Party Chat 6.13: Ubisoft’s Women Problem

Lots of big news came out of E3 this week, but none got quite so much play as the announcement that Ubisoft’s newest entry to the Assassin’s Creed franchise would include no female playable characters, in spite of the four-player co-op being a defining feature.

Before we get started, I want to make something clear: I understand the player always sees themselves as Arno Dorian, so any female character would ultimately be assigned to one of player 1’s co-op buddies. To which I say, awesome. What a great way to include women as actual agents of the story without anyone being “forced” to play as woman. Obviously I would love to play as a female assassin—I couldn’t buy the HD remake of Assassin’s Creed 3: Liberation fast enough, and I very nearly purchased a VITA just to play that game—but I get there are some people who don’t want to “get stuck with the girl.” Frankly, that’s messed up, but let’s table that discussion for now.

Ubisoft had an opportunity for a compromise that would both please the ever-growing population of women gamers and keep any he-man woman-hating types from losing their minds. Player 1 always sees themselves as Arno, but Arno’s mission is always aided by at least one woman. Beautiful. Harmonious. Unifying, even.

I take issue with Ubisoft stating animations for a female character would be too costly—an idea several lead animators in the industry took to task on Twitter—only to backtrack later and say the decision was actually a narrative one.

That kind of flip-flopping to save face smacks of a genuine lack of desire to appeal to women gamers. I doubt that’s a philosophy true of the writers and developers, or even most gamers, but it’s disheartening to think the higher-ups of games publishing see female characters as add-ons to be easily cut in order to save resources, or worse: that they’re not worth including in the story in the first place.

The truth is, it won’t hurt anyone to see more varied representation in game protagonists. That goes for representing people of color, too.

For this week’s Party Chat, I’ve attempted to create a timeline by gathering links to pieces covering the debate. See them after the jump.

Videogamer breaks the news. Ubisoft technical director James Therien says, “it’s not a question of philosophy or choice in this case at all…it was a question of focus and a question of production. Yes, we have tonnes of resources, but we’re putting them into this game, and we have huge teams, nine studios working on this game and we need all of these people to make what we are doing here.” [Videogamer]

Rachel Weber of GamesIndustry rounds up tweets and quotes from industry developers discussing Therien’s explanation, as well as sharing their own stories regarding implementation of female game protagonists. [GamesIndustry International]

Polygon interviews former Assassin’s Creed 3 animation director Jonathan Cooper, who reveals Liberation’s protagonist Aveline de Grandpré’s animations were often taken directly from AC 3′s male protagonist, Connor, and says, “I think what you want to do is just replace a handful of animations. Key animations. We target all the male animations onto the female character and just give her her own unique walks, runs, anything that can give character.” [Polygon]

Far Cry 4 (another new Ubisoft title) director Alex Hutchinson tells Polygon they were “inches away from having you be able to select a girl or a guy as your co-op buddy when you invite someone in.” [Polygon]

Eurogamer interviews Assassin’s Creed: Unity director Alex Amancio, who changes stance: “There was this thing that started with animations—but they have nothing to do with it. They’re one drop in the ocean, they’re one part of it. If we’re creating all these different suits that can interchange, that’s a lot. It’s not only that, but it’s nothing to do with production. Again, we’re telling the story of Arno—it’s that character’s story. The reason we’re just changing the face and keeping the bodies is we want people to show off the gear that they pick up in the game through exploration. That’s why we kept that.” [Eurogamer]

Alec Meer weighs in with an op-ed, pointing out that “not including any women as optional player-characters in a multiplayer mode is not truly because it’s ‘too much work’, but because someone, somewhere specifically decided they didn’t want a portion of the game’s resources spent in that way.” [Rock, Paper, Shotgun]

Dan Golding adds some historical perspective by underscoring how women’s roles in the French Revolution have been vastly marginalized already. [Dan Golding]

2 thoughts on “Party Chat 6.13: Ubisoft’s Women Problem

  1. All four players playing as the same character. Whaaaa? That’s a dumb narrative decision. I’m picturing four players having to stand there listening to the NPC explain the mission while all four players (who are all the same person) are bumping into each other like the three stooges. Anyways, if we are accepting that there are four of the same person, I don’t see why one of those people can’t have been taking gender reassignment hormones f or something.

    Oh, and when did “people of color” start coming back into vogue? My whole life we’ve been snickering at the outdated stupid-soundingness of folks saying “colored people” and now it’s becoming the official PC term? Is it even necessary to lump said people into one “us or them” category? Are black people, Native Americans, Hispanics, Inuits, etc. not considered worthy of each being seen as a distinct individual grouping instead of just non-whites? it kind of implies that white should be the default the same way male is the default. Just a thought.

    1. Yeah, you can put the no girls allowed thing on the back burner for a minute and I’m actually giving the everyone-is-Arno-I-am-Legion thing all the side-eye just because it’s weird on its own.

      And I agree about POC. It definitely serves to treat white as the default; everyone else as Other—which is decidedly not my bag. But it’s the done thing (said everyone doing objectionable things, ever), and I can’t think of an alternative besides listing ethnicities individually, which is not only hard to write/read when you’re trying to say some form of “anyone other than a white person,” but also practically guarantees exclusion of someone.

      TL;DR: I don’t like it either, but it’s what people say.