In a recent segment from the frenzy that was E3 2014, Polygon's Chris Plante and Ben Kuchera interviewed Creative Director of Assassin's Creed: Unity, Alex Amancio. Near the end of the interview (21:38 on the first video), Kuchera asked the following question:
Kuchera: Now, if I'm playing—with my wife, for example—can she be a female assassin?
Amancio quickly responded:
Amancio: No, she can't. And, I'll tell you why. To be very honest, we had planned to have female assassins in the game and essentially we ran into the reality of production. So we had to--because it's double the animations, double the voices, all that stuff, and double the visual assets, and because--especially because we have a customizable assassin, right? So it was really a bunch of extra production work, and it's not like we could cut our main character, Arno, so the only logical option, the only option we had, was to cut the female avatar because when you're playing co-op, everybody is Arno."
Ben Kuchera is known for asking questions about representation and discrimination in video games (particularly with regards towards women), much to the chagrin of the more vocal members of the gaming community, and although he didn't push the question in the interview presumably because time was wrapping up anyway, he did retweet several articles related to the subject, seeming to convey his opinion on the matter.
Much of the gaming community and those on the fringes of it grew furious with the comments from Amancio, and the Twitter hashtag #womenaretoohardtoanimate exploded in popularity with fans and game critics responding with a general look of confusion and an eye-roll towards Ubisoft.
Following the interview with Amancio, in a phone interview with Polygon, Animation Director of Assassin's Creed III Jonathan Cooper said that the additions of female animations would take "a few days" at the most. With reference to the animations of Aveline de Grandpré and Connor of Assassin's Creed: Liberation and Assassin's Creed III, respectively, Cooper said:
“The games were made in parallel. Pretty much, you're just taking Connor's animation set and replacing key animations. They do some really clever stuff there. For example, Connor uses this tomahawk during a fight, and they actually gave [Aveline] a weapon that was similar in shape to the tomahawk, so all the animations would work on her without having to change them at all.”
Those ten studios (that's right; one, zero) Ubisoft has working on Unity must be having trouble completing the game on time considering lady assassins were included in the multiplayer of Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, Assassin's Creed: Revelations, Assassin's Creed III, and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. Aveline was even a DLC character in Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag. But clearly it's too much work. Just too much.
Now, a similar title to Assassin's Creed: Unity that also stars an angry white dude with stubble is Watch Dogs. Watch Dogs (which has no dogs in it at all) has multiplayer essentially built into the game. Players see themselves as Aiden Pierce, the angriest and whitest man in the game, but they see other players, both in co-op and multiplayer as random citizens, both men and women. Players can invade other games and attempt to hide among the crowd in order to follow or hack other players, and the entire interaction is quite seamless, so perhaps that's what Ubisoft is going for in Unity. However, the same problem that has plagued games for years comes up: why are nearly all video game heroes white guys?
Following the call-out from Cooper, Polygon later uncovered that in Far Cry 4, players nearly had the chance to play as female characters in the game's co-op, despite the ability to do so in Far Cry 3's co-op. Creative director Alex Hutchinson had this to say to Polygon on the subject:
“We had very strong voices on the team pushing for that and I really wanted to do it, we just couldn't squeeze it in in time. But on the other hand we managed to get more of the other story characters to be women. We did our best. It's frustrating for us as it is for everybody else, so it's not a big switch that you can just pull and get it done.”
Cooper had more to say on the subject, but the key point is that the programmers wanted to put women into co-op but they were restricted by time, which he said while he presumably made panicked eye-contact with PR after every sentence. That leaves two distinct possibilities: Ubisoft didn’t give them enough time to complete the game (which is a very possible, completely different problem) or Ubisoft just didn’t see it as a priority and told them to cut women from co-op. But Ubisoft wasn’t done yet.
Ubisoft went even further during E3 with a reveal that women will be hostages for players to rescue in a bizarre offshoot of capture-the-flag in Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six: Siege. Players shoot those on the other team while stealing the terrified woman from each other in order to win. This game mode bears a remarkable resemblance to the multiplayer mode "Capture the Babe" from Duke Nukem Forever, with the main difference being the women are sort of wearing clothing in Rainbow Six: Siege.
So what's Ubisoft's problem?
The same problem that most publishers experience: fear. Fear of change, fear of “risks,” fear that a game that may not star an angry dude (such as the entire Tomb Raider franchise, every BioWare game, nearly every Bethesda game, nearly every Pokémon game) will be a failure.
While Assassin's Creed Unity's Amancio seemed a bit flustered and surprised by the question, Far Cry 4's Hutchinson seemed upset over being forced to cease work on female playable characters. Presumably, riding a charging elephant into combat while firing a machine gun or making sure the straightest and whitest of men have their angst well-rendered was just too important for Ubisoft. Other titles, such as Splinter Cell: Blacklist, every Assassin's Creed game except Liberation, and Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six: Siege, have also shown that Ubisoft believes nearly all gamers are men and that female gamers are just anomalies who should either go away or accept that they won't appear in games.
This is in stark contrast to 2013's Call of Duty: Ghosts, released by Activision, which, despite only showing two women in the story campaign, featured female characters in multiplayer because Activision wanted to "acknowledge the fan base that already existed." If the publisher of one of the most successful video game franchises sees no problem at least acknowledging that a great deal of their fans are in fact women, surely Ubisoft, masters of always-online DRM and angry white dudes can find it in their hearts to acknowledge nearly half of the gaming population.
Will Ubisoft change? Probably not. At least not soon. Fall, also known as Assassin's Creed season, is rapidly approaching. It's likely that Ubisoft won't take the time to add female assassins to Unity. More likely, Ubisoft will wait for this to blow over like EA waited for the Sim City debacle to blow over, like SEGA waited for the anger over the lie that was Aliens: Colonial Marines to blow over, and like Ubisoft is also waiting for gamers to forget that Watch Dogs is about as generic as a game can get, poor-optimization and all. People will continue to buy Call of Duty and Assassin's Creed and Tomb Raider and Grand Theft Auto just as the Sun will continue to rise and set.
But there's hope. If push comes to shove, publishers and developers like Ubisoft will change their tune if it means their players—more importantly, their customers—are happy and more willing to give them money for games. Just look at Electronic Arts. EA was reviled and they realized that positive PR is a good thing for profits, so they changed their act and started actually listening to people, to a point. We still get yearly releases of Battlefield, but now we have Mirror’s Edge 2 and Dragon Age: Inquisition on the horizon. EA is still a bit reviled, but at least they’re reviled a little less.
Nintendo recently experienced a controversy of its own with its Sims/Animal Crossing hybrid called Tomodachi Life for the Nintendo 3DS. Players have the ability to form relationships with each other in a similar fashion to EA's The Sims, however, Nintendo neglected to mention that same-sex couples were not included in the game. Prospective players were outraged, upset, and hurt, and over the course of a week, Nintendo went from having little to no comment to saying, "We will strive to design a game-play experience from the ground up that is more inclusive, and better represents all players."
With companies listening and acting more and more--either out of fear or actual compassion--it seems that video games are inching closer and closer to being at least somewhat diverse. The only way to guarantee that this trend continues is to keep holding devs and publishers accountable, keep asking questions, and importantly, keep talking.