Charlotte Corday, left of centre, being taken to her execution in an 1889 painting by Arturo Michelena. Image: Public Domain
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Ubisoft drops playable female character from Assassin's Creed: Unity because "it's too much work"

The developer has dropped female playable characters from the game because apparently it was too difficult.

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.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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Fasting and Feasting: the eccentric life of food writer Patience Gray

Journalist Adam Federman clearly venerates his subject, and his research is overwhelmingly diligent. 

It is hard, these days, to open a food magazine or a news­paper’s colour supplement without finding an article extolling the charm of foraging. So fashionable has the Instagram-friendly pursuit become that the botanist James Wong recently  wrote of his alarm at finding pictures of food – often published on blogs proclaiming the evils of sugar, gluten and dairy – prettily decorated with flowers of extreme toxicity: narcissus, catharanthus, lantana and rhododendron.

The food writer Patience Gray loved narcissi, whose springtime appearance on Naxos she described in her 1989 account of a year spent on the Greek island, Ring Doves and Snakes; but she would have known better than to use them as a garnish. Her passionate interest in foraged and seasonal food, which began during her wartime years spent in a primitive cottage in Sussex, where she pursued a scholarly interest in edible fungi, developed over the many decades during which she lived with her partner, the sculptor Norman Mommens, in some of the remotest parts of the Mediterranean.

On Naxos, in Carrara in Tuscany and for the last three decades of their life together at Spigolizzi, a masseria (farmhouse) in Apulia, Gray and Mommens found a way of life still governed by the elemental rhythms of sowing and growing, feasting and fasting – rhythms they adopted and incorporated into the practice of their work. “Métier” was a talismanic term for Gray.

“It sometimes seems as if I have been rescuing a few strands from a former and more diligent way of life, now being fatally eroded by an entirely new set of values,” she wrote in Honey from a Weed (1986), her evocative fusion of memoir and cookbook. “As with students of music who record old songs which are no longer sung, soon some of the things I record will also have vanished.”

Patience was one of a formidable cohort of female writer-cooks whose celebrations of food in muscular, elegant prose sprang from the privations of the Second World War. A contemporary of Elizabeth David, M F K Fisher and Julia Child, she wrote just three cookery books, only two of which were published in her lifetime: the bestselling Plats du Jour (1957), co-written with Primrose Boyd and warily subtitled “Foreign Food”, and the eclectic Honey from a Weed. The Centaur’s Kitchen, a book of Mediterranean recipes written in 1964 for the Chinese cooks of the Blue Funnel shipping line, was posthumously published in 2005. She also wrote two wayward volumes of memoir: Ring Doves and Snakes and Work Adventures Childhood Dreams (1999).

Despite this comparative reticence (she wrote bitterly in Work Adventures Childhood Dreams of her mother, whom she accused of valuing only published work: “But Patience, is there anything you have written that is actually in print?”), the publication of Honey from a Weed turned her into a celebrity, and the austere household at Spigolizzi, devoid of electricity, telephone or sanitation, became a place of pilgrimage for such keen food fanciers as Paul Levy (the co-author of The Official Foodie Handbook) and the late Derek Cooper of BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme. As her biographer, Adam Federman, remarks, “A full account of her remarkable life is long overdue.”

Gray divided her adult life into two parts: before 1962, when she began living with Norman Mommens, and after. On either side of that meeting her life was eventful. Of her upper-middle-class upbringing she wrote, “I have listened to other people’s accounts of their happy childhoods with sadness mingled with disbelief.”

Educated at Queen’s College in London (where Unity Mitford was a contemporary) and the London School of Economics, she worked for the designer F H K Henrion on the agricultural and country pavilions at the Festival of Britain, and had three children by Thomas Gray, an elusive  married “artist-designer” whose name she took.

Having left him, she won a competition to become the women’s editor of the Observer. Sacked after three years (by the paper’s new features editor George Seddon, under whom things “became dull, more serious”), she “began a different and more creative life”, sharing and recording the ancient traditions of seasonal food production and preparation of the communities among which she occupied an ambiguous position as both participant and observer until her death in 2005, aged 87.

Federman – a journalist, academic and “former line cook, bread baker and pastry chef” – clearly venerates his subject, and his research is overwhelmingly diligent. While Gray possessed the sharp observing eye, selective memory and comic timing of an instinctive writer, Federman is dogged and respectful.

His book is dutifully strewn with the names of Gray’s wide acquaintance, but he lacks the gift of characterisation and conveys little impression of their personalities. Even Gray, so vivid a presence in her own books, seems oddly muted in Federman’s portrait (though he gives a lively account of her exhilaratingly awful behaviour at her daughter’s wedding).

For admirers of Patience Gray’s remarkable prescience in anticipating what has become known as the “Slow Food” movement, Federman’s exhaustively detailed biography will be a valuable resource. But for those who long for a flavour of her personality – as pungent and earthy as the dishes she recorded – it is best read with a copy of Honey from a Weed to hand. 

Fasting and Feasting: the Life of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray
Adam Federman
Chelsea Green, 384pp, £20

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder