Foot in the Door or Step in the Right Direction? AC:S & Its Variety of Characters

  • Class: ENGL 797 — Feminist & Gender Critique in Critical Video Game Theory
  • Assignment: Weekly reading/game play responses, 1-2 pg length requirement, 1 scholarly source included
  • Week 12

EvieFrye(This might be a terrible way to open an argumentative post BUT) I have no foundation for this rumor, but I’ve heard from friends and gaming sites that most of the Assassin’s Creed fanbase is comprised of female gamers.  If this were statistically true, it would not shock me. Despite its lack of strong female characters (let alone playable ones) and use of women as tools (literally, in previous games you can use women, specifically prostitutes, as cover), the AC games are very accessible to both genders. What I mean by this is that, for the most part, none of the games are so heavily sexist or laden with preference for masculinity that a female gamer could not find enjoyment in it.  The games are fun, a mix of stealth and melee fighting. There’s mystery, thrill, and a foundation in history that would please any player, from nerd to thrill seeker.

But this post is about Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, and this game, depending on if I’m feeling optimistic or pessimistic, is either taking a step in the right direction for women in AAA games or just barely getting a foot in the door.  I’ll lay out the cons first, because I want to end on a positive note.

Cons

One of the biggest complaints about this game, and most of the AC games, is that it’s incredibly white-washed. Aside from Henry Green (who, admittedly, is an awesome character, although very minimally used throughout the game), there are no significant characters of color. You might catch a glimpse of a black dock worker once or twice, but AC remains incredibly limited on variety in race.  For a game that takes place during the Industrial Revolution, the mix of people in urban areas should be obvious, even in London, England. On that account, UbiSoft really dropped the ball and missed a great opportunity for inclusion.  The AC games are improving with character variety in every game, BUT…the strangest part of this game not having significant characters of color is that–as a game franchise–they have included many Other-ed types of characters, creating a sense of normalcy in variety within the games (even if, in reality, women and non-white characters were hardly seen or given power in public).  Yet, they still have not included characters of color. In AC:S alone, one of the protagonists is a woman, one of their main informants is a trans-man, and other contacts include children, immigrants, and working women, all shown in a positive light.  But, aside from dear Mr. Green, they are all white.

The second issue with the game, which might be intimately tied into the issue of color, is the role of the twins.  In Feminist Frequency’s review of the game, voiced by Anita Sarkeesian, she critiques the role that the twins play when stepping into London’s tyrannical infrastructure: “The game presents them as liberators, freeing London from oppression, bu they’re really just conquerors replacing one crime syndicate’s rule with another’s” (Feminist Frequency).  In the game’s story, in order to weaken Crawford Starrick’s (the villain) monopoly of London’s underworld, the twins earn the allegiance of another thug group, the Blighters, in order to combat him.  Most of the Blighter’s are just angry factory workers, people who have been oppressed and broken down by Starrick’s tyrannical rule of the factories and peoples’ lives.  The twins come barreling into London, win a few fights and free a few children from factories, and they’re given the keys to the kingdom.  While there is and should be a sense of accomplishment in saving enslaved children and challenging the cruel Starrick, the twins don’t actually change the system that is hurting London’s people.  The reason I said that this issue might be tied to the lack of colored characters is that, had the protagonists or significant NPCs been of another race, the act of conquering already oppressed people–like themselves–might have had a bigger role or significance in the narrative of the game. This issue also comes up in Bioshock Infinite; while you play to conquer the evil Comstock, the game is blissfully unaware and rather uncaring towards the struggles of its oppressed people.  While not every historical game needs to be a cry against social injustice, the fact that you are placed in such a turbulent time with so much power and put in direct contact with the oppressed of London, and yet you still use it for your own, selfish (dare I say it, Imperialist) needs should be telling of the game industry’s ease of ignoring and forgetting the past.

One last issue to discuss, and then I promise to be kinder to this game (which I rather enjoy, despite my critiques): Evie. She is wonderful and I couldn’t be happier with how she is portrayed.  But…despite the significance of this game having two protagonists–one male and one female (and they’re not in a relationship! Even better!)–in both public advertisement for the game and within the game itself, Evie is often slighted in gameplay.  While, at first, the game switches between Jacob and Evie rather consistently, eventually, Jacob’s story overtakes hers. His missions and storyline become the game’s focus, and even becomes more and more like a side-kick. In the gaming advertisements as well, unless you did research into the game, Jacob would have appeared to be the only protagonist (check most of the game trailers pre-release). Even on the game’s front cover, Jacob is front and center, while Evie is off to the side.  As I was searching for articles on the game, I came across one that–at first–angered me by the title, but as I read it, I found the complaint to be quite sound.  In Edward Smith’s article called “Assassin’s Creed Syndicate: Is Ubisoft exploiting feminism for easy PR?,” Smith questions big-name game’s approach to including women in games. True, it is wonderful that woman–well-developed, non-sex object women–are included in games (finally), but how the game designer’s advertise them still frames the industry as a male space occasionally populated by that random, weird gamer girl. Smith frames his concern, saying that:

This isn’t what the process of creating gender equality in games looks like. More helpful – more powerful – would be to simply HAVE female characters in games, for them to simply BE THERE, not for developers to point out and proclaim it like it’s some noteworthy oddity. Admittedly, it is noteworthy. As I’ve said, videogames traditionally have treated women abysmally. But I don’t think it’s instructive or helpful to draw direct attention to women being in games. It still feels like the process of “othering” women, only now approached from a different angle – othering, but via the back door…As long as the existence of female playable characters, or just female characters that aren’t heinous caricatures, is drawn attention to, women in games will feel like an alien presence. (Smith ibtimes.co.uk)

Touché, Mr. Smith. Admittedly, I do get an odd, uncomfortable feeling when game designers announce a new game, saying something like “hey look, we finally have a not-entirely sexualized woman! There’s actually a woman in this game! Her breasts aren’t triple-D and she’s not wearing just a thong! Check out the woman!”  Yes, it is good that game companies are recognizing where they’ve been lacking. But they are stuck there. Women shouldn’t be, as Smith says, an “alien presence” in games (ibtimes.co.uk). There’s no need to add insult to injury or to try to reinforce a woefully false statistic that few women play games. We don’t need to be catered to, just respected and given just as much chance to flex our autonomy as all the male gamers.

Weird, right? Who would have thought.

Pros

As I promised, I will now list AC: S’s feminist and general gameplay successes, and there are quite a few.

First and most obvious, the series now has its first, main game female protagonist and playable character: Evie-badass-Frye.  Starting with the physical, Evie is dressed like all of the classic assassins that have come before her: fully-clothed and with exquisite detail.  Her costume is intricate and the excellent graphics emphasize all of the lovely pieces, from the carvings in her leather jacket to her red sash/cloak to her eagle-head cane.  She wears boots (not heels!!!), has an assortment of weapons smuggled in her cloak, and her outfit is snug but not over-emphasizing breasts or butt.  She is feminine to a degree, with minimal make-up and an elaborate up-do, but that is never used against her (the men in the game don’t go out of their way to point out how pretty she is, as if it’s for them that her good looks exist). Her walk too is not the model, swaying catwalk most female characters display; she just walks, light and direct, which contrasts well with her brother who is a bit more trudging and forceful in his movements (and character).

Her fighting style–and I have to fangirl for a moment–is wonderful! She commands speed and strength, and her technique is definable and easily different than her brother’s (who fights a bit more like a boxer).  Her fighting noises and grunts are natural and not, as Sarkeesian says, made to sound like a woman “in the throws of ecstasy” (like in many fighting games) (Feminist Frequency).  The controller-vibration feedback, the fighting noises, and the consequent gore were all rather natural and not over-saturated or horror-film-level.  In other words, I was fighting as a skilled woman, and her movements were neither hyper-masculine nor entirely genderless. It was awesome, and I hope future AC games include more female fighters like her.

Sidenote: This does bring up another potential critique though. While Evie represents an intentionally-designed female character who actually fights to, well, fight and not to visually please male players, her fighting style is–to me–feminine. There is less overt power behind her strikes than Jacob, who is all fists and throwing his entire weight behind an attack.  Evie has direct, intentional strikes that are not about bodily power but about thought–she has specific, well-thought points of strike, usually using her boots or cane.  This is not necessarily bad. I think she fights more like an assassin than her brother, who would fit more in a boxing ring.  Also, this brings up an interesting question (of which I cannot entirely answer because I don’t have the background in human anatomy): do men and women inherently, by nature, move and consequently fight differently or have our bodies and their images of movement been so captured by social standards that we’re trained to physically move based on gender?  The classic nature vs. nurture argument rears its head.  I think the answer might have an anchor in both camps, but, again, I have no background in this area to prove it.  If the answer predominantly resides in nature, then Evie is presented to the best of the designers’ abilities; she is given physical power and is not stereotypically dainty.  If the answer is primarily nurture, then, sadly, even a woman’s abilities and autonomous bodily actions have been dominated by patriarchal standards for what is “properly” feminine.  No matter the answer though, in future games–both in the Assassin’s Creed series and beyond–I hope that female fighters will be given a variety of fighting styles, both of noticeably feminine and masculine origins, so that female fighting styles are not stereotyped in new ways.

But Evie is more than just her appearance. Between her and her brother, her character, her speech, and her interactions are by far more interesting and diverse.  While her brother (although fun and quirky) is a bit of a one-trick pony–brash and hot-headed–Evie is witty, confident, logical, a big-picture thinker, and conscious of both her own feelings and those around her. To quote Sarkeesian again, Evie “doesn’t feel like a male character who was a last minute gender swap, but like she was developed from the ground up with a strong, capable, and spirited personality” (Feminist Frequency).  While I do love Evie and Jacob’s interactions and a male-female, non-romantic duo, I do wonder why UbiSoft felt the need to not only pair Evie–an incredible character in her own right–with a less-developed Jacob but also to not just give her the reigns to her own game.  If Jacob’s personality had been stronger, perhaps their dynamic would be more appreciated, but Evie is clearly the better-developed character (and more interesting person). While it is refreshing and great to have a strong woman in a game series like AC, I feel that it is also a bit of a backhand to male players for the male protagonist to be so dang stereotypical.

In any case, UbiSoft truly did a wonderful job with Evie Frye and, in general, with their new game. The fighting style is as smooth as ever, and the graphics–especially the nearly-flawless jump between cut-scenes and exploring–are stunning.  However, the more that the AC series places characters in the thick of history and equally ignores a greater variety of people, the more disappointment their fanbase will display, I believe. History, as the popular saying goes, is written by the conquerors, but does that mean that this game series–hopefully aware of all of the failings of past empires–has to make the same mistakes and erase the multitudes that were denied voice? I don’t think so, and hopefully UbiSoft will continue to expand its cast and narrative to include not only more kinds of characters but also players’ sense of belonging too.

Works Cited:

 

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