So, for those who don’t know Ubisoft demoed it’s new Assassin’s Creed game at E3 recently and it was reveled that, like previous Assassin's Creed games, the main playable character was male. This sparked some criticism, which in turn sparked defenses of this criticism from both Ubisoft and from other gamers. As a feminist, and one of the rare male gamers who usually plays a female character if there is an option to do so I thought I speak about the issue a bit.
I’ve played a fair share of Ubisoft games over the years and have mostly enjoyed them, though I have several critiques of Ubisoft’s game design beyond possible gender issues, but before any of that let’s take a look at some of the defenses offered for this choice.
Ubisoft points out that they actually wanted to include an option for a female lead but it would have doubled their work load. Now, I’m not sure that It would have doubled their work load but it would have increased it significantly, not just in terms of animations, but in scripting and voice acting. Hiring a voice actor for the female lines, and recording any lines of dialogs that name the character or refer to them in gender specific pronouns, plus the time needed by the writers to hunt down those instances if done after the fact. I don’t doubt that this would have added at least a few weeks to the total time for game design, and increased their budget requirements.
On the other hand, plenty of other game companies have done this quite well in games that were often larger in scope than any Ubisoft game has been till now. The new dragon age game seems to have drastically increased the size of the explorable game world, and added the ability to ride horses while continuing their tradition of letting people play as either gender and then set about seducing your fellow party members. I realize that the two games are different and don’t expect all games to be the same, but if they could do all that in their development time it seems Ubisoft could have spared the time for a female lead option if it had been a priority.
So it wasn’t a priority, big deal right? Many of Ubisoft’s defenders point out that they have the right to make any game they want, which is true enough, but I think irrelevant. The point that people are making is not that Ubisoft must add female characters, but that it represents a larger failure on their part to make women and equal part the worlds they create, and people would like them to be a part of the solution not a part of the problem.
Another defense gamers put forward is to ask if feminists expect every game to offer a female lead option. The sort answer to this is generally no. I’m a fan of the Witcher games and don’t expect they will add a female lead any time soon, but this game is built of off existing lore and the characters that already exist in that lore. It also manages to present a host of strong female characters in the story despite being set in a culture that is generally fairly sexist. So I don’t think anyone is expecting ALL games to have female leads in them, simply that there be a bit more balance, and thoughtfulness when writing female characters.
So what do I think about all this? Well first I point out a general critique of Unbisoft’s games, despite enjoying them, every time I play one I get the distinct feeling that I’ve done it all before. Far cry, Assassin’s Creed, Watch Dogs, virtually ever Ubisoft game ever made uses the same basic game mechanics. For instance, unlocking sections of the map and/or side quests by climbing to some high place and unlocking a tower or view point of some kind. This is in EVERY game I play by them, and nearly no one else uses it at all. It’s not a bad game mechanic, I just think it is being over used. They changed it up a bit with Assassins Creed 4 by adding a new type of combat with ships, but the basic mechanic was unchanged. How does this relate? I think Ubisoft’s games have become a bit “paint by the numbers,” I hope they grow beyond it, but there it is.
All this being the case, it doesn’t surprise me that they didn’t add a female character. I’ll go one step further, this “paint by numbers” tendency is precisely why Ubisoft has found itself increasingly criticized. It’s not that they left women out this one time, or they failed to address certain problems in their characterizations of minorities in one game. They do this over and over again. Watch Dogs was rightly criticized for the way it “fridged” every female character in the game. Far Cry 3 was criticized for it’s “white person saves the natives” plot, as also seen in Dances with Wolves and Avatar (why did people like this movie?) The point is that these plots are examples of lazy writing and are far too common in all kinds of media, and Ubisoft games in particular. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting a boycott or something. I’ll probably play Unity and enjoy it, though I suspect I will enjoy The Witcher 3 and Dragon Age 3 more. I just also think that we should, at the same time, encourage Ubisoft to do a better job.