Oh, video games. What is it about you that makes you so terrible with women? No other art form is so consistently dismissive, disrespectful, and indeed hateful about women regardless of genre. This isn't because gaming is inherently a sexist thing – and anyone who says it is doesn't understand gaming - but probably because the people who make the games are, themselves, completely naive about or dismissive of the issue, or very much not designing and creating games with the issue of female representation on their minds at any point.
Which brings us to Ubisoft, and Assassin's Creed: Unity, which was announced at the annual E3 games expo in Los Angeles this week. For those who haven't played it, the Assassin's Creed series is stupid but fun – you play as a man reliving the memories of his assassin ancestors, who creep and stab their way through historical periods like the Crusades and the Renaissance as part of some poorly-written end-of-the-world conspiracy cult narrative. Unity is the seventh installment in the series, sequel to the sixth installment, the confusingly-named Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag. That was set among pirates, and Unity's schtick is to take the game to the streets of Paris during the French Revolution.
All of which is to say that it's a game where you play as an assassin, and the physical appearance of your character isn't essential to the plot (except for, eg, not wearing neon clothing when sneaking around in the shadows of a palace). Yet this is what happened when Ubisoft's technical director, James Thereien, spoke to Videogamer.com about why there isn't an option to play as a female assassin:
It was on our feature list until not too long ago, but it's a question of focus and production," 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 [inaudible]. It would have doubled the work on those things. And I mean it's something the team really wanted, but we had to make a decision... It's unfortunate, but it's a reality of game development."
And then Ubisoft's creative director, Alex Amancio, said this in an interview with Polygon:
It's double the animations, it's double the voices, all that stuff and double the visual assets," Amancio said. "Especially because we have customizable assassins. It was really a lot of extra production work."
"Because of that, the common denominator was [main character] Arno," Amancio said. "It's not like we could cut our main character, so the only logical option, the only option we had, was to cut the female avatar."
That's right, ladies – you're officially considered an optional extra. This is an extraordinary thing that Ubisoft has managed, because the Assassin's Creed games are notorious for being bloated by mini-games and hidden extras, so much so that in an infamous reddit confession one of the developers who worked on Assassin's Creed III claimed that not only did most players and reviewers never unlock certain features hidden in the game, but that even he and his colleagues had no idea quite how many hidden features there were. Considering that there clearly were the resources to develop a high-definition recreation of 18th century Paris in-game, a complaint that adding an option to play as a woman would be too much extra work comes across as poor management at best.
And then there's Charlotte Corday, pictured above, the so-called Angel of Assassination - a nickname she earned after murdering Jean-Paul Marat, a Jacobin leader and one of the key figures of the revolution. She is, arguably, the most famous assassin of all from the time period that Unity depicts.
We can accept that developing a female lead player for the game would have been a touch more difficult than the patch that a professional animator used to change the original Legend of Zelda so that the player played as the princess, saving Link, but come on. Female gamers shouldn't have to keep hoping that developers will deign to grace them with respect in a possible future patch, or - even worse - in some possible update that has to be paid for, with a playable female character included alongside other optional extras like costume changes.