Assassin’s Creed: women in games are not a technology problem

Assassin’s Creed: Unity is not going to have playable female characters in multiplayer, because it’s too much work. As per 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.”

Here is an incomplete list of things that Ubisoft decided, as a company, were less work than playable female avatars in multiplayer:

  • Two special missions, only available as pre-order bonuses.
  • The ability to render AI crowds of 5,000 people.
  • Customisable assassins, but only male ones.
  • A 1:1 replica of Notre Dame cathedral.
  • A crouch button.

This is a tongue-in-cheek list, of course, because the allocation of resources doesn’t work like this, and if it was the multiplayer team’s job to make multiplayer on a budget then it’s their budget from which multiplayer assets must come. The idea behind the four-player co-op mode seems to be that everyone sees themselves as the main character from the single-player game – Arno, who is male, obviously, because it’s not like playing a female assassin in the French Revolution would be an excellent and historically-relevant choice – and their three friends are his male buddies.

Which leaves open the question of why, exactly, two of those friends couldn’t be female, if the team had decided that was a priority? Or why all of them couldn’t be female? Why not cut Arno from multiplayer, or design a multiplayer system that works without him? Why not, if you have to, take the FemShep approach and make masculine women, acknowledge the problems with their animations, and say that you thought it was more important that the game had playable women than that the jiggle physics was perfect? And, most importantly, why wasn’t making it possible to play as a woman in the game a core goal for the multiplayer team, instead of a nice-to-have extra that got dropped?

To be fair, we don’t know yet whether any modern-day assassin elements are going to star a woman. But the fact that Ubisoft has cheerfully announce beard-filled multiplayer without mentioning the possibility suggests either the modern-day office-wandering secretarial bit isn’t finished yet – in which case there might be a sudden reverse ferret and a female avatar might suddenly appear, rendering all excuses about the difficulties of rendering women completely null and void – or that it’s not going to hold many surprises on that score. Or that they’re dripfeeding PR to provoke, of course, which I guess we can’t rule out, because that’s one of the more unpleasant ways the games PR machine works.

Meanwhile, apparently Far Cry 4 came “within inches” of a playable female character. Which is not good enough; the dev says they “did their best” but that older assets, studio culture, planning and technology got in the way. Goddamn technological women, with our complicated hips and our weird walks and the way we’re just so difficult to model that a 1987 NES game has better gender representation than this next-gen console one can apparently manage.

Look, technology is not the problem here. Thinking of male characters as “default” and female characters as “extra” is the problem, as is a history of poor representation in games meaning there are fewer existing assets that can be reused. You fix that by recognising that it’s not a tech issue. You fix it with planning, with remedial work so that you have as many stock female assets as stock male ones, with processes that don’t place the ability to fiddle with a character’s weapon loadout ahead of their gender. You can’t fix that with polygons. You fix that with people.

Eulogy: old friend Xbox

Today I am in mourning for my xbox 360. After 4 years of long service it finally red ringed last night while I was trying to play my first proper sidequest on Mass Effect 2.

I feel a need to mark its passing somehow. I bought it way back in spring 2006 if memory serves – it was a first generation machine, obnoxiously noisy, occasionally buggy, and lacking an HDMI port.

While other people swapped broken consoles constantly thanks to Microsoft’s poor performance – I have friends who went through 4 360s in a year thanks to the dreaded red ring – mine soldiered on quite cheerfully. It survived 6 house moves – including going from Newcastle to Norwich wrapped in T-shirts in a suitcase on the train. It saw me through relationships ending, through graduation and a career change and my NCTJ prelims. It saw me married.

When thinking about major time periods in my life, I can link them still to the games I was playing at the time. All, or almost all, Xbox. Second year of university, wrapped up in work and writing constantly – Oblivion. Applying for jobs after uni – Guitar Hero 2. Breaking up with a long-term partner – Assassin’s Creed. NCTJ course – Portal, Braid, Fallout 3.

And looking back it’s striking how often I played out the conflicts and themes in meatspace life through gaming. In periods of intense factual learning I gravitated towards puzzle games with neat solutions; when I felt I couldn’t get anything right I retreated to conquerable, affirming rhythm games; at times of uncertainty and doubt I repeatedly threw myself off tall buildings.

Gaming has been self-care and healing, escapism, social interaction, fun, exploration, achievement and space where achievement no longer matters. It won’t end here – I have every intention of going out today to pick up a replacement. But this does feel very much like the end of an era. The next one won’t be the same.

I wonder if this is how I’ll feel if my iPhone ever dies.

Assasin’s Creed: non-linear metanarrative

Assassin's Creed_AcreGamers now are accustomed to linear narratives, playing through a sequence of events with no choice or impact on the direction the story takes.

Most of us are getting used to branching narratives, simple option systems that open up differing dialogues, games areas and endings.

But Assassin’s Creed 2 is the first mainstream game I’ve played to make parts of the plot entirely optional and intentionally obscure.

First things first: I’m going to focus on Assassin’s Creed 2 in this post. There’s a lot to be said about narrative in the first game, but I’m the wrong person to write it because I found the cut scenes impossibly dull. So dull, in fact, that I generally went to put the kettle on while they happened. There are still plot points I’m unsure of as a result.

On the other hand, the second game cut scenes are slick, interesting and – crucially – well-voiced. Assassination scenes are limited to two or three sentences at most – sometimes still very incongruous, but much less flow-breaking and tea-inducing.

There are two congruent narratives running through the game – the story of Desmond, living in the present day, who has just escaped from the evil Templars who were forcing him to relive his ancestral memories, and is now working with the good Assassins, who are, um, asking him very nicely to relive his ancestral memories.

The second narrative is that of Ezio di Auditorre, the subject of Desmond’s memories and the main focus of the game. Desmond learns the Assassin skills he needs through living Ezio’s life, learning how to use a hidden blade and fall off incredibly tall buildings while suffering absolutely no ill effects. Oh, and some stuff about 15th-century Florentine intrigue and conspiracy.

Where things get interesting is the third narrative. The game doesn’t force you to get involved in what it neatly describes as “The Truth”. At no point does it force it on you. There are signposts but no map markers, hints but no spoilers, and not once are you hindered by choosing not to explore the hidden story.

At a fairly early point, Desmond is asked to find a weird glowing glyph on a building. If you do, you discover a password-protected encrypted file, and must solve a simple puzzle to reveal a snippet of narration and a video file.

There are 20 of these, each puzzle more difficult than the last. The videos and narration add up to reveal a vital and tantalising slice of the Assassin’s Creed backstory that provides clues to the next game and rounds out the game’s cliff-hanger ending in a very satisfying way. It leaves you with answers that lead to more questions.

But even within the puzzles there are more stories. Each puzzle takes real-world historical events, or great works of art, or scientific breakthroughs, and links them intricately to a massive web of conspiracy. Combined with Ezio’s narrative – which tallies closely with real-world events throughout – the game edges closer and closer to alternate reality territory.

And then you find the puzzles within the puzzles. Messages encrypted in Morse code within paintings within the glyphs, never acknowledged or explained. There are dozens of these, easy to miss, even easier to ignore, but each one is decipherable.

The impact of these little asides is not merely to problematise the existing story – adding vignettes and asides that most players simply are unaware of – but also to trouble the relationship between the game and the real historical events it links to. Forcing players to go beyond the fourth wall to decipher puzzles opens up the structure of the story to deeper interpretations than are possible in most games. Assassin’s Creed 2 positions itself, like Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, as part fiction, part fact, and hence blurs the lines between the two. Complex analyses are springing up, not only solving the obvious puzzles but the hidden ones too, and players are using those analyses to attempt to uncover the “true” story of the game – the history of the Assassins and Templars. In effect, gamers are creating a fictional backstory using factual history and pointers from within the game. It’s a collaboration and a fascinating puzzle – and entirely optional.

Also it’s a lot of fun to throw yourself off tall buildings.