Writing Gems in Unexpected Places: Engagement in Assassin's Creed: Odyssey
When I’m not writing, you can often find me hiding from my studies (and my writing) by playing video games. At the moment, I’m enjoying playing Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey. I’ve finished the main campaign and just slogged through the “Lost Tales” side quests.
It has taught me a lot more about writing than I expected, mainly about keeping a reader engaged.
For those of you unfamiliar with this game, your main character is one of the siblings Alexios or Kassandra. (I’m going to refer to the player as Kassandra because that’s the canon). You are a mercenary seeking to reunite your shattered family, scattered across Greece.
You meet figures from Greek history such as Herodotus the historian, Pythagoras (who is surprisingly really important to the story), Socrates (with a cheeky hint of Plato as a young boy) and more. And of course, you can do the infamous Sparta kick to launch enemies off mountains.
Enough introduction, on to engagement! If a reader is getting bored, then there is a high chance they’ll just stop reading. Two different things can keep a reader engaged:
One is fast pacing, often common in action and YA books, to name a few. I reckon I’ll discuss pacing at a later time. For now, an excellent example of fast pacing for engagement is Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson.
The second thing is raising questions. Readers naturally want to have their questions answered—they want to delve into the secrets of your world and characters. In my novel Torchbearer, I raised one key question per chapter for each of my main characters. In chapter 1, from Eli’s point of view, I asked the question What is Eli’s magic, and how did it keep him alive? In chapter 2, from Jayne’s POV, I asked What is Jayne’s history that she is hiding?
When I played Odyssey, the story felt very bloated. There are a lot of quests and chapters in the main story which dragged along. In the story, you hunt the mysterious “Cult of Kosmos” a secret KKK-like organisation operating in the shadows to topple Athenian and Spartan leadership during the Peloponnesian war. One such quest sent me off to win the Olympics and topple a kingdom. All well and good, except I already knew that one of the Spartan Kings was a Cultist. My reward for finishing the quest is proving it. But those two quests took me at least 3 hours, maybe even more.
It wasn’t those quests that kept me engaged, though. It was the question that I wanted answered. Who is the Cultist? My gut said the charming young bloke, but it could have been the older grumpy one. (I was right, of course, but I had zero evidence and got myself thrown out of the kingdom. 100% worth it).
So, then, because this is a writing blog (though I might discuss games and other media in the future) this is my best tip:
Ask more questions than you answer, until you get to the end of the book.
Every time you answer a question, you should be asking another one. If you make a reader satisfied with all of their questions halfway through the book, what motivation do they have to go on?
In Odyssey, a question raised early on is how did Kassandra wind up an orphan on an unimportant island? This question is answered definitively later. Her own father threw her off a cliff after her brother. Her father placed his loyalty to his country over his loyalty to his family. That single act shattered the family and came as a massive shock to me. But then, the second question is asked. What will Kassandra (you) do about it?
It’s a great question to keep asking. Every time you throw an obstacle in your character’s way, you ask the question how will they respond? Is this act what breaks them, what shapes them, or do they emerge stronger for it?
I’m in the process of outlining another fantasy novel, and I’ve created a character who is determined to prove herself and her athletic prowess. I’m currently settling on having her break her leg to see what she does. Is this what defeats her, or does she keep going?
Odyssey had a main character you could support. Trying to reunite your family (and the fact that you could mess up and get everyone killed) is a powerful story. But, Odyssey had incredible music, stunning visual graphics, exciting combat and stealth mechanics, a rich franchise history, and the unique attraction of player choice. As a writer, you have your words and the reader’s imagination. If that’s all you have, then make it the best you can.
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