MIA at E3: “Assassin’s Creed: Unity” and the Search For Our Female Characters

Ubisoft's new Assassin's Creed game features co-op and some sexism on the side
Ubisoft’s new Assassin’s Creed game features co-op and some sexism on the side

It’s dawn. A hawk glides past the inspiring edifice of Notre Dame and over restless crowds of revolutionaries. Four figures emerge from the smoke of gunfire. They have three things in common: they’re all Assassins, they’re all fighting on the side of “liberté, égalité, and fraternité”, and they’re all male. In Assassin’s Creed: Unity at least, the ‘brotherhood’ part of the Revolution’s maxim apparently counts more than calls for ‘liberty’ and ‘equality’. The upcoming title in Ubisoft’s ever-popular franchise comes with a new option for four-player co-op, but the four characters are really just one; all consist of variations on the protagonist Arno Dorian.  A common question thus returns to the conversation: when introducing an option for players to customise their protagonist, why was a female not available for that choice?

“It was really a lot of extra production work.”

That was creative director Alex Amancio’s reason in an interview with Polygon. According to him, female characters mean “double the animation, double the voices, all that stuff and double the visual assets.”

But, in the opinion of Jonathan Cooper, former designer on Assassin’s Creed III, “all that stuff” would in fact take only a day or two and, as proof of this conclusion, explained that Aveline de Grandpré, the female protagonist of Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation “shares more of Connor Kenway’s (Assassin’s Creed III’s lead) animations than Edward Kenway (Assassin’s Creed IV) does.”

Assassin's Creed III: Liberation's Aveline de Grandpre
Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation’s Aveline de Grandpre

So who’s right? Is a female character too much work, or is that just an excuse used to maintain the status quo of brooding male protagonists? A CNET article written by Michelle Starr seemed to side with the former opinion, pointing out that the differences in skeletal structure, environmental factors such as reactions to height and movement, and co-op interactions present significant roadblocks to animators. However, Starr concludes with a telling remark: “Let’s be clear: This kind of thing can be done, and done well…but it requires time, planning and hard work from very early on in the development cycle.

Video game technology has been making leaps and bounds in recent years, and a lot of things that were previously thought impossible are now commonplace in AAA titles. As Grantland’s Emily Yoshida points out in a fantastic article, Ubisoft designers had the time, planning, and motivation to create a massive, detailed rendering of Paris that includes 1:1 proportional rendition of Notre Dame. But The City of Lights and its signature landmark are things that Assassin’s Creed: Unity’s creators had in mind ever since they chose the French Revolution as the game’s setting. Apparently women were not.

Unity's Paris is an expansive open world setting
Unity’s Paris is an expansive open world setting

When the issue is looked at more closely, then, the questions quickly becomes not, “Can it be done now?” but “Why wasn’t it attempted from the beginning?” Maybe Jonathan Cooper’s estimate of two days is an exaggerated one, maybe “all that stuff” really is a lot of production work, but complications only become a problem when they are not planned for from the start. Which means that Ubisoft never had any intention of putting a female protagonist in Assassin’s Creed: Unity. Which means that a major demographic is still being blatantly ignored in the game development process.

The excuses are getting old. Assassin’s Creed may be particularly notorious for them (in explaining why no female protagonist was included in Assassin’s Creed III, the game’s creative director Alex Hutchinson explained quite simply that “the history of the American Revolution is the history of men”, though I think Abigail Adams, Martha Washington, Betsy Ross, and countless others would like to disagree with him), but is not by any means the only franchise with sexism lurking under its critical and commercial success. Of the big titles of well-beloved series at E3 from Microsoft and Sony – Halo 5, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, Destiny, Far Cry 4 – only a handful counted a female character among their main lineup (The Order: 1886 and Dragon Age: Inquisition, to name a few). One of the top-selling games of last year, GTA V, also overlooked the option to play as a woman, apparently because, according to Rockstar’s VP of creativity Dan Houser, masculinity was such a “key concept” to the story. Houser is condoning sexism in the name of realism, in the name of ‘accurately’ conceptualizing violence and criminal activity as inherently masculine, just like Alex Hutchinson condoned sexism in the name of presenting the American Revolution how it really was.

The Order: 1886's main characters
The Order: 1886’s main characters

In games with time-travelling Temples and global auroras, though, or in games where you can destroy an airport using a stolen tank, or have a shootout with the police while on fire, ‘realism’ as a reason doesn’t cut it anymore than ‘too much work’ does. What about the realistic demographic that women make up 50.9% of the U.S. population – while, in video games, women have made up only 15% of the characters since the 1990s?

When will honesty take the place of excuses in the games industry? When will developers admit that maybe they just don’t want to code female characters, that they’re worried about it hurting sales, or they’re not particularly interested in the stories that women have to tell? When will studios tell us what they told Remember Me‘s creative director Jean-Max Morris: “You can’t have a female character in games.” If we could admit these things and face the sexism that takes place behind the scenes head on, we could take steps towards combating them (like focusing on the fact that Tomb Raider sold so well that Square Enix announced The Rise of Tomb Raider at E3), rather than having to stomach technical issues or pragmatic storytelling as the supposed reason why studios with thousands of talented, creative, ambitious employees can’t tackle the female skeletal structure. (Source)

It’s 2014, and this year’s E3 showed just how much women are still missing from the boy’s club that is the games industry. It’s time we fixed this and stopped pretending that it’s a non-issue, that if we just focused on good games, gender issues would fade to the background. The idea that it isn’t that the games industry is sexist, it’s just that the majority of games happen to feature male playable characters is still, surprisingly, a viable one in much of the video game community. But it doesn’t have to be.

While the Assassin’s Creed panel was struggling to explain its male-dominated co-op, the 47-minute Nintendo Direct included a short interview with the designers of a new online multiplayer shooter, Splatoon. After co-director Yusuke Amano laughingly explained that it was producer Hisashi Nogami’s idea to make the game’s ink-splattering delinquents squids, Nogami shrugged and responded, “Rather than designing the characters and then making a game around that, we instead came up with the game first and then created characters we thought would work well with the gameplay. That’s actually how Nintendo prefers to approach game design.” If the theory of game-design-first-characters-second can incorporate shapeshifting squids, turtle-dragon Koopas, and androgynous mushrooms, then certainly it should be resulting in more plain ol’ women.

So, yes, I agree with the sentiment that good game design should come first and foremost. I’m not arguing that a playable female character should be forced into every video game simply for the sake of gender equality, I’m just asking that they not be forced out of them for the sake of phantom sales numbers and outdated ideas of masculinity. If all games followed Nintendo’s attitude towards game design, if the world was created first and filled with whatever kinds of characters made sense, no matter the gender, there would be a lot more room for women in them.

The shapeshifting squids of Nintendo's Splatoon
The shapeshifting squids of Nintendo’s Splatoon

Because women make sense in a lot of different environments, when you treat them as people with stories to tell, not animation cells with a height difference that are too much work to incorporate into your engine. We can debate sales numbers, we can debate realism, we can debate demographics and target audiences, but when it comes down to it, wouldn’t games just be more interesting if we stopped taking out different kinds of narratives and started including them instead? When did silencing diverse voices become a design strategy for a good game?

Back to the drawing board, Ubisoft. And this time, maybe try out that female skeletal structure. It’s not as mysterious as it looks.

113 thoughts on “MIA at E3: “Assassin’s Creed: Unity” and the Search For Our Female Characters

  1. A female lead character in games? Well, it’s a good idea but most of the lead ones I know who are females dress up in a very sexy way. Is that a good model?

    1. I agree with you. But they’re dressed up in bikinis because developers still are stuck catering to 13-year-old boys. Games with female characters designed this way probably aren’t marketed to women. As Liz pointed out, this is the whole problem. Once they recognize girls game–and they do it for the reasons boys do: to feel strong and powerful–they’ll have to stop dressing our avatars like strippers and start dressing us like warriors.

  2. I like this. I like this a lot. Though I will admit, all people want, as a girl gamer, is a relationship and a girl character, even a side character, to be able to take care of themselves.
    (Elizabeth? Is that you?)

  3. Yess ryt we need more women fighters… Loveddd it.. Women r not oly fighters dey r also good gamers!! Loved ur blog

  4. Well written piece! If you’re interested, please read my review of Star Wars on my blog: ethansmovielist.wordpress.com thanks!

  5. One of the games that got me into gaming in the first place was Alice Madness returns because I loved the style and how kick ass her character was. I wish there were more games out there with female leads. I do love the new Tomb Raiders though. But I was disappointed with the new Assassins.

  6. The excuse of realism is just such an unbelievable cop-out. Even if you want to stick to historical facts, women, men, and even children–of all colors and creeds–have played a role in both the French and American revolutions. But most white men don’t know history as well as they think they do. In the American Revolutionary War, blacks fought; women fought. Yes, as soldiers. Get a grip on your egos, follow Liz’s drumbeat here, and recognize that history was also made by people who look nothing like you. Warfare and killing are not exclusively masculine and never have been. Here’s just one great book that guys should read before making sweeping generalizations about who actually served in war time: http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/0823944549/ref=mp_s_a_1_15?qid=1452133936&sr=8-15&pi=SY200_QL40&keywords=women+soldiers%2C+spies%2C+and&dpPl=1&dpID=51elrnSLAVL&ref=plSrch This hegemonic claim to be representing history by excluding anyone different from the SWM game developer is part of the whole problem. They don’t want to be responsible for accuracy, so they opt for entitlement (i.e. everyone important ever should look like me) instead. Keep calling out this BS.

  7. To me, it doesn’t matter what the main character is in the game. When I play games I erase pretty much all existence of the main character given to me and I play the game as if the character was me. I never play AS, whoever the main character is if that makes sense. But I also see the point on both sides of this story. to some extent. I don’t see any reason why more games cant have male/female main characters in every game…I mean it is 2016 for Christ sakes haha. I feel like most of this stuff has occurred in the past due to a larger male audience that played games but now I think (last I checked) more females play games than males so I think it would definitely be a wise choice to make to make the main characters gender flexible. But really, when it comes down to it I don’t see any real excuse for games to not have both but also don think it really matters as much as people think it does. There are much more important things to get behind in the world in my opinion…That’s just me though.

    I stopped playing Assassins creed a while ago, and don’t really play the other games you listed here, but there ARE many more games coming out now that are either led by female characters (like tomb raider) or at least give the option like Fallout 4 which is a highly praised game that recently made its debut. I just don’t think it matters if Batman: Arkam Asylum should also be Batwomen: Arkam asylum. I just don’t think it really makes a difference, I play games for the gameplay and don’t really focus on the characters gender as much.

    After all that jibberish I just said, I think we agree, so I probably wasted my time writing this haha

  8. Did you know, that the wifes of bakers in historic France started the revolution and that the storming of the Bastille was carried out by a high percentage of woman as well? Woman rights where one of the points in the new Constitution.
    So there is really no point of denying the option to play a female character.
    There are games that show, giving the option for a female character is not a downside. In fact I have a couple male friends that enjoy choosing and playing a female character lead…I personally don’t really feel offended by not having a female character choice , but I think it’s a pretty sad excuse of ubisoft.”it takes so much time”is simply not true. Just admit you never really thought about a female main character and do it better next time 😉

  9. I can’t stand how objective I am sometimes. This is a perfect example too. I’m a 37 year old female that’s enthralled with video games. That’s all I would spend money on if I didn’t have fishing as a “sunny day” hobby…LOL!

    I play the AC games on a regular basis. At the moment, I’m sucked into the IVth one with the pirate song and dance. I don’t think I would have ever given this a second thought unless I came across another article that makes a very real, very valid point to a lot of women.

    On this hand, I can see how women want representation in these “historically based” games. I can even see how portraying a female character in the story could add some new avenues to complete missions and such. But if this did happen over night and female characters were an addition to your chosen game, even if it’s not AC, I have to wonder how long it would take for women to have a list of complaints about how they are portrayed in the game. I’m not saying that we are snarky and never happy or satisfied with efforts by the male counterparts to right the wrongs that women perceive being done to them as a demographic.

    I’m sorry, I can’t get on board with that kind of thinking when all I want to do is play a game. Additionally, It’s useless to even have the argument that all of a sudden women would feel respected and equal because they have an avatar in a game. If that were the case, this wouldn’t even be an issue getting air time and momentum from supporters that don’t even play the games.

    This isn’t an issue of women being victimized in games because they aren’t represented by an avatar of their choice. In my opinion, if you sit in to play a RPG then, essentially, you’re stepping into someone else’s role. Correct? Honestly, I foresee that it could be a problem in the game play on a personal level if while dominating with a few other players online that were genuine men (who would never dream of using an avatar that was of the “weaker sex”) once gender roles are realized it’s practically instinctual for the hunter/gatherer/I’m better at things like video games kind of dude that we all adore for being so masculine to our feminine.

    I’ve gone so far as to lie just to maintain the comrades I’ve developed in these games. It’s essentially an extremely equal playing field, from my experience. It’s only when it gets brought up to most gamers that it would even occur to them that gender would have anything to do with game play.

    I prefer my anonymity, privacy, and the uncomplicated guise that games like this allow. Not just women either, because just like us, the men are restricted to the same character avatars. Not setting a good example by being the better “man” and accepting the avatar regardless of our physical similarities isn’t just a problem for females. I’m sure that there are males playing these games that find the avatars different from themselves (race, age, ability, character, you name it). So where are they, especially since they would “matter” more since they are the targeted consumer that the company wants to please.

    Here’s an idea: If females want more involvement in games, then maybe instead of talking about it they should just start working on being an awesome player and mattering to the company since it would be those women selling the whole concept to other women. When someone wants to be significant to something this much bigger than themselves alone, guess what? It’s gonna help a lot more to, actually BE significant. Instead of getting into some rant about sexism and women’s suffrage attempting to make that the real issue, how about using it towards a solution instead of just complaining about it on another platform.

    I can only speak for myself, and these are my personal opinions, but if it did bother me as much as it seems to bother some, you wouldn’t find me anywhere but in the front of the line to offer my help to amend it. It’s after the games doing amazing with the women that you get to rub it in the men’s face, with sex appeal for a bonus. Win/win.

    (sleep deprived and post holidays, sorry if that pisses anyone off. Like I said, I’m acting objectively and openly, but with little regard for the reactions that I’m sure will pour in. Again, sorry. I’m going back to my games;)


    1. EXACTLY!

      I loved your comment for its honesty. Its a game, you are already stepping into someone else’ shoes. We obviously can’t say we want a skinny weak guy in God Of War because we want the character to reflect us can we?

      Great comment, better than the post in fact!

  10. Whether the lead character is female or male, or some auxilliary character that you are with for the whole game is no different. To create a complex, complex, real characters, work needs to be done. This art is truly lost in the commerce and budgeting today. Back in the old days, when people made games for fun, we had both fun and games.

    Today, all the shiny graphics has left character development far behind, while I still enjoy replaying games from the 1990’s and discovering ever more hidden gems and things I did not notice earlier. Games today lack a specific kind of complexity, mental complexity.

    And BTW, yes, great games with great female characters had female developers in the team, multi-talented and very capable.

    Make a quick test: can I turn the story of this game into a book just the way it is and it would be an amazing story that everybody would be reading? Would it be a phenomenon? (like Harry Potter for example) If not, it doesn’t matter if the lead character is male or female, the authors just used some kind of easy stereotype, probably.

    In the end: female protagonist needs special consideration, her feelings and thinking needs to be genuine, unlike with male characters, you can’t stereotype too much, you need to have the specific flavor: the specific mix of thinking, action, gestures a certain person does. (real or imaginary)

  11. You make great points. These sexist topics are seen in our everyday lives. And often, people accuse not sexist topics of being sexist. For example, there ARE more violent males than females, but the sexist part is to say that only or all males are violent. Inspirational. Your post is good enough to be recommended to me now, from two years ago. I wonder if my stuff will ever be this powerful

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