Notes on News: Ubisoft and its Gender Problem

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Announced at the beginning of May, I am ecstatic for the release of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla later this year; two years on from Odyssey’s legendary appearance in our game libraries with the series first RPG instalment, countless awards and nominations (including for Game of the Year) and two DLCs that left my save file with over 300 hours of playtime and a Platinum Trophy.

I never put this much time into The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and I love The Witcher!

And with the RPG mechanics came a new feature: the ability to pick between two possible protagonists on your journey through the Peloponnesian War – siblings Alexios and Kassandra. Little changed during a player’s progression of the game, with all romance options available to both of the Spartan siblings, and the character you didn’t choose is incorporated into the main story in a remarkable fashion. The only real difference is small cosmetic designs to the armour they wear.

Kassandra’s voice actress Melissanthi Mahut was highly commended for her role as the Spartan, winning several nominations for Best Video Game Performance, and the game itself being nominated for Video Game of the Year at the 2018 Video Game Awards (losing to God of War). And it seems to be a formula that Ubisoft is sticking with, as 2020 release Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is also including this option to play as a man or a woman.

However, the reveal didn’t go down well with fans. Following a marathon art stream and reveal trailer, chief writers revealed that protagonist Eivor would have the option to be portrayed as a man or a woman throughout Valhalla. Except, none of this was available in the release material. Fans spotted a woman prominently displayed in the finished artwork, and the collector’s edition listed a statue of the female Eivor as part of its included content. She has yet to even have official artwork released.

The lack of representation of its female characters is marketing materials and trailers is something Ubisoft has been criticised for during quite a lot of the franchise’s history. Assassin’s Creed Unity released in 2014 was slammed by fans and critics alike for the developers excluding female characters from the line-up of both single and multiplayer characters, saying they were “too difficult to animate”. Every major title since then has included both a male and female playable character in some form, but its promotions have focused heavily on the male protagonist. Evie Frye wasn’t introduced until far later and Aya wasn’t revealed as a playable character until the game’s release in 2017!

The franchise is over ten years old at this point, and they are yet to have a standalone female protagonist in one of its major titles. Other newer franchises from The Last of Us to Hellblade are led by women. The novelisation of Odyssey even reveals that Kassandra is the canonical protagonist, though official statistics of the game show that over half of players began their first playthroughs of the game as Alexios.

And that’s what makes me sad about the whole situation; I got invested in the franchise because I saw a character who I related to, and I know many who warmed to the series for their LGBTQ+ representation in characters such as Jacob Frye and the Spartan siblings. With it appearing that Ubisoft is caring more about capitalising on the publicity of their male protagonist – and paying attention to that very minor group of fans who are negative and disrespectful to the mere idea of a female-led game is disheartening. There is such potential here for Ubisoft to decide something great and make an impact in the industry, and yet with female-identifying gamers now making up nearly half of their fanbase, they should be making more of an effort to include everyone.

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla will be released later this year. Watch the trailer below:

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Second-year archaeology & history student and Culture Editor 2019/20. Loves archery and Assassin's Creed, and still hoping to one day find the doorway to Narnia.

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