Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, the latest entry in Ubisoft’s world-conquering series, has been lauded by many as a return to form for the Assassin’s Creed series, after last year’s Unity failed to impress. And Assassin’s Creed Unity not only had a poor launch, but also got many gamers riled up due to Ubisoft’s comments that featuring playable female characters in the game would have “doubled work”, and therefore none would be included.
Ubisoft took a lot of flak from the gaming press for this, so the logical way to appease its critics (apart from patching Unity into shape) was to include a playable female character in their next game. Which is something they did, turning Assassin’s Creed Syndicate into a tale of two brothers, Jacob and Evie Frye, whom players can switch between at will in the game’s Victorian London. And Evie Frye, while being a character that favours stealth over melee combat, gets to kick as much butt during the game as her brother Jacob, and also adds to the game’s fun factor and story immensely.
So it’s even more shocking, as some have noticed, that while gamers get to play as Evie as much as Jacob during Syndicate’s campaign, that it’s Jacob who takes centre stage in the game’s box cover art. Evie, meanwhile, is relegated to the side, as other supporting players in the game. Is this a sad comment on the game’s (mainly male) audience, who can’t bear to see a female character taking centre stage in the game’s cover? Someone at Ubisoft clearly thought as much, in order to relegate Evie to a side of the game’s cover art like that. Because the gaming world is a largely male-dominated world and sexism amongst gamers still appears to be a problem, as a recent study suggests.
But perhaps Ubisoft never really had any sexist intent, and just thought that the game would sell better with a dude at the centre of the box cover art, like earlier Assassin’s Creed games did. And looking beyond the Assassin’s Creed series, sexism also rears its ugly head as games like Halo feature characters like Cortana that appear designed to please hormonal teenagers, with their idealized and curvaceous bodies. And while Cortana is an AI and hardly a damsel in distress, she’s been sexualized to a point that Halo game director Frank O’Connor had to explain that she’s not actually naked, but wearing “holographic body stocking”.
This probably won’t change anything, though, for those male gamers who have come to see certain female video game characters as objects of desire and won’t ever discuss women in video games unless they can be ranked amongst the sexiest video game characters to date. And while this may seem sad for some, at least Cortana and Syndicate’s protagonist are not damsels in distress, they play meaningful and important roles in their games.
But in Rockstar’s GTA series for instance, women are sometimes portrayed in a less than flattering way, with players being able to murder sex workers in order to get their money back after paying for their services, in what has been cited as one of the worst examples of video game violence. And many other women roles in the GTA universe, from stripers to dim-witted adult movie stars, suggest that these games are a bit sexist, or is it just a case of social criticism on the part of Rockstar’s writers?
And going back to the Assassin’s Creed Syndicate cover art, perhaps Ubisoft’s marketing department should have figured out a way of giving Evie Frye more weight in the image, given the central role she plays in the game. But still, given that almost half of all gamers are female these days, the fact that Syndicate is the first major game in the series with a female lead is still a positive. And guys who are into gaming (like me) should not feel awkward just because they will be controlling a female character for half of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, as reactionary sexist attitudes really do the gaming world no good these days.