Less is (Still) Less: AC: Odyssey’s Exploration Mode and Time-Wasters

Where do we draw the line between bloat and exploration in open-world games?

When you start your first game of Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey you’re asked if you want to enable ‘exploration mode’. Exploration mode tweaks the HUD to make the day-to-day of play feel less like obediently scurrying from question mark to question mark to mission objective etc. Instead, you scurry on horseback to a particular area or region, and the ‘last mile’ between you and your actual target is totally at your discretion. Supposedly this makes everything more immersive. Does it?

The overall effect is like World of Warcraft. It feels machined, if procedurally. When narrative content is so spread out across many smaller challenges, you can spend a disproportionate amount of time trying to accomplish something that has relatively little impact on your progress through the game. 

Odyssey reveals how progress in a game can’t necessarily be reduced entirely to numbers. Odyssey’s inventory menu (like Origins) nods to the gear-collecting (i.e. stat chasing) of Destiny. But in Destiny the stat-chasing is for competitiveness, and for seeing new missions. Destiny rewards these completely meaningless numbers with the concrete advantage of multiplayer survival, and unlocking access to new levels by some of the best designers in the industry. Odyssey’s higher-numbers at best add to the Byzantine Thrones-lite politicking.

It probably saves a fortune in labour to (literally) design by the numbers like this. What narrative do you need when you can randomly place a cult’s lieutenant somewhere on the map, come up with a clue that doesn’t need to be solved so much stumbled on, and reframe the player’s own role-playing of a 2000s pathfinding-AI as ‘investigation’.

Odyssey feels uncomfortably like an attempt to pass off the (effective) absence of an authored structure as a form of open-world design. ‘Exploration mode,’ the way it’s meant to be played according to the developers, does away with automatically adding objectives to the HUD. Is it adequate to say that what works about ‘The Witcher 3’ and ‘Breath of the Wild’, as open-world games, is how they give the player more work like this?

I love open-world games of all stripes. It’s awesome to see immersion so prominent in the conversation around games again. Odyssey gives me the shudders about what it would look like if AAA-development tried to take the principle of immersion-equals-exploration to the extremes.

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