If you’re just joining the conversation, here’s what you missed: Earlier this week, Ubisoft unveiled the latest installment of their unstoppable franchise, Assassin’s Creed: Unity. The story takes place during the French Revolution, and players can choose from up to four unique characters–
Alright, not so unique, then.
The fact that Ubisoft chose to omit women in their game without bothering to Google the most famous assassin of the time period is bad enough, but then they made matters worse by trying to explain why.
In response to Ubisoft’s statements, @lionschmion started the Twitter hashtag #WomenAreTooHardToAnimate. In less than 24 hours, there have been thousands of tweets with the hashtag, with a reach of over 1.2 million users. Oh, and Kotaku has just now picked up on it (damn, got there before me).
Jayd (aka lionschmion) was kind enough to pretend to take me seriously long enough to do this interview. We talked about the decline of the Assassin’s Creed series, the overwhelming response to #WomenAreTooHardToAnimate, and what it means for the future of gaming.
I heard from an insider source (me) that you actually used to be a huge fan of Assassin’s Creed. When did you first start playing AC, and what initially drew you to the games?
AC1~3 and subsequent games stood out — and still does — for being a franchise that offered a different perspective from the norm. As magic soft-science as the premise was, the entire thesis statement of the narrative conflict of the games was an underdog narrative seeing a bigger truth than what was the accepted norm. It challenged the player. As such everything about the games centered on an outsider perspective — non-white, for the most part. The first game epitomized this the most, I think, since on the surface it’s about a middle-eastern order committing acts of vigilante justice against the christian white crusaders. That’s a huge cultural risk even today, so I can’t imagine how controversial it was when it was first released when 9/11 was fresher in our memories a few years ago.
Obviously, things have changed…
Obviously! Since after AC4 and with the introduction of AC5 we’ve taken on the perspective of the most privileged in our culture: a heterosexual, white man. There’s nothing challenging anymore. Now it’s just the expected power fantasy offered by the entire industry.
The E3 reveal that AC:U was going to have not one, not two or three, but FOUR white men identical in all but color scheme was disappointing for many people. But it wasn’t until their explanation as to why there are no women in the game that people really started to get pissed. Why do you think that is?
Any context where a developer has to explain why women were considered an afterthought or dismissed is sexist at its core, no? That alone is reason to be upset. The context as to why I was upset was deeper than that, since I’ve been following the franchise, the company (Ubisoft) loyally for many years, as well as being loyal to the gamer culture at large, and I have the memory for past discrepancies. It was bad enough Ubisoft tried to explain away female representation, but it’s even worse knowing this isn’t the first time they’ve tried, and now they don’t even have the games that reflect the opposite of what is a a really stupid PR explanation.
It’s probably even the straw breaking the camel’s back knowing they aren’t the only company to, the only industry too, and with such growing heated awareness of how women are treated in the media in the recent past I think there’s less of a cultural tolerance for it now rather than when it was made last year, or the year before that, or the year before that.
My next question was going to be, ‘What do you think is the actual reason there are no women in AC:U’ — but I think you’ve answered that with “women were considered an afterthought,” as that pretty much sums it up. But as you point out, there is less and less tolerance for that now, which I suppose is the silver lining in all of this.
I don’t know what the actual reason is, I don’t even know why they consider women an afterthought now of all times, on the 5th numbered title of the franchise, when that clearly wasn’t the case in the preceding games. I can’t hazard a guess, I can only think “they’re being incredibly stupid.”
I can’t think of any other possible explanation either.
Has the response to #WomenAreTooHardToAnimate surprised you? Why do you think it has gotten such a strong reaction?
I want to say yes, but I don’t think so. It’s reassuring more than anything, since it’s nice to have affirmed I’m not the only one feeling indignant (at best) about this. Trends happen because the vast majority tap into a cultural emotion. The fact it’s there is good. It wasn’t there before. I think if I started this hashtag even just 5 months ago, it would’ve died on my twitter feed as just another opinionated rant I made with little notice.
I spent a good chunk of my day on #WomenAreTooHardToAnimate (I am a model employee) and really enjoyed the variety of tweets I found there. Some people have elevated scathing sarcasm to an art form, and others have used it to point out serious problems in the gaming/animation industry. Has anything stood out for you?
Repetitiveness, I suppose! “People keep repeating the same jokes,” I kept thinking to myself. I knew when it propelled into a life of its own when I saw dozens of other people reiterate nearly every tweet I made originally in my rant. There’s a part of me that sniffs at the unoriginality, because sarcasm is funniest to me when it’s fresh. I think I started rolling my eyes at the ten thousandth “because boobs” tweet, though fondly, because I was just as guilty of that.
But personal boredom aside, I do appreciate the repetitiveness of the humor. It’s observational, which means it’s obvious, and even if the obvious joke reads as cheap, it means the common denominator can now observe, acknowledge, and point at the obvious. That wasn’t always the case.
And then of course there are the few people who show up to defend/criticize the hashtag. The most common complaint are the ones who try to say no one ACTUALLY said women were too hard to animate, as though “we chose to do without women because it’ll double the workload, like incorporating animations and new voice actors” didn’t essentially mean the same thing.
And finally: what games would you recommend for those who want to play something with well-written, well-animated women?
That isn’t fair and you know it. I have too many to list, and you’re gonna get all of it so good luck. I’m pretty sure my game shelf is the exact opposite of what the industry markets to.
I’m drawn more to Japanese-made games, which is kind of a faux-pas in western gaming culture because of the linearity they commonly offer rather than an emphasis on sandbox choice, but despite the fact Japan isn’t perfect or free of sexism they seem to have less of a stigma about not only having women in the main cast, but interact with the plot in a significant way. Many Final Fantasy games come to mind, as well as personal favorites like Ōkami, Folklore, Trace Memory, Bayonetta, and most recently Drakengard 3 (the last option may not be the best written or the best made, but it definitely is the anti-thesis to everything that’s out on the market and unapologetic about it).
On the western side, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Portal. Bioware games seem to be constantly escalating expectations of the industry, Beyond Good and Evil, the new Tomb Raider reboot offers a fresh light with a female protagonist you can control (as Lara Croft), then there are games that narratively center themselves on the female co-star, like Bioshock Infinite, Enslaved, and Prince of Persia (2008). I recently played The Wolf Among Us, which takes a classic noir story but injects it with female agency despite the brutal subject matter. I have Contrast on my PS3 but I haven’t played it yet, I’m excited to though.
And even this is abridged so REALLY, good luck.
I’m sorry, I couldn’t not wrangle some game recs out of you. (And thank you for the Bioware plug, it’s much appreciated.)
[laughs] I love everything about Bioware even if I’m too much of a completionist to enjoy their games.
Jayd Aït-Kaci is an illustrator and the artist of the webcomics Sfeer Theory and The Fox Sister. She is currently working on illustrating the upcoming novella Small Town Witch, written by Alex Singer. (She is also responsible for getting me into Assassin’s Creed, thanks for that.)