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?
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.