual with the targets, the importance of the eagle iconography, all this kind of stuff . . . just came together and set the table for this foundation.

The cool thing is that they [the players] will realize that it comes from a very personal story and sometimes you should not mess with the wrong guy. What you think will be just an anecdote, or collateral damage, might have big repercussions. It’s really the personal story of Bayek that will, in the end, lead to the formation of the Brotherhood. So, there’s no two different stories, actually. The story of Bayek is really intimately linked to the foundation of the Brotherhood.

Were there any specific challenges with the storytelling, having that transition from the story of one man to something that spans the globe and centuries?

That’s what was actually really interesting and challenging, yes. In a sense that, at some point, you need to tell a story where one individual is facing issues, is facing challenges that actually relate to a lot of other people. This character needs to become something of, maybe not an example, but you will need to understand that he needs to overcome his own personal thing and place his motivation towards others. So, that was challenging, yes. I’m super happy about the result. I think people will naturally follow and understand better where all this comes from now.

Centuries later, the Brotherhood still exists and the modern day storyline has been something that’s been shown throughout the series in various ways, whether it be through Abstergo Games or Desmond’s trilogy. How is this game taking on the modern day storyline?

I cannot divulge exactly what will happen. What I can tell you is that we know the franchise very well. This layer is part of it, and so we will respect all layers. I think we treated it smartly and hope that people will like it.

Another thing that was mentioned in previous interviews was the importance of player choice. General philosophy, why do you feel player choice is so important as opposed to narratively-structured experiences, and how are you implementing player choice into the game?

Player’s choice, player’s freedom, was actually one of the key directions we gave ourselves, key mandates, basically. Why? Because we are an open-world game, and open world, in the first place, is really about letting the player roam around and decide what he wants to do. The tricky thing with open worlds is really how do you mix that with a strong narrative where you want things to happen at very specific moments so that you can have a build-up, emotions, etc. We wanted to find a good balance between the freedom of the player to roam the world, to set themselves their own personal objectives so that they are really in charge of their experience, and having strong narrative.

This is why we decided to move toward more RPG in the sense of adopting a quest system. Technically, Assassin’s Creed games prior to Origins were one main story and some side activities. We decided to go for quest so that all things that you will do in the game, almost all of them, will have narrative meaning and narrative justification. There still is this main story, but it’s basically one out of many others. We’ll have dozens of quests, allowing players to really change their minds: maybe start a mission, meet somebody who has a problem, you need to do something, and you realize that you’re not strong enough — you won’t fail it for time reasons, for distance reasons, whatsoever. Just change your mind, do something else, and come back.

This freedom of agency was super important. This is the way we treated it for narrative, but that was also the same philosophy behind combat. The combat system we went for is a much deeper system with tons of different weapons. The loot to allure players to choose the weapons they are more comfortable with and adapt their strategies. So it’s more reactive. It’s not paired animations like it was before. Before, basically, when you were pressing X to attack, the system was sending a signal saying you have this weapon, you are against this enemy, you are pressing X, we will play this animation. And the enemy was actually adapting itself to play the correct animation, and you couldn’t break this animation. . . . Now this time, with code-driven animations and a hitbox system, it’s really more reactive, more dynamic. You can, in the middle of an action, change your mind. And so, this was the second pillar . . . of bringing freedom to the player.

You mentioned that switching weapons will change your combat tactics. As far as the people you are facing, what kind of enemy variety will we see that will compel you to mix up the weapons you use?

We have a big diversity of enemies. From the basic soldiers having just one sword, not even protected, to massive, fully-armored soldiers with column shields, and you have all the variations in the middle. Just in terms of strength, in terms of defense, they are different. In terms of attack, every single archetype has a different AI. They don’t behave the same. We have Predators. We call them supers, that are actually jaw-dropping: throwing smoke bombs, breaking your motion, trying to get on the side [flank].

First, there’s a wide range of level difficulty. Second, you need to adapt because–I didn’t mention–the archers that are also dropped into this mix. When you arrive in a camp, for example, with only melee fighters it’s going to lead to one strategy. If you arrive at another one where it’s mostly archers, because the camp is set in a canyon or something like that, you might want to approach it differently. When we mix all that together the combinations are very numerous.

The big enemies to talk about are the boss fights. That’s something that is new to the series. What kind of bosses are we going to meet?

You meet several types of bosses. We have the bounty hunters that are after you in the world. So these guys are roaming the world. There are 10 of them, all different. Once again, very specific AI, very specific behavior. One is on horse. One is on a camel. One is on a chariot. These bosses are roaming the world.

Then you have the bosses of the arena. The arena is really focused on combat, and these ones [the bosses] are very specific, high-end quality, with a strong personality, and a proper introduction. These are the human bosses. Then we have more bosses like war elephants that are bringing the level of challenge even higher. You can continue to progress and level up, because you have a very strong offer in terms of endgame content.

Thank you very much, Jean, for speaking with me.

No problem.

Assassin’s Creed Origins ships on October 26th, 2017 for Xbox One, PlayStation 4 / Pro, and PC, with Xbox One X support at that console’s launch on November 7th, 2017. Stay tuned for our full review as we near those dates.

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