Hey, Ubisoft: Where are the women in Assassin's Creed Unity?

Plans to include a playable female character were shelved during development. What a missed opportunity.

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There's a games franchise called Assassin's Creed. You've almost certainly heard of it: it's one of the biggest franchises in the world. This week at Microsoft's annual video game conference E3, Ubisoft (the makers) released the first trailer for the feverishly-anticipated fifth instalment, Unity. It looked good: new and exciting, with new modes and new ideas.

But one thing jarred: there is not a single playable woman in Assassin's Creed Unity. This is depsite the fact that it was strongly hinted, and hoped among the gaming community, that there would be. In fact, Ubisoft say that they had planned to include a female protagonist, but the idea was shelved during development.

Instead, Ubisoft has delivered four male heroes, and an awful lot of nifty costume changes - cloaks, mainly. "It [a woman] was on our feature list until not too long ago, but it's a question of focus," Ubisoft director James Therien explained. "So we wanted to make sure we had the best experience for the character. A female character means that you have to redo a lot of animation, a lot of costumes."

His fellow director, Alex Amancio, agreed “We have customisable assassins.  It’s not like we could cut Arno...our main character...so the only logical option, the only option we had, was to cut the female avatar.”

This isn't a joke, although it is sort of laughable. Ubisoft, onetime king of the gaming scene, has decided to exchange a hinted-at female protagonist for four men, because designing female characters is too much work. And this is coming from a company that had revenue of €1.007 billion last year. It is just not feasible, apparently, to design a multi-player story that doesn't specifically revolve around men. Let's be clear here: the Assassin's Creed franchise has had one heroine ever, Aveline de Grandpré, and her super-secret special power was changing her clothes to be less noticeable. Is this really how Ubisoft view female gamers?

You might have thought that the financial and critical successes of games with strong female protagonists - like Mass Effect’s Lady Shepard and Rhiannon Pratchett’s Tomb Raider reboot - demonstrates that there's a captive audience of women gamers crying out for playable lady characters . After all, it’s worth remembering that almost half of all gamers are, actually, women. And it's not just female gamers; if my male gaming friends are anything to go by, men love playing as women too.

You might have thought that since the new Assassin's game is set in the French Revolution, home to possibly the best known historical lady assassin Charlotte Corday, it would be the ideal place to finally put in one of those kick-ass lady characters.

Equally, you might have thought that you would sacrifice some of the numerous costumes changes in order to let one of your nine studios have the capabilities to create a capable lady assassin. Yes, nine studios worked on the game. But apparently it was deemed logical for all of them to spend their time making four identikit male protagonists as “customisable” as possible - nice cloaks, boys.

“It’s a question of focus...not of philosophy,” Therien told videogamer.com. This would be easier to believe if we hadn’t heard all this before: during the making of Assassin’s Creed III, creative director Alex Hutchinson described the history of the American revolution as “the history of men”; during the making of Assassin’s Creed Black Flag, director Ashraf Ismail confessed that nobody on the team had “actually [ever] thought” about the possibility of a playable female pirate. Apparently, he said, the team “didn’t want that to be something people got stuck on.”  

Unfortunately for Ubisoft, this is something that people are getting stuck on, because their philosophy is coming through loud and clear. The world of Assassin’s Creed has been looking inwards to conspiracies, plots, and secrets for a long time. Perhaps it’s time Ubisoft started to look out instead. There’s a big world out there, and women are kicking ass in it. It would be nice if they could kick ass on screen, too.

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