Assassin's Creed Unity Lack of Female Playable Character
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In the run-up to Ubisoft's release of the 2014 Assassin's Creed: Unity, there was much discussion about the lack of female character options for the customizable multiplayer mode. This lead to a backlash from fans who felt that Ubisoft was not being representative and that they did not understand the desires of fans, especially female fans, within video game fandom.
Background and Context
Previous Female Protagonists in Assassin's Creed
Previously in the AC series, there had been only one title with a female protagonist: Assassin's Creed: Liberation, which was released on the Playstation Vita in 2012 at the same time Assassin's Creed III was released on the Playstation 3. Liberation featured the assassin Aveline de Grandpré and was not a major entry in the series as it was exclusive to the Vita. Aveline reached a wider audience when the remastered version, Assassin's Creed Liberation HD, was released for Steam, Xbox 360, and PS3 in January of 2014.
In late 2013, Aveline also was the protagonist of the Aveline DLC for Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag. During this DLC, NPCs say voice lines like "He's getting away!" and "After that man!", the same lines used for the game's main campaign starring Edward Kenway, showing that developers didn't bother to record all-new NPC dialogue.
In March 2013, IGN writer Mitch Dyer asked Ashraf Ismail, the director of Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, why the protagonist was yet another man, and if Ubisoft would ever "shake it up" with a woman protagonist. Ismail responded:
It's a bit of a tough question. Really early on, we decided to tell the story of the Kenways. So we already had in place the idea to tell Edward, Haytham, and Connor. This was actually years ago, we had this. [...] We actually never thought, 'could this be a woman?' [...] From the pirate perspective, there were a few famous women pirates. But it wasn't common. So we didn't want that element to be a detail people got stuck on. [...] I would say it wouldn't be surprising to see a female assassin coming up in a mainline Assassin's Creed. But for us, for AC4, it was always Edward.
Racebending.tumblr.com called this answer "hogwash":
[...]it wasn’t common for there be Native American assassins working in the Revolutionary War and it wasn’t common in history for individuals to successfully outsmart the Borgia family–but ask about why the lead of this game couldn’t have been a lady and suddenly it’s “well, there weren’t numerous girl pirates.”
Female Representation and Feminism in the Video Games Industry
2014 was also the year GamerGate kicked off. Most GamerGate timelines start in August of 2014, months after Unity's release, but tension and controversy surrounding women in the video games industry and the effect of feminism on video games was already high as early as 2013, when Zoe Quinn released Depression Quest, and growing in the first half of 2014 — in January of 2014, Depression Quest was released on Steam's Greenlight service, and Quinn was immediately the target of suicide baiting and rape threats.
Assassin's Creed: Unity
On June 9th 2014, Ubisoft held their press conference at E3, revealing the gameplay and protagonist for Assassin's Creed: Unity. Unity's multiplayer mode allows each player to customize their Assassin's appearance, however the reporters at E3 noticed the customization options did not extend to gender. When questioned on this, "the developer confirmed that Unity will feature no playable females."
About the absence of a female playable character in Unity, Ubisoft technical director James Therien said that
It was on our feature list until not too long ago, but it's a question of focus and production. So we wanted to make sure we had the best experience for the character. A female character means that you have to redo a lot of animation, a lot of costumes [inaudible]. It would have doubled the work on those things. And I mean it's something the team really wanted, but we had to make a decision... It's unfortunate, but it's a reality of game development. [...] 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.
Ubisoft creative director Alex Amancio:
It's double the animations, it's double the voices, all that stuff and double the visual assets. Especially because we have customizable assassins. It was really a lot of extra production work. [...] It's not like we could cut our main character, so the only logical option, the only option we had, was to cut the female avatar.
Level designer Bruno St-André:
We started, but we had to drop it. I cannot speak for the future of the brand, but it was dear to the production team, so you can expect that it will happen eventually in the brand.
Alex Amancio later changed his tune, stating the reason as
In Unity you play this character called Arno, and when you're playing co-op you're also playing Arno - everybody is.
In response to the media storm, Ubisoft issued a statement to Kokaku on June 11 2014:
We recognize the valid concern around diversity in video game narrative. Assassin's Creed is developed by a multicultural team of various faiths and beliefs and we hope this attention to diversity is reflected in the settings of our games and our characters.
Assassin's Creed Unity is focused on the story of the lead character, Arno. Whether playing by yourself or with the co-op Shared Experiences, you the gamer will always be playing as Arno, complete with his broad range of gear and skill sets that will make you feel unique.With regard to diversity in our playable Assassins, we've featured Aveline, Connor, Adewale and Altair in Assassin's Creed games and we continue to look at showcasing diverse characters. We look forward to introducing you to some of the strong female characters in Assassin's Creed Unity.
Media and fandom reactions
The developers' comments were mostly met with "scorn and derision" by fans and professional commentators alike. Many people pointed out Ubisoft had previously animated a female protagonist for Assassin's Creed: Liberation and suggested the developers build off her character's model. (E.g. one commenter at The Mary Sue: "REALLY i mean, if the work was too hard... umm why not use the codes you already had for Aveline and futz with them?")on Twitter through 2016, and on Tumblr through 2015.
A Change.org petition started by Jessica Smith with the title "Ubisoft: Include More Playable Female Characters In Upcoming Game Releases" garnered 9,636 signatures. Jessica stated in the petition:
Ubisoft said that it would simply be too hard to program (as they boasted their 5000 NPCs in any one given space). Subsequent comments on the subject from game developers, critics, and other fans have shown decidedly that this is untrue, and that female representation in the line-up of protagonists would not have taken all the hours that Ubisoft claimed. I have been a gamer and fan of Assassin’s Creed for years, and I am sorely disappointed at the flippant treatment that questions regarding inclusion of a female protagonist have received. That is why I am asking Ubisoft to take a stand as a leader in the gaming industry and vow to include more playable female characters in their games from now on.
Bern Steel, a petition supporter commented that
I love the Assassin's creed series, but this has just felt like a slap to the face to me. Women were a core part of the French revolution and it saddens me to see you waste opportunities to explore more of the world and be more historically accurate."
In 2016, Anita Sarkeesian posted an episode of her video series Tropes vs Women in Video Games which expanded on Ubisoft's "apathetic attitude toward female inclusion" to take a look at female representation in other action/fighting games, noting that when women are present they often seem to be "sexualized treats for the player". She stated
it’s worth pointing out that in the two years since this controversy, Ubisoft has made clear efforts to improve the representation of women in the core Assassin's Creed games", but "there is still a tendency for game studios to treat female representation as some kind of extravagant goal, rather than simply treating it as standard in the same way they handle male representation. The excuse that I hear most often for the absence of female combatants in games is that players wouldn't believe it. But games, even ones that draw on historical locations or events like the Assassin's Creed series, create their own worlds and set the tone for what we will or won’t believe. To participate in the worlds games create, we happily accept time travel, superpowers, ancient alien civilizations, the ability to carry infinite items, the idea that eating a hot dog can instantly heal your wounds, and a million other fictions. It's certainly not too much to ask that these fictional worlds give us believable female combatants too."
Sarkeesian wasn't the first one to see Ubisoft's comments as part of a wider issue; in 2014 when the controversy was new, Tim Clark wrote an op-ed for PC Gamer where he compared the Ubisoft attitude to the answer a Rockstar dev gave about why none of GTA V's leads were women: "The concept of being masculine was so key to this story." Clark's response was
I just don't think that washes. It'd be easy enough to imagine playing as a Carmella Soprano-style character, dragged into the family business, or maybe as a corrupt female cop. The simple answer is that Rockstar didn't want to. Just as Ubisoft don't want to. Like almost no AAA developer wants to. [...] I think the uncomfortable truth is not that other mainstream developers hate women, or racial minorities, but that there's a deep-seated assumption that the core audience for these sorts of games is mainly white men and boys who won't accept anything else when it comes to who's presented as the public face of big franchises. I also believe that many developers at big studios want to start changing that assumption, but struggle to do so in the face of the perceived risk."
Fans across the internet commented on the issue as well:
Nowadays, the "too much work" argument no longer flies. It should be considered "necessary work" - simply the cost of doing business. We don't see games cutting walking and running animations as separate things due to "too much work". We don't see them making every object in the world static and non-interactive because allowing for animated objects is "too much work". We don't see games using a flat blue plane for water because animating water is "too much work". These are all things that are the necessary cost of business if you have a playable 3D engine. In 2014, having male and female body types should be considered in the same category.
Also, this is the next-gen generation. The more power these machines have, the less excuses you can make. I can understand the 8-bit, or 64 polygon era, but saying something is not "technically" possible these days. To mean that screams lazy, especially if you have 9 development teams, talented, hardworking artists and a huge budget.
From a development standpoint, we understand why he decided to refer to the creation of a playable female model as a ‘feature,’ but there’s no denying that the it implies that male is the default and anything else is just something extra to include if time and money allows. It’s worth noting one of the most famous assassins of the French Revolution was a woman called Charlotte Corday, who stabbed Jacobin revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat in the chest as he lay in a bath. [...] Good intentions or not, at the end of the day Ubisoft is delivering a gorgeous game that under-represents a large portion of the video game demographic and the world’s population. We have no doubt that Unity will still be an incredible commercial success, and likely even a great step forward in the franchise in terms of gameplay and graphics, but it will still be a disappointment to many gamers on a different level.
if ubisoft cant animate lady characters then i expect the next assassins creed game to be all men. completely male dominated. not a single woman in the entire game. all npcs, side characters, background characters: every single one of them is a dude. and theyre all gay. all of them. the game must be 80+ hours of playable gay porn.
Other fans defended Ubisoft, saying that a female (and/or other minority) protagonist would be unrealistic for historical periods.
Everyone who has a problem with the white straight male leading Unity play this game. Name 7 homosexual, ethnic, transgender or female people who lived during the French Revolution who had the physique of an assassin, was well educated and could believably rally French citizens into a riot, or revolution. Do not look it up. If you can do at least two of the categories without the internet then you have every right to argue but if you can’t then please go get pissy in another fandom because these games are based in a realistic history and unfortunately history was not the most accepting of times. And I know they make up the protagonist but if you can’t even name 7 real people a fake one would be even less believable.
However many people pointed out that women were a huge factor in the French Revolution. Robert Rath, writing for The Escapist, said:
While the decision to leave women out galls me on principle, I find it particularly inappropriate in the French Revolutionary period, when women made a concerted effort for representation only to be marginalized and even killed by the government they'd helped bring to power. Though I'm certain Unity's campaign will shed some light on these issues, I worry Ubisoft will tell the story without hearing the lesson. Simply put, we should be able to play as a woman in Assassin's Creed: Unity because playing as a woman is in itself a revolutionary act: In videogames, there is no greater act of liberation than putting a character under player control. [...] Women played a significant public role in the French Revolution - indeed, much more than at any other time period Assassin's Creed has represented. [...] Presenting a French Revolution with women as NPCs rather than PCs reinforces the narrative that women were the "passive" citizens that politicians and laws painted them as. Well-written NPCs can certainly teach players about women in the revolution, but by definition an NPC is a character with a scripted routine, one who isn't free to make her own choices. An NPC does not act - she is acted upon. In other words, by confining women to NPC roles, Ubisoft figuratively condemns its female characters to the second-class status and scripted life women in the actual French Revolution fought - and died - to escape.
Even former Ubisoft employee Jonathan Cooper (the animation director for Assassin's Creed III) was critical of Ubisoft's "too much work" rationale:
Do women move identical to men? No. Would I prefer to have a unique set of animation for women? Absolutely. But using a “double the work” excuse sends a false message. Despite it being a minimum barrier for entry, enabling a female character animation-wise would have been trivial and could have been set up in a matter of hours – NOT requiring the replacement of 8000 animations. You never create large projects like this without considering animation re-use among different characters.
In deflecting to a technobabble excuse Ubisoft attempted to dodge the real issue, that it was a design decision from the start. [...]Beyond a feminist agenda, it is my strong opinion that the big-budget games industry is right now facing what I believe to be a stagnation of subject matter largely due to its insular and non-diverse, (male/white/straight), creative teams. I have no intention, as I near my forties, to be making games that are solely aimed at 20-something male demographics and neither do many of my colleagues – either male or female. Each year we, (as gamers), are fed a consistent diet of violence and misrepresentation that “conventional wisdom” dictates we must cater towards to reach the mass market.Men must be dumb action heroes and women must be hyper-sexualised, serving only to continue facilitating the adolescent male fantasy. This is not only lazy thinking, but is regressive and I’ve been fortunate to work on several projects at various studios now that are, for the most part, moving in the right direction however slowly. I don’t accept that we should take any back-steps. As we increase visual fidelity and better realize our virtual worlds, and moreover strive to be taken more seriously as an art-form, there are real-world consequences for design decisions when taken in a cultural context.
Tumblr user therealmcgee created an artwork of a Unity-styled female assassin character and captioned it "I want to play this game, Ubisoft."
In August 2014, Too Much Woman, a podfic monologue from the point of view of the discarded female character, was written by jedusaur and performed by originally.
In April 2015, a fan known as KaYa created a piece of art based on the "Laughing Girls" meme photo, featuring Aveline and Shao Jun underneath the text And then Ubi said "Animating women is expensive". Her caption on the picture commented, "No, I’m already over that thing Ubisoft said about animation and junk.I get why they said that.(Seriously.) I just needed an excuse to draw these two beauties in this meme."
Later female protagonists
In April 2015 Ubisoft released Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China, a 2.5D side-scroller with Shao Jun as the player character. Shao Jun had previously been introduced in November 2011 as a minor character Ezio met in a spinoff CGI video short.
Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China was originally planned to be a DLC for Assassin's Creed: Unity, but was eventually sold as a standalone downloadable title.
Megan Patterson, writing for Paper Droids, said that the announcement for Chronicles: China was
a pleasant surprise, but in no way makes me less upset with Ubisoft for choosing not to have any playable female Assassins at all in AC: Unity. I've wanted there to be a game about Shao Jun ever since she appeared in Assassin's Creed: Embers, and it’s a surprise they did it all, since China and Japan have long been on Ubisoft's “we will never set an Assassin's Creed title here” list for pretty much forever. However, I am disappointed that Shao Jun, like Aveline de Grandpre before her, is also getting a supplementary, and not a main, title. It feels more like paying lip service to the Assassin's Creed series' female fans without committing the resources to a main title with a female lead.
Victoria McNally, writing for The Mary Sue, commented on the China announcement:
Apparently women are easier to animate if you only use two and a half dimensions. [...] Don't get me wrong: it's very cool to see Ubisoft experimenting with their general model of gameplay and trying something new, and in the process highlighting a fan favorite character who's a welcome departure from the usual generically scruffy European guy [...] But wouldn’t it also be nice, just for once, if Ubisoft let one of these characters be the lead of the base game rather than a smaller DLC-only spin-off? If it were Shao Jun getting the big title, and if we had to pay for her story to get to Arno’s rather than the other way around?
With the late 2015 release of Assassin's Creed Syndicate, fans were able to play as the twin protagonists Evie Frye and Jacob Frye, which appeased some of the anger. Evie was the first major playable female character in a main AC title; for most of the gameplay the player can switch freely between Jacob and Evie, though certain missions are Jacob-only or Evie-only.
However, it was pointed out by developers that Evie's character was not created as a reaction to the Unity controversy. Marc-Alexis Cote, the game's creative director, stated in a 2015 interview with GameSpot that "the idea of having two protagonists, which evolved into having twin protagonists, and a brother/sister relationship" was part of Syndicate's concept from the very beginning "two and a half years ago". Level design director Hugo Giard followed up by saying "Seriously, if we had changed our vision last year when the controversy broke, Evie would feel completely shoe-horned, you would be able to sense it. But because we planned it for so long, everything about her flows perfectly in the story with Jacob."
Prior to Syndicate's release, there was speculation among fans as to how major a role Evie would play in the storyline, with some people worrying that she would be fridged to provide motivation for Jacob. However, neither twin dies in the storyline.
As a girl who’s been a fan of the AC franchise for a few years now, having the ability to play as a badass female assassin in Evie Frye was amazing. I know a lot of people think Ubisoft only made a female protagonist to appease the SJW’s, but finally having some female representation in Evie was so satisfying and made playing the game that much better for me.
Whether she’s showing compassion for people in need, exerting a ruthless streak or excitedly planning her next move, Evie's never not engaging, amusing or just generally entertaining, and that feels significant because of how she’s represented. [...] Syndicate nurtures an environment where she can only be elevated by her surroundings, rather than negatively impacted by gratuitous oversexualization or objectification.
Female protagonists in triple-A games are a rarity as it is, so it's incredibly pleasing to see a game that not only has one, but gets her so, so right. It’s the simple things, too, like her practical attire (perfectly appropriate for a Victorian assassin, not to mention absolutely splendid), and her lethal, non-sexualized combat style. Or the fact that enemies will hurl insults at her that have nothing to do with her gender and everything to do with her status as an assassin and rival gang leader.
It was no surprise that I loved Evie. She’s competent, fun to play, her story is compelling, and she gets just as many humor beats as Jacob does. I’m very pleased that the fandom response to her has been almost universally positive. The franchise has needed some new blood for a while, and Evie felt like a big step in the right direction, not just for Assassin’s Creed, but for games in general.
Layla Hassan and Aya
Released in October 2017, Assassin's Creed: Origins had a man (Bayek) as the main protagonist, but parts of the main questline have the player characters of Aya (Bayek's wife, a Greek woman, whose memories are relived through the Animus) and Layla Hassan (an Egyptian-American woman, the modern-day protagonist).
In October 2018, Assassin's Creed: Odyssey was released. In this game, players are able to choose between a male protagonist, Alexios, and a female protagonist, Kassandra, to play the entirety of the ancient storyline with. Layla Hassan returns as the modern-day protagonist.
In an interview with GameSpot, Odyssey's game director Scott Phillips did not explicitly answer questions about the Unity controversy, but he did say:
Ultimately, giving more players the chance to feel that the protagonist is their character and that they are making their choices is key to what we set out to deliver with Odyssey--a game where promoting player choice was central to every decision we made. [...] From player dialog, to NPC lines, to player gear, to animations--the choice to pursue male and female protagonists certainly impacted many aspects of the game.
As an example, on Odyssey we built a huge new interactive dialog system, and this actually gave us the ability to build it from the get-go with that option for male or female protagonists. So in a way it was easier than it would’ve been to try and retrofit it into an existing system.
Another example was on the writing side where any line that used a specific protagonist name or mentioned a gendered pronoun had to be written and recorded twice and had to be selected at run time to match the choice the player had made. For example "Get him!" needed to have an alternate line recorded and technically set up to allow for the NPCs to say "Get her!" when the player was playing Kassandra. This certainly put additional work on the audio and writing teams but because of our experience on Syndicate we already had the technical knowledge and basis for how to accomplish this.Ultimately, everyone on the team was fully invested in this from the beginning and did everything they could to make it happen--which has given us the great results we have in Odyssey and allowed players to be more connected than ever to their protagonist.
Phillips also indicated that future AC games would continue to feature protagonist choices:
I think it would be a mistake to limit our players, limit our fanbase from as many people as possible. I don't know why we would go back. We should continue pushing in this direction, bring in more players, more fans to enjoy this experience and make it their own experience.
- Aveline (DLC) Trivia, Assassin's Creed Wikia
- How Video Games Are Slowly, Quietly Introducing LGBT Heroes, Jagger Gravning, The Atlantic, February 25 2014
- Ubisoft Addresses the Absence of Female Protagonists in ‘Assassin’s Creed Unity’, GameRant.com, Denny Connolly
- No female leads in Assassin's Creed Unity 'unfortunate but a reality of game development' - Ubi, Steven Burns, VideoGamer.com, 11 June 2014
- Ubisoft abandoned women assassins in co-op because of the additional work, Megan Farokhmanesh, June 10 2014
- "I understand the issue, but it's not relevant in Assassin's Creed Unity", Martin Robinson, Eurogamer
- Ubisoft Responds to Assassin's Creed Female Character Controversy, Evan Narcisse, Kotaku, June 11, 2014
- #womenaretoohardtoanimate That’s right, we’ll all remember this., June 12, 2014
- Are Women Too Hard To Animate? Female Combatants, video and transcript, Feminist Frequency, July 27, 2016
- The lack of playable female characters in Assassin's Creed Unity is more than just "unfortunate", Tim Clark, PC Gamer, June 11, 2014
- Tumblr post by patrick, June 16, 2014
- The Historical Case for Playable Women in Assassin's Creed: Unity, Robert Rath, The Escapist, June 19, 2014
- Women Are Not Too Hard To Animate, Jonathan Cooper, June 21 2014
- "The impossible to render woman - scholarly pigeon cosplay. #gx2", vine by Trin!, July 12, 2014
- "Cosplay at #GaymerX of women from Assassin's Creed that are too hard to animate." Tweeted by Feminist Frequency, July 13, 2014
- WE FOUND THE OTHER IMPOSSIBLE TO RENDER WOMAN (scholarly pigeon cosplay) #gx2
- In this Assassin’s Creed Cosplay, Everything is Permitted (Except Boobs), Emily Lemay, MaxLevel.org, July 15, 2014
- I want to play this game, Ubisoft., therealmcgee, July 5 2014
- Tumblr post, April 28th 2015
- Lady protags be all, deviantART, April 30, 2015
- Assassin's Creed Unity - Dead Kings & Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China - UbiBlog, Anne Lewis, Sept 22 2014
- New Assassin’s Creed Spinoff Stars Female Protagonist, But…, Megan Patterson, Paperdroids.com, Sept 29 2014
- Ubisoft Announces Assassin’s Creed DLC Starring a Woman From 16th Century China, Victoria McNally, The Mary Sue, Sept 22nd 2014
- Assassin's Creed Syndicate's Female Hero Not Response to Unity's Gender Controversy, Says Ubisoft, Tamoor Hussain, GameSpot, July 30, 2015
- Made by History: Assassin's Creed Syndicate, Tamoor Hussain, July 30, 2015
- If Ubisoft kills Evie Frye just to make Jacob Frye take the Assassin’s more seriously, I will pretty much stop giving Ubisoft my money., tumblr post, August 13, 2015
- Why Evie Frye Makes Me Love Assassin's Creed Again, Richard Wakeling, Paste Magazine, January 5, 2016
- Is Jacob Frye Gay or Bisexual?, Cora Walker, January 15, 2016, Remeshed.com
- How Odyssey is changing the face of Assassin's Creed, James Batchelor, GamesIndustry.biz, September 26 2018
- Why Assassin's Creed Odyssey Lets You Play As A Man Or A Woman, Eddie Makuch, GameSpot, October 16 2018