On the evening of July 13, 1793, a woman named Charlotte Corday entered the house of French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat. A leading figure in the Reign of Terror, a period of time in which Marat and his political allies called for the beheading of roughly everyone who spoke French, Marat had become a shut-in, forced into his home by a debilitating skin condition. Corday came to Marat claiming to bear the names of members of the Girondist faction, Marat’s bitter political rivals (and frequent victims of the aforementioned beheadings). Corday met with Marat while in the bathtub– it apparently helped with his skin condition– and, after giving him the names, she promptly stabbed him in the chest with a kitchen knife. Historians agree: It was pretty badass. Corday was executed four days later, and has since gone down in history as one of the most famous assassins of all time.
I bring this up because the next Assassin’s Creed game, Assassin’s Creed: Unity, will take place during the French Revolution, and one thing you won’t be able to do? Play as a woman. Let me elaborate: AC: Unity, the first game in the Assassin’s Creed series to be featured exclusively on the most recent generation of consoles (so no PS3 or Xbox 360 versions), has a prominent co-op mode, allowing up to four players to participate in missions together online. On your screen, says Ubisoft, you will always appear as the main character, a dude named Arno, but on the screens of the other plays, you will appear as other assassins, none of which are women. This feature was apparently planned, but cut later on due to “the realities of production.”
This decision is disappointing and confusing for a number of reasons. For starters, the Assassin’s Creed series has typically had a pretty decent track record when it comes to representation and diversity. Women and people of color have always been prominent in the series, from the first game that cast you as Altair, an assassin of Middle Eastern descent, to the recent Assasin’s Creed: Liberation, which casts you as Aveline de Grandpré, an African-French woman in 18th-century New Orleans. Additionally, multiplayer is a space in gaming where these options are typically expected. In multiplayer, the rules governing the narrative of the single player mode don’t apply as strictly, and customization options, such as what avatar to use, have been standard since the early days of gaming. Even games that star men in the single player campaign often include women in these modes. So why was this content cut?
Without an insight into the internal processes of Ubisoft, a massive multi-national publisher, it’s hard to say with any certainty. The developers cite time as an issue, that it simply wasn’t possible to put in the man hours to make it happen. And from an internal perspective, I don’t doubt that that was the case– crunch time came along and certain features had to be scrapped to meet deadlines. Ubisoft, after all, is fairly intent on putting out a new Assassin’s Creed game every year, and anyone who tried to play Watch_Dogs on PC will tell you that they aren’t above putting out unfinished products to meet their deadlines. Ubisoft has become in recent years a blockbuster machine, putting out major franchise releases on a regular schedule. In an environment like that, with that sort of pressure, good ideas are going to get lost.
I spoke with Brian J. Audette*, a senior designer at Bioware Austin (played Star Wars: The Old Republic? He’s one of the folks you have to thank for that.) in an effort to gain a developer’s perspective on the issue. “In my experience elsewhere, it’s rarely a cut and dry decision made by a single person,” he said in regards to the decisions to cut content. “And the minutiae of development is almost never dictated by executive pressure beyond ‘get it done when you said you would and for how much you said it would cost.’…Good developers are constantly managing scope, determining priorities, and assessing return on investment for time spent developing a feature, and no successful project goes to the public without having gone through numerous cuts and/or revisions. It’s how those processes are managed that separates the wheat from the chaff, however.”
The choice not to include female multiplayer avatars, then, seems to be one of priorities. Someone or someones somewhere along the line decided that this feature wasn’t worth the cost (although what exactly that cost would have been has been up for debate), that the return of investment wasn’t very high, and so it got lost in the shuffle and eventually cut. Internally, this may have seemed like a reasonable choice, but the message it sends is beyond troubling. There’s a common mythology that video games are for boys, a mythology that poisons how people both inside and outside gaming culture view the medium. This mythology, however, is nonsense. According to the Entertainment Software Association, 47% of video game players are women and women aged 18 or older make up more of the gaming population than boys 17 or younger. This is an audience that’s being neglected and pushed into the shadows, an audience that many in the industry often pretend just doesn’t exist.
Video games are an immersive medium, one that banks on the ability of players to pretend to be other people. But when developers and publishers fail to prioritize issues of gender representation, they not only weaken the ability of people outside the over-represented snarky white male anti-hero demographic (which, to be honest, probably includes, all told, around five actual people) to identify with what’s happening in these games, but they suggest, even if only implicitly, that women are secondary, foreign, with stories not as important to tell and with roles not worth living inside of. Tell that to Charlotte Corday.
“Certainly in games like Uncharted or Tomb Raider, where one is guiding the exploits of a specific person, it makes sense that that person will have a specific gender, personality, and look. Once you start giving players a choice about the character they’re playing as in games like Mass Effect or Dragon Age, a broader array of options is practically a requirement and certainly expected,” Brian concluded when we spoke.
“When an issue like this blows up it’s not just everyday internet vitriol…I think Ubisoft would be well served by revisiting the decision to cut female avatars and if they don’t have them at launch, at least include them in a free post launch update to the co-op game. There’s always a cost to creating content, but I think many game developers need to wake up to the idea that gender customization is less a periphery feature and more a core element of the game and worth the investment both from a social perspective and as a way to grow an audience.”
*The views expressed by Brian J. Audette are his own and are not at all affiliated with, representative of, endorsed or supported by BioWare, EA, its shareholders, partners, or subsidiaries.
Jake Muncy is a freelance writer, editor, and poet living in Austin, TX. In addition to writing for Loser City, his writing appears on Ovrld and anywhere else he can convince people to post it. You can contact him by email or twitter, where he tweets regularly about video games, the Mountain Goats, and sandwiches. He has very strong feelings about Kanye West.