Ubisoft made a big revelation at E3 and it had nothing to do with gameplay: it once planned to have playable female characters in Assassin's Creed Unity, but dropped them due to various reasons. Initially it claimed that it was due to production restraints or problems with resources and then it said it just made more narrative sense to have a male only cast in cooperative gameplay.
This has caused a LOT of commentary, from journalists, developers and the public, with a whole spectrum of opinions ranging from claiming that this is entirely sexist and contributes to rape culture (and a lot of other online lynch mob buzz words) to those saying that anyone remotely bothered by this is a white knight idiot, who's also the leader of the political correctness brigade.
As in most cases of differing opinions, neither extremist camp, especially those that resort to name calling, has the right of it. There's certainly cause for concern with Ubisoft's actions, but it's no way near as far as people claim and in-fact, Ubisoft is one of the better studios out there when it comes to representation in its games.
So now that the dust has settled a little and tempers have calmed, let's have a look at the different aspects of this story and break down what the real problem is and what we can do going forward to address it.
The fact that Ubisoft made a game without female cooperative characters, is not sexist
It's not sexist to make a game without women in it. The same as it's not sexist to paint a picture with only men in it, or sing a song aimed at men: when it comes to art, you can do whatever you want, it's your artistic vision. If you believe your target audience want to play as men and you want to make a story about men, you should be allowed to do that without shoehorning in a woman because you might get in trouble otherwise.
If anything, if women start getting included in games more often (and they will after this scandal), then it should be for legitimate reasons, not just to please an angry journos.
I'll get into the semantics of this argument in a minute, but if you're going to call someone sexist, you need to have much more of an argument than “your game doesn't have women in it.” There needs to be some intention behind it for it to be truly sexist.
Ubisoft is actually one of the more progressive developers when it comes to inclusion
The big reason many people want games that feature more diverse protagonists is two fold; 1: it's far more interesting to play games from different perspectives, that's why we're playing them after all; and 2: people like to play games that they can feel represented by. I'm lucky in that I'm a shaved headed, young white male, so I fit in everywhere in games, but sometimes I'm sure many women would like to play a game with a female character, or a black person a black character. If the option isn't there, then making games with more diverse protagonists might not be a bad idea.
Funnily enough though, Ubisoft actually has done a lot of that in the past. It even combined the two and made a black female for its Assassin's Creed: Liberation game. That may have been a portable title, but it's also had strong female characters in other AC games, like the Mary Reed and Anne Bonny.
It's also just released Child of Light, with a young female as a lead character. South Park: Stick of Truth lets you customise yourself to your heart's content. Yes I'm going to have to go back a bit further to find someone else that wasn't white in a Ubisoft game (I'm not counting the Smurf's games), but the point is, compared to a lot of other developers/publishers, Ubisoft is pretty inclusive.
Dropping female cooperative characters makes very little difference to the game
The playable female character(s) in Assassin's Creed Unity, were throwaways, which is part of the reason they were dropped so quickly. All they were going to be, was mostly voiceless avatars for you to see other people playing as during the game. You as the main character, would still be Arno, which means every other multiplayer person you're gaming with will see themselves as Arno too. Literally the only time women were ever planned to appear as playable characters, were as skins of the other players, so you weren't all running around as clones.
The female assassin was initially designed to stop players losing immersion due to everyone looking the same. From gameplay footage it seems like Ubisoft dropped that entire idea, as every hooded assassin looks almost identical now. Which is a shame, as mixing it up would have looked nice.
But that's all. Taking them out made zero difference to gameplay, to story, to character progression. Including women in that sort of throwaway role for the sake of appeasement, should be almost as insulting as not being included at all.
Bad PR caused the worst of it
Ubisoft's poorly executed PR move here was what caused most of the problems surrounding this scandal. If it hadn't talked about the female characters in such a lackadaisical manner, it may not have even remotely been an issue. If it hadn't lied and said it would take months of work to implement a female character, it may not have been so bad. If it had never mentioned female characters in the game at all, it would have been fine.
Instead, it had to backtrack and backtrack and it looked worse and worse.
So what's the big problem?
If Ubisoft is actually quite a good company for this sort of thing (not with pre-order milking, but that's another story) and the female characters were never supposed to be a big part of the game and if art is as untouchable and personal as it is a representation of the industry it inhabits, then surely we should all just shut up and go home?
Well not so fast.
There's a problematic chicken and egg scenario going on in the gaming industry at the moment and it goes like this:
Game publishers look at the top selling games of the year and see 30-something, white males in every lead, so they make sure their top games with the biggest budgets (which cannot fail or the company is likely to go under) have 30-something, white male leads. So gamers buy those games, because they're the biggest and baddest and lo and behold, the cycle repeats itself.
As more women move into power positions in the industry, we may see that start to change, but someone has to break the cycle and say it, so here goes:
I don't mind playing games as a woman.
I'm not going to demand anyone makes a game about a character they don't want to make. That's not for me to decide, that's for the “artist” behind it all (and no doubt the person with the money behind them) but I will say it loud and clear, I don't need to see a slightly older version of me running around to connect with that character.
Hell, I felt more for the character when I was playing as the silent Chell in Portal II than I have in most games. The same with Lee in The Walking Dead, or Faith in Mirror's Edge. And I didn't even look like them, weird right?
So no, nobody should be fired over this; no, nobody should sign a petition demanding they change the game; and no, Ubisoft shouldn't be singled out as it's far from the worst developer out there.
But we should make it clear that we don't mind playing as a different character once in a while. Seriously developers and the people paying them and pulling the strings, I and many gamers like me, really enjoy playing as different characters.
I even like playing characters that weren't designed with me in mind. Just because it's a female protagonist, I don't need her to be what the industry thinks is hot. I don't need the black guy to be jive talking like a Transformers robot. Just make them people. I like stories and games about people and so does everyone if they told the truth.
And as for those that think that this is some white knight post and indicative of political correctness taking over, remember they would probably love these games too, they just haven't had the chance to play them yet.
Author: Jon Martindale