“It would have doubled the work.”
This was the excuse Ubisoft technical director James Theirien used at video game conference E3 when announcing that Assassin’s Creed Unity would not include a playable female character. Theirien went on to call the decision “unfortunate” but “a reality of game development.”
Apparently, including a female protagonist was too much work.
Assassin’s Creed Unity’s release date is set for October 28. It’s the newest installment in the popular, seven-year-strong Assassin’s Creed video game series and is set during the French Revolution.Unsurprisingly, Unity is a huge production, the product of ten different Ubisoft studios around the world. Surprisingly, ten studios aren’t enough to include a female playable character.
If that sounds ridiculous, the good news is that you’re not the only one who thinks so. Ubisoft curiously released a statement the day after Theirien’s statement detailing the diversity of both past assassin characters and the game development team. The statement also pointed to the presence of “strong female characters” in Unity that would presumably be NPCs or non-playable characters.
Aveline, the female character named in Ubisoft’s defensive statement was created as part of Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation, a spin-off of Assassin’s Creed III. Aveline remains the only playable character in the Assassin’s Creed franchise, and she wasn’t even part of a major campaign.
Meanwhile, on the Internet, people weighed in on social media. Edinburgh’s Jessica Smith created a change.org petition to show how many people supported diversity in Unity and gained 7,517 signatures — one of the several Internet responses to a tired excuse that, frankly, isn’t good enough.
Theirien’s excuse was later shot down by none other than Jonathan Cooper, a former Assassin’s Creed designer, who estimated that adding in a female playable character would take “a day or two’s work.”
It’s not good enough because game designers are missing the point. Representation isn’t a box to check off on a “to do” list of political correctness. Representation means rejecting the concept of a white, straight, male protagonist as the default and treating women and people of color as variations.
That’s clearly what happened in this situation. Costuming, designing and an extra “day or two” of work wouldn’t have been problems that came up in the first place if the Unity designers had, from day one, sat down and worked with the default models of both male and female protagonists. A gender switch could have been included in character creation along with the toggle that lets the player choose skin color. That’s not doubling the work — doubling the work would involve designing a whole other game. This is just incorporating slight edits into a playable character that is already supposed to include some level of player customization.
As far as costume problems, have you seen what the assassin looks like? The costume is fairly androgynous. A female character would require slight body changes and possibly a facial structure edit (I say possibly because even with a male playable character, no matter what skin color you choose, your character keeps the same Euro-centric facial structure — another side effect of a white, straight male default).
That aside, you’re an assassin. You rely on stealth and anonymity. What are they going to do — put you in a dress?
It’s no secret that women and people of color are underrepresented in video games and have been for years, but that doesn’t excuse Ubisoft. The Unity backlash is not just a question of including people who look a certain way. It’s an example of how messed up a situation can get (and yes, Ubisoft, how much harder a development team has to work) if non-White, non-male characters are treated as altered versions of a white male default instead of being included from the beginning of the game’s design.
Ubisoft needs to get it together. You’re hard-pressed to read an article about Unity without it mentioning the lack of a female assassin. People want variety in their video games — the amount of backlash Ubisoft has been getting makes that clear. With a little less than four months until its release date, Unity is already falling short.