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.