Female Protagonists Offer New Experiences. Ubisoft Knows This.

Assassin's Creed: Liberation HD is the most interesting game in its franchise I've played. It's probably also one of the more interesting action/open-world/sandbox titles I've ever played, too.

Let's not confuse what I'm saying here - it's not a great game. It's only barely less buggy than Assassin's Creed III and is very clearly a (relatively) low-budget attempt to squeeze the enormous scope of an Assassin's Creed title onto its original platform (the Playstation Vita). It lacks many of the gloriously animated cut-scenes of other games in the series, and sometimes even resorts to a fade out and a block of text to pass whole years and finish up a plot thread. It is unlikely to be as emotionally engaging as The Last of Us, as tactically nuanced as Dark Souls II, or as provocative as Bioshock: Infinite.

So why bring it up?

Well, let's skip back to a few years ago. Grand Theft Auto V was announced, with three distinct protagonists. Much discussion was had when it was revealed that the three protagonists were all going to be men. In a series which brought us protagonists who were rich, poor, ex-cons, of various ethnicities, finally the opportunity to "safely" feature a female protagonist without risking their sales amongst the boof-head young-male audience had been passed by. The argument was a creative one, but it still got me thinking - just how different would life be in a massive, AAA-budget sandbox game if you were playing a woman?

What made this so interesting to me was that in most fantasy or role-playing games you tend to play an (often famous) hero, at least by the end. So, when you're playing Commander Shepard as a woman in Mass Effect, her gender has less of an impact on the way people treat her than the fact that they probably recognise her for better or for worse as a hero/anti-hero fighting against a terrible threat. In GTA and similar games, you are rarely recognised on the street, and the behaviour as you approach fellow citizens tends to be based on your appearance and behaviour.

In San Andreas, where you could put on weight and turn CJ into a (surprisingly athletic) obese man, you would occasionally get heckled by people you encountered on this basis.

As sandbox games get bigger and more complex, the energy required to change everything about the way you're treated by the people you meet in the world becomes tougher. In GTA V, loitering or misbehaving in certain parts of the city have different consequences depending on who you're playing. Franklin can freely walk around his neighbourhood, occasionally even getting a "Hey, Franklin," from some of the locals who know him. By contrast, scruffy white-trash Trevor might just find himself being heckled, assaulted or even flat out attacked on that very same street corner.

Many games have dealt with racism or prejudice, but they tend to be either built into storylines or done with throw-away comments in dialogue trees. What interests me about the idea of giving us much more variety in protagonists is how the feel of the world changes. Imagine walking down a street in GTA V as a woman and finding some idiots in a passing SUV screaming cat-calls or wolf-whistling at you before hooning off. Or, imagine it's late at night and the car and someone pulls their vehicle over and propositions you.

Of course, in GTA, Saints Row, Assassin's Creed and almost every sandbox game, you have unrealistic powers to both violently defend yourself in these sorts of circumstances, and to get away with the repercussions of such actions in a way that people much more rarely do in real life. You could track down the wolf-whistling bastard, rip him out of his car and beat him to within an inch of his life - or worse - in retribution. Then, one short "escape the cops" mini-game later and you're free.

I was pondering how different the worlds of 1400s Florence, 1980s Vice City or 21st-century Los Santos would feel from a different gender perspective, and became curious to try out Liberation.

The game could easily have just thrown in a female player model and largely left every other tried-and-true Assassin's Creed mechanic in place. And to a large extent, it has... but not where it matters.

In Liberation, your character has a French father and an African mother and, after losing (literally) her mother at a young age, has been raised by her step-mother and father as they run trading businesses out of New Orleans. I'm no scholar of this period, but I suspect that there still a large degree of glossing-over when it comes to the way she might have been treated as a result of her mixed ancestry. But her gender does not get glossed over.

And instead of just doing what I had been mulling over - that is, subtly changing the way in which the "world" treats you - Ubisoft accentuated it even further by making a gameplay mechanic out of it.

When you return home (or to one of your safe houses) you can change Aveline's appearance. She can dress up in one of her huge, expensive dresses complete with corset and bustle - an outfit so ungainly that she can't engage in any of the parkour stunts the series is famous for, nor can she carry her usual assortment of terrifying weapons.

On the street, she receives polite chivalrous nods from many people, can "seduce" guards to convince them to leave their post and can simply walk or bribe her way into areas which would be much tougher to get into otherwise.

It's not all roses. Imagine a rich-looking woman with a parasol taking her evening walk by the filthy New Orleans docks. And then imagine how a woman very clearly flush with money might get treated by three out-of-work ruffians who see her walking alone in an alleyway.

Aveline, of course, can still fight back - savagely beating a gaggle of criminals even in a full evening dress is not enormously difficult in Liberation, but it's not a sure thing and if you're going somewhere in a hurry, avoiding dark alleys and poorer areas in New Orleans simply becomes something you do without much conscious thought.

Your standard Assassin's outfit, meanwhile, gives you more-or-less the gameplay you expect, albeit with people being a little more suspicious than usual as you're visibly carrying weapons about your person. However, it's just that little bit harder to hide in a crowd when you're clanking like there's a whole armoury on your person and you aren't wearing even close to normal street clothes.

The final outfit is the slave persona. Being dark-skinned, Aveline can dress up with the downtrodden look of a slave, letting her sneak into plantations or other places by simply pretending to be one of the many poor people pressed into service. Being more mobile in this outfit than her enormous lady's dresses, she can also carry limited weaponry, and even do some basic climbing & parkour... although not as well as in the designed-for-speed assassin's outfit.

But there's a twist here, too. She appears to be a slave, and gets treated with the disrespect and distrust you'd expect her to when milling about amongst snooty white folks. This isn't just flavour, either - if you are seen being even vaguely suspicious, you are the first person to have the guards called on you.

The game has made a mechanic out of profiling and prejudice.

You could argue that this kind of thing belittles what it's like to be the victim of racism, sexism, class-discrimination or really any sort of prejudice, but the same could be said of almost anything turned into a mechanic in a video game. Taking someone's life in real life I can imagine would be an awful, painful, terrifying and life-changing affair. In a videogame, it's probably just a matter of hitting, say, B and then X at the right time.

The upshot of these "prejudice mechanics" being in the game is that you do find yourself thinking, if only just a little bit, about these issues as a routine matter of course. Certainly at least in a way that as a straight, white male (as I am) you might not confront very often.

So, my point here is that having a wider variety of protagonists isn't just a question of inclusiveness (which should be enough in itself) - but it can also start designers on the track to produce a variety of interesting game mechanics, too. In short? A wider variety of protagonists can, and, I think, will make our games more interesting to play. How could it not?

Oh yes - it's also worth noting that in Liberation, of the six most (plot-wise) important characters... four are women. This is a game which also happens to pass the bechdel test with flying colours.

Which makes it all the more depressing that Liberation, the one I feel is in many ways the most thoughtful and interesting of the lot... seemingly had to be done as the malnourished stepchild of the franchise, and not as one of its flagship titles.


Comments

    Which makes it all the more depressing that Liberation… seemingly had to be done as the malnourished stepchild of the franchise

    Indeed. But at least they made it - and even then with some weird choices. But, y'know, it's something, especially from a studio that's shown itself off to be sort of useless when it comes to interesting character and narrative choices.

    Last edited 23/06/14 1:12 pm

    Can you imagine the outrage if GTA had a female protagonist, you could make her fat, and then people derided her for being fat? There are things you can do to male characters than you cannot do to female.

      That's dumb, first of all, you haven't been able to make your character change weight since San Andreas, two, as Razor said, Saint's Row does it and no one gives a shit.

    I recently got around to playing Liberation on the Vita. The persona system was certainly one of the better additions to the standard AC formula.

    It certainly felt like there were parts missing though: perhaps an extra sequence between losing your mother as a child and the next where you are an adult being introduced to your stepmother and father. The "hunt down the citizen M to see the real end-of-sequence cut scene" mechanic was also a bit annoying. Sometimes I wouldn't find them for a while and have progressed through the story and have forgotten parts of the context of the cut scene.

      I always chased that mo-fo down because I knew it'd be important to the story

        I usually did too, but there was one or two that I missed the first time around. I didn't realise at first that there would be another one for each sequence I completed.

        That said, it is a bit weird that they decided to make the games cut scenes intentionally unsatisfying the first time around ...

    In AC4 there's some data logs you can find where Ubisoft (lets face it, it's Ubisoft) are talking about which protagonist would be better recieved by the public. Going through each AC game they find a fault with each character, but when they get the Aveline they don't really have much negative things to say about her. Although I think they mention that white people won't feel comfortable playing as a slave.

      I'm still holding out for that game where you play as a chinese girl with Ezio as your mentor. When's that Assassin's Creed coming, Ubisoft?

        Yeah, that would be awesome...not sure why they haven't gone down that route.

        Wasn't Ezio an asshole during that moment? Would be a nice change of pace to view a well known character from a different angle.

        I genuinely thought it was yet another game I'd missed because it was on Vita or DS or some platform that simply doesn't exist in my worldview. Hell, I didn't know shit about Liberation/Aveline apart from some vague rumblings on its launch, because... y'know. Vita.

    I think we know they know this but there's that very strong, very clear temptation to just consistently do what they know works and that's appealing to who they've always appealed. I'm a big supporter of the way rock star explores masculinity, so I'd love to see them begin to explore femininity. In think we should start being an little more aware, however. Despite a huge disparity in gender representation, we have quite a few games that take great lengths to explore and critique our major teen boy market that are dismissed and generalized by people who simply see them as a statistic and not an important part of an emerging discourse. We need to be asking for new games for people who lack representation but I think we also need to display that we can handle characters that are more representative of a diverse and aware culture.

    We're getting to the point where games are being completely dismissed based on gender, not scrutiny. That's totally not cool. I'd love to play as a female that isn't just there because people don't consider men capable of insight, I want a female protagonist who is more than a reaction to outrage. I want a female character who is written as person, not a vehicle for a story. With what we're asking, with the work we're dismissing just because it's a man, how are we going to show that we're even capable of understanding complex characters? If most people ignorantly dismiss GTA, I'm not sure that's encouraging developers to take games to new and provocative places. Which is not to say we ignore the gender debate, it's just that I've always been taught that the best way to react is through education and empathy. Don't ignore a voice just because of where it came from, that goes for everyone. If we want better, shouldn't we actually be better? Shouldn't we stop perceiving this as a fight and maybe see it as a conversation? As a means to the end we should all want? Can't we stop the accusations of sexism that never gets scrutinized and replace that with a demand that all voices are considered equally?

    Last edited 23/06/14 2:09 pm

      It also doesn't mean there isn't a place for games with the handsome and/or muscle-bound white male protagonists (I for one, enjoy many of the games where such characters are the protagonist) but that game makers shouldn't be afraid (or whatever) to complement these with some diversity. And the tomb raiders and mass effects and what not have shown that they can be very profitable.

      Yeah, I was pretty blown away by the number of assertions that GTA was shallow and didn't cover some pretty heavy and relevant mens' issues. There's some deep subject material in that game, when you're actually following the narrative and not doing C4-strapped trick-jumps wit school-buses.

      This is the right attitude to have, in my opinion. Remember when the debate over hypersexualisation came up with that Japanese artist and everyone was criticising him for creating sexualised images of women but ignoring the fact he did the same thing with men in his art as well? I remember commenting at the time that you don't fix over-representation by effectively bullying artists into creating different art more to your tastes, you fix over-representation by increasing the prevalence of under-represented works. ie. If sexualised depictions of women are over-represented, don't tell the artist they can't make sexualised depictions of women, but help increase the appearance of non-sexualised depictions of women. Adversarial stances solve nothing and just help entrench people on both sides of the discussion.

      One thing you said stood out for me though:

      I want a female character who is written as person, not a vehicle for a story.

      This is something I think we both want for all characters, male or female, but are there really that many cases of male characters being written that way even now? My mind is half-distracted by work but I had a hard time thinking of any characters in video games (regardless of gender) that were written as people and not vehicles for the story.

    Well I know I don't even consider an FPS unless it includes elements that represent the protagonists struggle with gender identity, their father's reaction to them coming out and their mother's continual casual racism to the POC around the neighbourhood. How can you even think about shooting nazis without covering these fundamentals? I mean, really, are game developers even trying? I'm not asking for much!

    For multiplayer sections I think customisation should be the norm.
    Players should be able to look and dress however they want... male, female, furry, non gender identifying brony... go right ahead. But, don't be surprised if you're hunted down by other players.

    For single player however I would argue that we shouldn't always have the option of playing as a female... just as they shouldn't always be male.
    Where it is changeable it is a bonus... my canon boss in Saints Row is female, and my main Shepherd is a bloke. I played Revan as a male, and The Exile as a woman. In Dragon Age my Grey Warden is a woman, and Hawke is a man. Having played each of these games with characters of both sexes I don't feel they'd be less for there not being that option.

    I've never been a space marine, or a hedgehog, or a war photographer, or a tomb raider, or a soldier, or even a race car driver. I've never been a wizard, or commanded an army of worms, or a god like being ruling over villagers or cities.
    I've watched films where the protagonists have been male and female, or even animals and not human at all.
    I've read books from the perspective of adventurers, mothers, priests, domestic abuse victims, spies, knights, kings, queens, widowers, and farmers... I've read these books despite being none of these things because humans are unique in that we can place ourselves in the mind of others.

    The protagonist is important only insofar as they exist to tell the story.

    I doubt I'm articulating myself very well, but I'm trying to say that we can see things from other peoples perspectives... so why does the gender of the protagonist actually make a difference to the players?

      I agree wholeheartedly, insofar as it shouldn't matter to a white male that they're playing a story about a non-white and/or non-male character, as long as the story is engaging and the game is fun or captivating.

      For me it's not that the 'norm' is bad, and as I've said I have no problem with these protagonists, but it's been done to death and this would be such a simple way to breathe a new air of creativity into games, and give gamers a new or different experience. And if you don't want that, then that's cool, there'll always be plenty of GTA or CoD or whatevers to keep you going.

    There is something very interesting if you play metroid, in zero mission it opens up another way to play as samus: stealth, because her zero suit is SPANDEX, as gajin goombah tells us in the response to zero suit hate opinion articles, you can basically go around areas convertly using her pistol to stealthly take down her adverseries while using her power suit to go 1 man army, with the addition of heels, it puts more power into her kicks, now combine both tactics that she can attack you with and then add what possiblities the fusion suit can have & what you end up with is something her bounty will & now I will end this comment paraphrasing a comment that was said about a crossover fanart of samus if she was in persona 'if she was in persona her tarot card would be death because she blows up planets'

    I always thought the outcry about unity not having female playable characters was a bit over the top.
    It's still a singleplayer game and its still about a male main character. Character customisation shouldn't automatically mean character creation, and just slapping on a female model wouldn't do anyone any justice. This, I think, is a good example why.

    I remember playing the more or less average Freedom Cry DLC for Assassin's Creed Black Flag where you play as Adiwale, a guy of African heritage. Because of the colour of your skin, you're often targeted by guards and mistaken for an escaped slave and attacked.

    I started to get annoyed by it, finding myself thinking "dammit, I can't go down that street or I'm going to get targeted" or when I'd see the indicators that guards were suspicious "BULLSHIT! Just cause I'm black, doesn't mean I'm a slave!"

    It was actually quite frustrating and it wasn't until I stopped playing that I realised it was the first time a video game had made me experience a glimpse what it's like to be the victim of racial discrimination.

    Sure, it was only minor, but it's one of the beautiful things that is unique to our interactive hobby.

    So, my point here is that having a wider variety of protagonists isn’t just a question of inclusiveness (which should be enough in itself) – but it can also start designers on the track to produce a variety of interesting game mechanics, too. In short? A wider variety of protagonists can, and, I think, will make our games more interesting to play. How could it not?

    And Ubisoft have been diverse. That is how you had this realisation in the first place. The truth is, decisions like this have always been business driven. Spend more time and resources making a whole other set of something, or spend it instead focusing on something new or innovative that has no bearing on gender politics?

    Male or female protagonist, I'd rather they spend that little extra on something new. Because New>Interesting.

    If Ubi are losing female fans for the series, they must not be losing many. And speaking of which, how did they gain female fans in the first place? Oh that's right, because those women don't care enough about it. They just want to play a good game.

      I just have to say, as a female Ubisoft fan, that I didn't become a fan because I "don't care" about these issues; it was in spite of them. Female fans enjoy Assassins Creed for the same reasons that anyone enjoys them, but with the added frustration that game after game we play someone that doesn't represent us. I have started to become seriously disenchanted with the company, and I don't think I'll be buying future games unless there's some serious innovation. (And this shouldn't even be "innovative", we're half the fucking population)

      I know a lot of men also really aren't interested in playing as a woman and want to play as what closest represents them. But even so, these same guys should therefore understand how disinterested I am in playing as someone I really can't connect with, especially having done it several dozen times in the past.

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