Let's All Take A Breath Before Going After Ubisoft's Injustice Towards Women

There were many stories coming out of E3 2014 this past week. Most were about new games and how great they all looked (before 90% of them inevitably disappoint us). And as usual, it wasn't all positive, because this wouldn't be the gaming industry if we didn't have something to complain about at any given point in time. But nothing out of E3 was more irritating than the purported scandal surrounding Ubisoft, and the lack of any female characters to appear in their impressive co-op demo for Assassin's Creed: Unity.

This isn't really news, Unity isn't the first game that doesn't feature playable women, and it certainly won't be the last. In fact, I don't know why it should even be that big of a deal. If Ubisoft didn't feel the need to make any of those extra co-op characters females, that's their business, just as much as it is the gamer's to decide whether or not to play the game when it eventually comes out on PS4, Xbox One and PC, for whatever reason they choose.

And honestly, it probably wouldn't have wound up being a story if, when asked, Ubisoft simply responded with their usual cookie-cutter answer about how they're a diverse company with a long list of diverse characters, adding maybe that they were hoping to show off female characters in the game, playable or not, in the future. But clearly, this wasn't an issue Ubisoft was anticipating having to address this week, and the message that followed from various people within the company wound up being scattered and confusing, and to some, infuriating. It started with the unfortunate comment from Assassin's Creed: Unity's creative director, Alex Amancio, uttered to Polygon in an interview.

When asked about the lack of playable representation, Amancio responded with an unusual comment about "the reality of production".

Quote:

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."

That in itself is pretty much a legitimate reason when you think about it rationally and not under a haze of righteous indignation. Ubisoft is a company that runs on deadlines, for better or worse that means that Assassin's Creed games have to come out every year. This year in particular, it has to be a daunting task for the teams in Montreal, it being the first true "next gen" experience that the company is expected to offer, cutting the PS3 and Xbox 360 from the release plan, meaning these games have to look and feel a dozen times better than what they did a year ago, and that means extra pressure on the animation teams, especially when crafting different playable assassins and the ridiculous amount of AI that we saw in the trailers.

But it's what he said next that probably got Amancio in trouble, one little word that changed everything. Amancio added that something about everything coming back to Arno, the game's main character, and how that meant that since they couldn't "cut" him, they had to "cut" the female avatar. Level designer Bruno St-Andre even said in a different interview that work on a female character had even started, but that they had to stop. To make matters worse, Alex Hutchinson basically said the same thing about Far Cry 4. Worsening matters was a former Ubisoft animator claiming, essentially, that Ubisoft lied about the amount of work that would have gone behind creating a female character. At this point the snowball effect had taken over.

As you can imagine, all of that lit a fire under the internet, creating hashtags and plenty of blog posts about Ubisoft is apparently diminishing the rights of women by making a business decision to "cut" female characters out of games. And I can understand why some people might be upset, women are in fact under-represented in video games and the industry in general. But is it really justified to get angry at Ubisoft about it? What this really amounts to is just a poorly-worded explanation in the middle of the hoopla that is E3, probably on the tail end of a few weeks of sleepless nights where these guys had to put finishing touches on demos.

Maybe it's not a question of different number of animations or the amount of time it would take an animation team to complete the work, but more than that, like hiring and working with an all new set of voice actors, creating different situations and dialog for those characters, and more. Maybe it's not a big deal at all, maybe Ubisoft had a completely different reason for not putting playable women in the game. And maybe in any other year, adding them wouldn't have been that big of a deal. Hutchinson himself basically said as much. The fact of the matter is that this is the year Ubisoft is going head first into the new generation of consoles. This is where game companies justify all the insanity of the last year and a half and give the skeptics a proper reason to switch over to a new console. If the animations, the graphics, all of it aren't top notch and considerably better than what we've seen in the past, then Ubisoft isn't doing their job properly, and sometimes that means making cuts.

But it all boiled down to the way it was worded publicly by Ubisoft, and the anger that followed, leading to many, many, many different takes about how this is a grand injustice that should turn all women away from gaming.

I say what's the big deal? If this is about having a voice in gaming, why would someone need to do it through a female avatar? Maybe I'm in no place to make this judgment as a white male, but I never have any issues with the gender of the avatar in my games, nor the color of their skin. Having a character that's white, black, female or male shouldn't make it any easier or harder to relate to that character, it should be the story and the gameplay that does all of that for you. No one should have to need a character to be one gender or another to achieve this. Games can do such amazing things these days. They're cinematic, they're beautiful, they're grandiose and they tell great stories. Maybe that means animating females shouldn't be a big deal, but it also shouldn't mean that we have to chastise Ubisoft or any other developer for making such a decision. Let the games tell the stories they want to tell.

And really, Ubisoft should probably be the last gaming company in the world the social justice warriors should be going after. Maybe they tout their "diverse team" a little too much, but if you see any of their promo videos or see them at any event or convention, you know it to be true. And they do have a history or having strong female and minority characters, playable or not, throughout their games. The Assassin's Creed franchise specifically has had both a female playable character in Aveline as well as a black character. Not in the main games, though, and maybe it's about time that changed, but does it warrant giving the company the shaft? Certainly, not, and especially not in a day and age where there are worse injustices to get upset about in the gaming industry.

E3 is a time to get excited about games, again, before they inevitably disappoint us. It's a time for game companies to make grandiose promises about where the industry is headed and about all their fancy new toys. To see it sullied by this sort of manufactured issue, simply because of a PR flub, isn't really fair to a company that has done a lot of questionable things in its history, but never really anything to justifiably draw this kind of ire.

There are plenty of things to get upset about when it comes to gaming, but in all honesty, is the lack of playable female characters in an Assassin's Creed game really where that anger should be focused?

Comments 2
Tylerr Rietze's picture

The problem is that he shouldn't have said anything. Many of the women who have spoken on this have said that they don't need an entirely new set of animations, and in pretty much all games would be happy with a female character that does everything the same as a man, just as a woman. They basically have also all said that growing up, they wish they had been able to play as strong female characters that are as good as males, if not better, without having to be a mage, or thief. Males jumped onto this media so fast, and it's very easy to assume that they might not have as well if there were only a few non-sexualized male characters. I know many of us would be writing "Why aren't there more guys in games?" If the opposite were true. We'd probably be louder.

As a male, I can't understand what they're going through as much either, but I do know that as an aboriginal person, I didn't have any sort of videogame hero to play as until Connor in AC3, and even then, he was pretty white-washed. But it still helped me connect very strongly, and it still a game I go back to even though I didn't like it as much as I did during Ezio's time. I think women would be able to connect much better if the females in games weren't almost always curvy, sultry, sexy women who have to have tons of cleavage and a camera close-up on the butt every few scenes.

There are many games where if you put the female lead's animations on the male lead's character, it would look completely ridiculous, and I think these animations are usually ridiculous to begin with on the female character. Sure the voices would have needed to be recorded, but little else after that. Aveline's animations were roughly 90% Connor's animations. As for story, play the other AC games, and tell me how hard it would have been to change the narrative to make it fit a female character.

George Prax's picture

Oh please, everyone crapped all over Liberations for being a cheap port of AC3 for Vita and now we're using it as an example? The same people who use Aveline to their advantage would be crapping all over the game if it was a female character who moved and looked almost entirely like the male counterpart. You know that for a main game in the series they would have to put a lot more effort into that character. And the big thing is that it's all work that has to be done ON TOP of creating the male avatar AND while doing everything basically from scratch in order to meet expectations as the first true "next gen" experience. It's a bunch of pressure to put out a good game period, yet alone one on a new set of consoles with so much riding on it.

Sure, Bioware is doing it, but BIoware doesn't come out with 3 triple A games a year. I have no problem believing them when they say they'll be more proactive about that in the future but this just wasn't the time. It's not a women's rights issue, it really is a matter of production. Should they have kept their mouths shut? Maybe, but like I said, I'm sure this wasn't the most stress-free week for those guys to begin with, now heap on top of that everyone hounding them and calling them misogynists and hounding them at their booth.

ESPECIALLY since it's Ubisoft of all devs, the one that actually does put playable women and aboriginals and black people into their games.