tumblr deleted this lol
So, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey has this new thing, where you can “romance” whoever you want. In the latest DLC, one playable character, Kassandra, has a baby.
People are upset about this.
Why? It’s completely understandable. Since you can “romance” (okay I hate that word and this essay is about that) anyone you want, you can play Kassandra as a lesbian. In fact, in my playtime, I don’t actually think I’ve come across a single straight romance option. So maybe that’s what you’re supposed to do canonically. But apparently in the DLC, Kassandra is framed as bi, not lesbian, and some people aren’t happy about that.
So, after about 3 hours of sleep this morning, I saw a tweet, and the tweet said, “Ubisoft sorry for shock Assassin’s Creed Odyssey DLC twist which ignores player choice.”
Now, that specific sentence stuck out to me, because it’s something I’ve seen before, and I think there’s an interesting discussion to be had there. I wasn’t focused on the Kassandra issue specifically so much as I was the idea of “when should player choice matter?”
Me being me, I replied to this with my belief that most of the time, player choice isn’t worth respecting. Now, in my thread, I got to the point, but it took me a bit because I did the me thing and worked through the logical build up to my point, because I like establishing a need and then going “so that’s why we need X,” but people love jumping to conclusions about controversial topics, so let’s get the point out up front, then work backwards. Not my preferred way to go, but it’s more important to make sense than to be comfortable.
So, here’s the thesis: I think the way we talk about player choice is wrong. I think that when players are expressing themselves in terms of appearance, race, gender, sexuality, or whatever other personal trait, we should be supportive of their ability to play the way they want. Ubisoft giving players the opportunity to play as a lesbian character and then, in an expansion, saying “actually you can’t be a lesbian” is a problem. But this doesn’t mean that we should cater to every player choice, and Eurogamer’s specific framing is what bothered me, because I think player choice doesn’t deserve the sanctity that it’s often given.
I think, in some games, players want to be gods, and I think this is something that encourages us to think about the world in an unhealthy way.
Take Dragon Age 2, for instance. In that game, there’s a character named Aveline. Every single romance option in Dragon Age 2 sucks. Aveline is the only good companion character in the entire game… but you cannot “romance” her. I think she’s the only person you aren’t related to that you can’t woo.
I hate using “romance” as a verb. I hate the idea that you can “romance” anyone you see in a game, because that’s not how it works in real life. If I walk up to you and flirt terribly, and you happen to not be into me, you have the ability to turn me down and not enter into a relationship with me, right?
So you cannot “romance” Aveline, which really just means “interacting with her enough that her fuck meter hits max and then you are rewarded with a terrible cutscene of your lifeless dolls dry humping each other and then she stands in your house near your bed and you can interact with her.” I hate elves, so I did everything I could to piss another character, Merill, off, but apparently maxing out your hate means she’ll move into your house and hatefuck you.
It’s so fucking gross to treat sex, in games, as a weird fucking carnival game where sex is the prize. Don’t do any of the actual work of a relationship, just, y’know, max out a meter and you’re owed sex by your subordinates. You can see how that’s… a bit troubling, right?
Now, I could level this criticism at Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. But, hey, this isn’t an essay about how bad Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is at relationships. I mean, it is, because “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey being so bad at relationships they literally invalidate player choice and it’s understandably upsetting people” is the thing that got this started, but what I’m specifically interested in is the way Eurogamer (intentionally or unintentionally) suggested that games need to respect player choice.
I think player choice only needs to be respected when it comes to expression.
I’m making a game where you are a specific person, with specific goals and beliefs. You cannot determine his appearance, gender, or sexuality. This game is a game about seeing the world through his eyes. So, if you play that game, you’re going to invariably be that guy. I like games like this. I like playing Cate Archer in No One Lives Forever. I like being in someone else’s shoes.
But then there’s a whole mess of games where you can more or less act how you want. You can pick what your character looks and acts like, how they perceive the world, and all sorts of other things. You can be yourself in the game world, or, heck, you can be someone you came up with. It’s all good.
That’s really cool! Being able to customize that experience is really awesome. In an earlier essay, I discussed how “being able to visit another world” is a huge part of why I care about games. Therefore, being able to be myself in that other world (or whoever I want to be) is super important.
But I think people conflate “being who you want” and “engaging with the world on your terms” and I don’t think they should do that.
Like I said, I personally care about going to other worlds. Implicit in this is the understanding that for a world to be… believable? For it to exist, or whatever you want to call it, the world has to have its own terms that do not revolve around me.
Take Thief, for instance. Thief is an immersive sim–a genre that’s about existing in another world–based around the idea of being a thief. One of the reasons that Thief is compelling is that… well, you’re a thief, not a warrior, so if you get into a sword fight with one guy, you might lose. If you get into a sword fight with multiple guys, you will most definitely lose. You cannot dictate that all outcomes will be favorable to you regardless of the choices you make.
Thief works because you can make choices that lead to unfavorable outcomes. If you could choose anything and have it work out in your favor every time, the fantasy of being a thief would collapse, and Thief would fail as an immersive sim.
I believe that immersive sims are games that represent worlds. For a world to be realistic, there must be scenarios in which you can make suboptimal decisions–even wrong ones. When people argue that games should always result in a favorable outcome that “respects their decisions,” these people want playgrounds, not immersive games. An immersive game is one that exists regardless of the player, not for the player.
You could say I’m establishing that there are two kinds of games. For the sake of argument, let’s call them playgrounds and simulations.
Neither one is valid, but I think a great deal of people assume all games should be playgrounds and unfairly judge games that don’t allow them to treat all games like a playground. I think immersive sims–or any game trying to let players exist in a world–are necessarily player agnostic. I think these games should acknowledge your decisions but that doesn’t mean respecting them. Sure, you built a character for stealth, but the guy you’re going up against was characterized as paranoid and has cameras everywhere; maybe that level is impossible to stealth. The game isn’t bad because it doesn’t let you play according to your build, it’s giving you a believable, interesting world.
Now, maybe you just want Ultimate Stealth Game Playground, in which case, I’d like to introduce you to Ghost Recon: Wildlands, a wonderful game I’ve put 48 hours into. That is a playground, and it’s a really good one.
I think we should respect choices when they’re about players defining themselves in games that are built around players defining themselves, like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, a game that was heavily marketed as letting you choose your sexuality. I don’t think we need to respect every single player choice because I don’t think the player should have their every whim catered to.
I feel like a lot of this ties into the idea of “power fantasy.” I think power fantasies can be great. Sometimes it’s fun to go all Hulk: Ultimate Destruction on a city and smash things, you know? But I feel that a lot of people… man, I feel like a lot of people want the game to constantly tell them how amazing they are and do anything they want and sometimes that leads to shitty scenarios where players are like “everyone should fuck me if I want them to.” I think that’s gross.
A world cannot be authentic if it can only respond positively to the player’s interactions.
If a player’s agency is absolute, then no other character has any agency, and you cannot meaningfully engage with those characters. They exist to please you and nothing else. You cannot engage with the game and treat them as equal to you; you can only see them as part of a facade. The game world cannot be believable or interesting.
A lot of bad shooters I see tend to be designed in the same way: they exist to fellate the player. They’re not satisfying because you can’t make wrong decisions; you can’t mess up. As a result, there’s no danger. Because the games are so interested in making you feel powerful and strong and good about yourself, you never feel like you earned anything. Your relationship to the world ends up turning you into that creepy kid from the Twilight Zone episode where a creepy kid has godlike powers and can make anyone do anything he wants them to or be whatever he wants.
That’s not an interesting relationship to the experience. It’s not really one I want to have.
So. Yeah. You should be able to define your character. That’s good. You should not be able to determine how the world responds to you, though.
The Ubisoft situation really only refers to the former: you should be able to define your character, and they chose not to respect that. They fucked up. But I feel like a lot of people are using this as a springboard to say that all decisions no matter what should be respected, whereas I think only certain ones (like the decision to define Kassandra’s sexuality) should be respected. I think there are plenty of decisions that should not. I think games are interesting when they’re somewhat player agnostic.
I think you should be who you want, in games that present that opportunity, and I think Ubisoft fucked up by retroactively invalidating choice.
I’m just… feeling like I’m seeing people around this discussion arguing that all games should allow all decisions all the time, the player’s position within games is sacred, games should never ever under any circumstances present players with bad choices, and I’m uncomfortable with that ’cause I think it leads to weird situations like the one with “Aveline owes me sex in Dragon Age 2 because I want to have it with her” which is weird and gross.