I'm afraid this is going to be a long one, because the debate around Assassin's Creed Unity not inculding any female avatar options in its co-op mode didn't half snowball overnight. Ubisoft are now backtracking on their initial defence that this was a workload issue, and instead claim it's a deliberate narrative-based decision - however, this only opens up more questions.
In the meantime, a former Assassin's Creed animation lead has called foul on the original claims that animating a female character results in an unbearable workload increase, while elsewhere at E3, a Far Cry 4 dev claimed that excessive animation needs are why there are no playable women in that game. Who to believe, eh?
I'd like to make it clear before we head back into the lion's den that I most certainly am not accusing anyone at Ubisoft of misogyny or any other kind of prejudice - indeed, let's not forget that the Assassin's Creed Liberation handheld spin-off does have a woman protagonist - but simply pointing out that not including any women as optional player-characters in a multiplayer mode is not truly because it's 'too much work', but because someone, somewhere specifically decided they didn't want a portion of the game's resources spent in that way.
This debate, as I see it at least, is about whether the publicly given development reasons for that hold water or not, because similar claims have been made about other games from other companies in the past (Brink and GTA V, for example), and it's highly likely to come up again - as such, this isn't really about Assassin's Creed or Ubisoft. We can conjecture about whether the given reasons in this and other instances are the real reasons or not, but we can't know until someone fully breaks cover on the matter.
I'm not convinced fully breaking cover is what's going on in Ubisoft's rather robotic official statement on the Unity controversy, which essentially refutes the earlier claim that it was down to workload limitations. The new comment centres on the fact that Unity stars one particular character, male French Assassin Arno, and claim that, even in four-player co-op mode, everyone is playing as Arno. He'll have various outfitting and skill options, but ultimately it's attack of the clones. Even aside from anything else, I'd say that adds a distracting element of cognitive dissonance to rooftop co-op adventures. I appreciate there's more work involved, but it'd simply make more sense to have every player be a different character - and in that instance, not including options beyond white guy is indefensible.
Here's the official statement in not-quite-getting-it full:
"We recognize the valid concern around diversity in video game narrative," Ubisoft said in a statement issued to GameSpot. "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 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."
Meanwhile, compare and contrast these statements from Ubisoft creative director 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. Because of that, the common denominator was Arno. 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."
To Eurogamer after the storm hit:
"I understand the issue, but it's not relevant in Assassin's Creed Unity... There was this thing that started with animations - but they have nothing to do with it. They're one drop in the ocean, they're one part of it. If we're creating all these different suits that can interchange, that's a lot. It's not only that, but it's nothing to do with production. Again, we're telling the story of Arno - it's that character's story. The reason we're just changing the face and keeping the bodies is we want people to show off the gear that they pick up in the game through exploration."
So the face can change, but it doesn't count as being a different character? Is Arno secretly the latest guise for Jaqen H'ghar? Everyone absolutely has to be Arno in co-op for important plot reasons, even though they won't necessarily look like Arno? And the suspension of disbelief required for the character to have a different face can't extend to them appearing to be a different gender? It still doesn't wash, and it's never going to, no matter how many statements or backtracks arise.
Historical setting or no, Assassin's Creed games remain fantastical science-fiction, concerning psychic holodecks, ancestor races, murderous gods and centuries-long cosmic conspiracies. The rules are that there are no rules. Just one line of technomagical dialogue would excuse anyone being anyone, or looking like anything. The only, only unbreakable defence for not including a woman or any other kind of playable character option can be "we did not want to," and from there one has every right to question why someone would not want to - which is what is happening in this case anyway.
Amancio also referred to his earlier comments about this being a production issue as "a slip-up", which may or may not mean "everyone's been shouting at each other behind the scenes about how to put this fire out and now this is our new party line, please please leave me alone now."
I am fairly confident that, had the original party line been "this is a game about Arno, pure and simple" this controversy wouldn't have happened, or at least on nothing like this level. The problem is that they initially went with something that came across as "women are too much work", which inevitably leads to questioning the budgetary priorities for a game being developed by ten different studios, and to investigate the veracity of such a claim.
Case in point, former Ubisoft lead animator (including on Assassin's Creed III) Jonathan Cooper chiming in to observe that "In my educated opinion, I would estimate this to be a day or two's work. Not a replacement of 8000 animations." Even more damning if rather less specific is "Man, if I had a dollar for every time someone at Ubisoft tried to bullshit me on animation tech". Cooper, now at Naughty Dog, has said a few more fascinating obesrvations on the matter, and the general issue of male vs female animation, over here. I do wonder, with my cute little tinfoil hat on, if that's got something to do with the abrupt change of tune coming out of Ubisoft overnight.
Other industry voices offered commentary on the realities on adding playable women to games in this GamesIndustry round-up. There are many different angles on the issue there, but the general sentiment seems to be that yes, inevitably it's more work, but it's not too much work, and that commercial decisions rather than developmental ones often lie behind the decision to make a game guysclusive.
Just before the second round of AssCreedity statements arrived, Far Cry 4 director Alex Hutchinson perhaps unknowingly stoked the fire by telling Polygon that the open-world shooter came this close to having a playable female co-op character, but she was cut because hey, guess what, production workload issues.
Hutchinson does at least sound pretty damned disappointed that his game wound up being another chapathon, claiming that:
"It's really depressing because we almost... we were inches away from having you be able to select a girl or a guy as your co-op buddy when you invite someone in.... We had very strong voices on the team pushing for that and I really wanted to do it, we just couldn't squeeze it in in time. But on the other hand we managed to get more of the other story characters to be women.We did our best. It's frustrating for us as it is for everybody else, so it's not a big switch that you can just pull and get it done."
The fact that this is the case for a game that's still around four months from release says much about how slowly the big budget game ship turns these days. I would guess that Far Cry 4 is essentially a finished game now, and they'll spend the months between now and October focused primarily on console certification and QA - for a project that size, introducing an additional player character probably is impossible, at least in time for release. It's very sad that it has to be that way, and we can only hope that all this stuff has caused enough sweaty corporate brows that some of these games will at least see post-release female avatars of some form.
Hutchinson also told Polygon that "I can guarantee you that in the future, moving forward, this sort of stuff will go away. As we get better technology and we plan for it in advance and we don't have a history on one rig and all this sort of stuff", while Anna Megill, game writer at Ubisoft Quebec told GamesIndustry that "The entire narrative team on my Ubi project wants more female characters. I'd love to see more female characters in all games."
I hope they get their way. Again, as well as the social issue underpinning all of this, it would simply be lovely to see more variety from big franchise games, in so many of which the lead character tends to be a variation upon the same familiar theme. I'd truly like to play as different people more often. But however unconvincing some of the excuses for that not happening in this instance may be, it is extremely heartening to know that internal voices as well as external ones (both reasoned and excessively vituperative) are pushing for change. Perhaps next year's round of big sequels really will look a little different.
Inevitably this particular controversy will largely die down in a day or two, presuming no-one else says anything unwise, but it's extremely important for those of us who play and discuss games to make it clear that enough of us really do want that choice to be there. This is not really about Assassin's Creed or Ubisoft, but about what some of us want more games to be.
We must make this known, even though there are many, extremely aggressive voices who loudly and angrily claim that they do not want it, that expanding character options dilutes the artistic vision of massive steamroller action franchises designed to hoover up as much cash as possible, or that even having the option to play as a women oppresses their right to be a big butch gunman if they want to. Those voices are scared that their games are being taken away from them. They are not. They are simply, I hope, going to be more welcoming to more people, and they will do this by offering choice. The games and the game-players will be better for it.
Incidentally, Kudos to all the sites - particularly Videogamer, Polygon and Eurogamer - who've been pursuing show-floor comment on this issue, keeping this a talking point to the extent that perhaps some change really is plausible down the road. I am acutely aware that all I'm doing is commenting on the fruits of their labour. I'm not at E3 myself, but I suspect I'd have been camped out by the Ubisoft stage with a microphone if I were. That said, I do have enormous sympathy for the developers who find themselves and their games the target of extreme venom despite, in many cases, their wanting to move things forward as much as anyone else does. Fingers crossed for the future.