Before he helped to craft the world of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, scriptwriter Daniel Bingham was but a humble comedian. Having been given the opportunity to interview Daniel, I was curious to find out more.
What does it take to write scripts for videogames? I’m sure aspiring writers would love to know. I certainly did.
How does someone go from stand-up and comedy-writing to writing a script for something like Assassin’s Creed?
It seems like a weird transition, but when I look back on it, it was actually a natural progression for me. I’ve always been a storyteller my whole life; even my comedy is very much storytelling. I would rather tell a good story than tell a good joke, sometimes at the risk of getting no laughs from the audience. I’ve always been on the search for the most compelling way to tell a story.
Stand-up was one way, but I’ve always been writing scripts. I remember putting on two one-man plays, and when doing that, I needed a team that would help me get it off the ground—editor, producer, sound guy, photographer, whatever. Collaborating together ended up making something much, much better than I could have ever done alone. I think when writing on your own, you’re very limited; I was.
I decided to go back to school, for writing specifically for film and television. At the same time, I got back into games. I hadn’t played them in a long, long time; kind’a (sic) put them aside so I could focus on my career. But a friend handed me the game The Last of Us, and I was just blown away by the level of storytelling and the character development. It planted the seed that videogames were a great place to tell stories.
Well, one of my classmates happened to be dating the creative director for Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, so I got to meet her, and we got along great. After graduating, she suggested that I apply at Ubisoft, which at the time had this big secret project and they needed writers, and the rest is history.
Is there anything you found particularly challenging about writing for a game like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey where there are branching dialogues? After all, the player may not agree with the way you want to tell the story.
I think you actually just answered your own question. That was the difference. I’ve always been used to linear storytelling—writing dialogue between two people, three people, never having to think of a player. I had to relearn how to tell stories right away.
Our creative director, Jonathan Dumont, told us early on that he didn’t want players to listen to the story; I want them to participate in it. I literally wrote that on a post-it and stuck it to my monitor. It was always on my mind: when can the player participate in the story; when’s a good time to insert them. Then, thinking of three or four different ways for them to respond to a person in the world, and how do I make these choices more than black and white? How do I make them meaningful? That was the thing we worked on the most.
One of my favourite games is Mass Effect 2, but the one thing I lamented was how your character only really had the choice to be a good guy or an arse. I love how the protagonist of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey isn’t always going to give you the option you want—because they’re not you. They’ve got their own motivations, and those are going to manifest in different responses. I don’t really have a question, but I wanted you to know I really appreciated that.
One thing about RPGs—RPG characters—is that you always think about a blank slate, a tabula rasa. You define their character and plot. For Assassin’s Creed, we’ve always prided ourselves on these strong personalities with strong backstories, and for the characters Alexios and Kassandra, that’s exactly what we gave them. We gave them a very meaningful backstory, a strong personality and a wide range of emotions.
When you’re roleplaying as these characters, you’re not going to get to choose between being nice, being a dick or being neutral. You’re a mercenary in ancient Greece. That can play out in all manner of ways. It’s ultimately up to the player to decide, but you’re never going to get the option to do something totally out of character.
I loved that. I loved the challenge. It was fascinating to write potential outcomes, visions of what the future could be. Then it was up to the player to decide.
I’m curious. Who decides the protagonist’s relation to Leonidas?
That was pre-determined before I arrived. Ubisoft always knew from day one. One of the most important things for Assassin’s Creed Odyssey was connecting the bloodline of the first civilisation to our characters. With that in mind, they had to figure out who’s a really strong personality at this time.
Leonidas was a perfect fit. We were also trying to plant the seeds of the philosophy of the Templars and Assassins before any of that existed. So, it was kind of perfect that he was this hero known for his descent.
I’m grateful we got to see another rendition of Leonidas; he never fails to impress. That opening scene, though, was it in any way inspired by 300?
I had the honour of writing that scene; it was a difficult challenge. I tried to forget everything I knew about 300 because that was the last thing I wanted to do. It’s so iconic, and I was a huge fan of the graphic novels and a huge fan of the movie.
The problem is the way it happened was historically accurate. You can’t really change what they’re wearing. You can’t change the fact that they were in Thermopylae against all those Persians. He’s going to give a battle speech. I tried to give him a twist, to make him his own person, but it was always going to be a challenge.
When I first heard you were a comedian (now videogame writer), I envisioned someone like Jimmy Carr writing a videogame. Clearly, you’re a different sort of comedian, but did you try to squeeze your brand of comedy into the game?
I love Jimmy Carr, but just telling jokes wasn’t my style. I love a more personal story, being brought on a journey, and that’s how I evolved as a comedian, but stand-up comedy wasn’t really fulfilling that for me. Ultimately, I was always looking for a better medium to tell more stories.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey was steeped in Greek tragedy, but it also had its comedic elements. I tried to inject some humour where I felt it appropriate, but overall, we had a very funny writing team. To our surprise, sometimes jokes we didn’t really write just surfaced. Other times, jokes we wrote didn’t land. It’s a bit like stand-up comedy; a large part of it is up to the audience.
I think the biggest difference between comedy and videogame writing is that I have to wait three years before the audience gets to hear the joke.
Unfortunately, I’m being told that’s all the time I have with you, Daniel, but it was great to meet you. Thanks so much.
Thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed the game.
Daniel Bingham’s journey is an interesting one. Personally, I can’t wait to see what he conjures up next. What about you; what did you think of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey‘s story? Did you think it played second fiddle to its gameplay, or like me, were you more captivated by its take on ancient Greece?
If you’ve got no desire to put pen to paper, to craft intimate worlds for players to explore, then this is where you get off. If, however, you’ve always wanted to write a videogame script, then I have a few words of encouragement for you.
I know—all too well, in fact—that any aspiring writers will have resigned themselves to their fate: big dreamers but who will never have an opportunity like Daniel’s. That’s the very definition of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Granted, none of us will ever have a friend who “happened to be dating the creative director for Assassin’s Creed Syndicate.” What we do have in South Africa is a growing and really rather determined indie game scene. Those games need stories too.
From the right angle, it’s humbling. Now, you’ve got nowhere to go but up. You just need to love telling stories, stories that compel the player to move forward. Then, start writing.