The Woman Odyssey in ACUnity
Xander, June 17, 2014
Translated by: Stefania

"Why isn’t there a female character among the Assassins of ACUnity?"

With this question, paraphrase excluded, Ubisoft’s E3 post-conference was opened. A critical-type question that can be counted in the tradition of the French company and of many other Software Houses in several years of releases.
Criticism, yes, but undeniably legitimate. The group of Assassins, usable in the co-op mode, showed what seems to be a preponderance of caucasian male characters and this caused an uproar inside the fandom and on the main video game portals. A great amount of discussions rose up on the web and, consequently, the official and semi-official answers by Ubisoft and by external developers came out.

However the explanation of the Software House were called into question by the words of experts who had nothing to do with the matter and the situation became very messy. So let’s try to take stock of the situation and understand the soundness of the lines of thought that were born regarding this prickly discussion.

The debate revolves mainly around the statement issued by Ubisoft’s spokespersons and by a former employee, Jonathan Cooper (Animation Director of Assassin's Creed III), who literally went wild on twitter.
We gathered, therefore, the main elements of the various declarations:

Alex Amancio: It's double the animations, it's double the voices, all that stuff and double the visual assets, especially because we have customizable assassins. It was really a lot of extra production work"

Jonathan Cooper: I think what you want to do is just replace a handful of animations, key animations. We target all the male animations onto the female character and just give her her own unique walks, runs, anything that can give character.
You can quite easily put male animations onto the female character, and it can still be good.
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 to 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.
We made sure that their skeleton was identical so it could be shared across everything. I think maybe the female had shorter arms or something. We might have also replaced some animations like holding a gun or stuff, but otherwise they're just shared across all the characters, all the different races.
It's not the best quality, it's definitely a compromise in quality. But I think it's more important that you can actually play as who you want to play as.

Ubisoft: We recognize the valid concern around diversity in video game narrative. Assassin's Creed is developed by a multicultural team of various faiths and beliefs and we hope this attention to diversity is reflected in the settings of our games and our characters.
Assassin's Creed Unity is focused on the story of the lead character, Arno. Whether playing by yourself or with the co-op Shared
The co-op shared screen
Experiences, you the gamer will always be playing as Arno, complete with his broad range of gear and skill sets that will make you feel unique.
With regard to diversity in our playable Assassins, we've featured Aveline, Connor, Adewale and Altair in Assassin's Creed games and we continue to look at showcasing diverse characters. We look forward to introducing you to some of the strong female characters in Assassin's Creed Unity".

In an interview with Polygon Patrice Désilets, father of Assassin's Creed and whose contract with Ubisoft was terminated for the second time last year with ensuing legal litigation, intervened on the impossibility of playing as a female character in ACUnity.

About Amancio's statements, Désilets said "It's true. If you do a big giant character and a small character, or a woman and a guy, it's different. But that shouldn't stop you. With all the time, money and people on that project, you could've done it."

Désilets then continued "You know what would have been really awesome? Four women. Then people would be like, 'Wow, they've got big balls.' Imagine four girls. It would have been really a strong message of what Assassin's Creed Unity is about."

Désilets added that he thinks that some Game Publishers and Developers get caught in a cycle of making and selling games to a particular audience, and that informs decisions like the choice to prioritize male avatars over offering gender options.

He stated "They always try to sell the same thing", referencing the commercial underperformance of female-led games like Remember Me as cited evidence
Patrice Désilets
for why certain games don't sell well. "So it's easy to win the argument: 'See, that's the only thing that sells' — because that's the only thing to buy."

Désilets closed the interview with "That's why the game that I'm designing, I'm giving control back to the player. Which gender do you want to play? Let's start there."

So, according to the official statements, the implementation of a female character was actually planned for ACUnity but then abandoned due to the quantity of work and costs required, equal to the ones necessary for the creation of the main character Arno Dorian. In answer, users accused Ubisoft of acting on a suspicious chauvinist choice. The company tortuously defended itself adding, as further justification, the multiculturalism of its team, stressing that its decisions are free from any prejudicial and racial thought. It’s not by chance that Ubisoft created characters of various ethnic minorities (in their native location) like Aveline (a woman, incidentally), Connor and Adewale. A weak justification if we consider the amount of content announced for ACUnity. Indeed Cooper’s intervention added fuel to the fire, explaining that a big part of the work done for Arno could be used for a female character and how the key animations were the only thing (apart from costumes and skin packs) needed to diversify two characters of different gender. According to the former employee, an optimal example is Aveline’s programming that took advantage of a big part of Connor’s programming, resulting functional anyway. In the meantime, while the discussion takes place on social networks, the first petitions appear in order to push Ubisoft to include an important female character in AC.

We must add that a recent ESA (Entertainment Software Association) study conducted in June 2013 showed a slow but stable rise of the percentage of female gamers.

The ESA's "Essential Facts About the Computer and Videogame Industry" study for 2013 has found that the gamer audience in the U.S. is almost evenly divided between men and women - 45 percent female, 55 percent male..."
"... women 18 or older make up 31 percent of the 'game-playing population', while boys 17 or younger account for only 19 percent"

So it’s undeniable that one-third of the market would potentially support a female avatar it identifies itself with. There’s anyhow the other side of the coin…

As previously said, searching for the most evident flaw in a new project is a sort of tradition. But it’s also true that often these flaws are extrapolated from a specific context and the official statements are often examined individually favouring a free access to personal interpretation.
In this particular situation, indeed, nobody considered the following statement:

Alex Amancio: The issue that's raised about women's place in games is certainly a serious one and certainly is something that's worth discussing and that's a good thing to talk about, but I don't think that's the issue with Unity however. Unity is really a story about one character, about one Assassin called Arno. Everybody plays Arno. When you're playing co-op, from your perspective you are playing Arno. Sort of like Watch Dogs, everybody plays Aiden Pearce. Assassin's Creed has certainly been diversified in the different heroes that we portrayed throughout our series, since its inception in 2007. Altair was an arabic character, we got Aveline who was obviously a woman... So although I think this is a real issue, I don't really believe that it's an issue with Assassin's Creed Unity."

The matter may take a different turn. We may come across a clear production choice. Unity is based on the story of Arno, who’s the only main character. The Co-op is a new multiplayer system already tested
Online Watch Dogs matches
in Watch Dogs in which, during the hacking and decryption matches, each user plays as Aiden though appearing as a random hacker (with separated skins) to the other players. So in ACU three players have the chance to join the single player of another user. They’ll all play as Arno, but in their respective matches the other players will appear as different Assassins belonging to the protagonist’s brotherhood.
This is a multiplayer expedient that guarantees interactivity in the Brotherhood Missions, appreciated with their limitations, also in the previous titles.
In the light of this explanation, the justifications about the absence of a female character assume a much more coherent meaning compared to what previously postulated. Indeed, since Arno is always the character on screen, the amount of work necessary to create a female model (frame, 3d model, skin, clothes, animations) of the same quality of the protagonist would have helped exclusively to guarantee the presence of both genders in those missions that, in the case under consideration, would have implied adding a woman among the other Assassins in the co-op mode.
From this point of view, the implementation of this feature would seem to require an amount of resources bigger than the days needed to replace the key animations. Also, as Cooper states, we have to deal with a compromise at the expense of quality just to give a character choice in the game, especially considering that, based on how the co-op is showed to us, this choice does not exist.

Also the class and chauvinist argument raises doubts: indeed if we consider the last two years of Ubisoft releases, it’s obvious that the Software House did its best to give prominence to characters like Aveline, Connor and Adewale. And also all the secondary female characters (Maria, Claudia Auditore, Sofia Sartor, Kaniehtí:io, Mary Read) should be worth mentioning because in the various ACs they were characterised by a strong charisma and scenic presence, succeeding in breaking old dogmatic and class-based patterns of their historical period.
Aveline herself was the main character, rightly experimentally, of a game for PSVita when the console was still young. A bold choice especially considering the particular historical period of the game, socially complicated for her as a woman and as an Afro-American. Still she is an extremely appreciated character of the saga.
Also, Ubisoft said they haven’t showed yet the female branch of ACU.

Leaked pictures before E3
It would be wise, therefore, to at least wait for additional news before grabbing the battle axe. Some of the promotional pictures leaked before E3 showed, indeed, Arno with one of the co-op Assassins together with a female-like character.
Undoubtedly a particular detail (which also caused the aforementioned petition) is that, apart from Aveline, AC does not have another female protagonist.

In our opinion the answer shouldn’t be sought in unmotivated pseudo-sexisms or uncertain production sloppiness. Probably this matter is essentially based on a market problem.
According to Vgchartz data, ACLiberation for PSVita sold, as of January 2014, around 960.000 copies worldwide, while Uncharted Golden Abyss is at the top of the chart with 1,17 millions. Maybe not very satisfying for Ubisoft. The poor success of the new Sony portable console surely contributed, so, hypothetically, the French Software House was tempted to make a HD version for Ps3, Xbox360 and PC. At present we don’t have data proving the success or failure of this operation.
We must say that the video game market does not have many female lead characters and not all of them had right and proper success. Among the successful games we find Tomb Raider (even though Square Enix wasn’t satisfied), Metroid and Beyond Good and Evil. Among the failures we find Velvet Assassin and Remember Me.
Another thing to at least consider is that according to the ESA study, two thirds of the adult video gamers are men.
Nothing empirical, everything is hypothetical, considering the insufficient and often diversified information... But before accusing Ubisoft of being misogynist, one should wonder if, except for the small group of complaints, the most part of gamers would prefer a male character to a female one.

Even if about a different matter, in the past McDevitt said that, similarly, even though the AC fans wanted more present day, the historical tourism represented the point of interest of the most part of the market composed by casual gamers. And it’s normal for a company to consider it in order to guarantee the right incomes.

But as everybody knows, users are also very fickle and even though they demand a serious and realistic Tomb Raider, in the end they complain that a poor girl shouldn’t face such violent situations...

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