Is Ubisoft Afraid of Female Protagonists? (Opinion)
Normally, I would want to keep our articles away from social political commentary; after all, I am just a gamer (like you). However, I am a gamer who is very, very, very confused at the ending of Assassin's Creed Origins. For those of you who have yet to finish this amazing game, stop reading this and read it after you finish the Game. *CONTAINS ASSASSIN'S CREED ORIGINS SPOILERS* Assassin's Creed Origins is one of my favorite games of 2017, and it ranked #4 on Game Infinite's previous Top Ten 2017 Article. I've been a huge Assassin's Creed fan since ACII (The first one doesn't exist). Origins is everything I have wanted from an Assassin's Creed game. It is vast, beautiful, with fluid gameplay and a great story. My favorite gaming moment of 2017 was climbing the top of the Great Pyramid of Giza. We get to meet Bayek who is arguably one of the best assassin's creed protagonists since Ezio himself. He is likable, charismatic, and relatable. Now, any game in the series is a significant investment of your time. I'm over 45 hours into this game, and that was with me trying to push through. I only did enough side missions to level up enough to survive main missions, and I was only playing on normal. The map is still littered with side quests; I still do not even have every part of the map unlocked; and the DLC for an entire new map and story missions just dropped. I have friends who are 60-70 hours in. This game is LONG by my and many gamers' standards. I just wanted to get to the story's ending so I could be satisfied with my play-through and see the establishment of the Assassin's Creeds Brotherhood. I applauded Assassin's Creed Origins for being so separate from the lore that even a new comer could enjoy the game, but still be enough Assassin's Creed for hardcore fans. That is partly why I was confused by the ending. The very ending contains something so subtle and deep in lore even a diehard fan like me had to google what it referred to. A new comer to the series would have even less idea what it means. First, we get a lengthy end mission where you get to meet Brutus, then an Assassin plots and kills Julies Ceaser, an iconic moment in history. Then, we see the official establishment of the Assassin's Creed Order (aka "origins"), and we see the origin of the iconic Assassin "A" symbol. Here's the thing. Here is why I was so confused by the ending. Bayek, the protagonist in the game, had nothing to do with any of those three things. Bayek is completely irrelevant to the ending of the story. Seriously... Bayek was not present in the final mission. The entire final mission was performed by his now "former" wife Aya. Aya was present during the entire game but as a glorified side character. You play as Bayek the majority of the game with the exception of one or two main side missions you get to play as Aya. While she is important as a character, she is absent from the vast majority of the game and only pops up in major story missions or cut scenes. In the game, Bayek and Aya are often separated by Bayek's work as a Magi, and Aya's work helping Cleopatra. Bayek is the main character that you spend 40-70 hours with, and he is completely pointless to the ending. He does not help kill ceasar. While it was technically his idea to start some kind of "hidden organization", a "creed", it was just an idea he threw out. It was actually Aya who physically builds the Creed after killing Caesar. We know from lore she is also the one who eventually kills Cleopatra. When she returns and establishes the "Hidden Ones" she changes her name to... AMUNET. This revelation is the very last scene in the main game before being able to continue and explore and doing side missions. She declares the Hidden Ones to exists and declares her name "Amunet". At that time, I had no idea what that meant. That is because it references a small part all the way back to Assassins Creed II. In that game, Ezio discovers a vault with several statues of ancient assassins. There was a female assassin from ancient Egyptian times names Amunet who was credited for killing Cleopatra (some time after the events of Origins). Whether or not that was ever planned to come up again, that still is quite a "long game" on Ubisoft's end. To end a game, that so perfectly through out was separate from the lore, with such a specific obscure reference even a fan had to google, I found very very odd... I had to think about it really hard, and I came to a conclusion. While most shrugged it off as a cool Easter egg, I realized something much deeper about Ubisoft. You may be asking, what does any of this have to do with Ubisoft being afraid of female protagonists? Let me give you a quick history lesson. Five or so years ago, the gaming industry for the most part was afraid of female protagonists. The developers were afraid gamers (with the stereotype of "gamer bros" in mind) wouldn't identify or want to play as a female character. One developer even went on record as saying that games with female protagonist do not sell as well, and therefore should get smaller budgets. Developers having this mindset sometimes played it safe by including a female protagonist only if the option for a male protagonist was available also. The female character would often have a nearly identical story/gameplay as the male, and often the box art would only include the male character centered. While having gender choice in a game is not a bad thing, few games only had female protagonists, or when there was a choice, the female is treated secondary or as a simple character clone. I do believe times have improved, as more developers feel confident making games that have sole or well treated female protagonists. More developers are also having female characters in general that aren't treated as just sexual objects. Studios finally started to learn that it is ok for to make a female character clothed and of average proportion. I'm not saying "sexualization" (or even mature treatment of sex) in gaming is wrong; it was just exclusively that before. Women were always "the girlfriend of protagonist" or some more sexualized character than the men. Fast forward to now, games like the rebooted Tomb Raider franchise taught developers that female protagonists can be of average shape and fully clothed and still carry a big budget, financially successful, and critically acclaimed franchise. Female gaming characters could be more than the male protagonists girlfriend or more than an overly sexual fighting "vixen". 2017 was a year with some amazing games that featured female protagonists; in fact, I'd argue it is one of the best years for women in gaming. Gravity Rush 2, Nier Automata, Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, Life is Strange BTS, Horizon Zero Dawn, Mass Effect Andromeda, Star Wars Battlefront 2 (yes, yes, micro transactions = EVIL, aside from that) are all games that featured strong female protagonists who were developed, relatable, had unique stories, and carried great performances in great games. 2017 proves games with female protagonists are possible.
Let's take a look at something unique about the Assassin's Creed series; it has countless main and spin off games. Few franchises can boast such a lineup, and even fewer can say that with the sole exception of Ezio, no main Assassin has gotten more than one game! So with there being so many games, with each one having a different protagonist, the question could arise how come we haven't gotten a main game with a female protagonist?
Some might be quick to defend Ubisoft by saying that maybe "there just weren't any female assassin's in the lore and they don't fit into the game's established universe" After all, Assassin's Creed is all about different historical settings, and it is just a fact of Human history that most warriors and fighters were men. However, "real" history and Assassin's Creed History are not the same. Plus, that argument is just clearly wrong because we know there were plenty female assassin's in lore, but we will circle back to that with Assassin's Creed Origins ending and what it means. Some may be quick to point out, "But, Ubisoft already made several Assassin's Creed games with female protagonists!" Some titles to date are Assassin's Creed Liberation and Assassin's Creed Syndicate. Let's examine both those games. Liberation came out in 2012 but it was a Playstation Vita Exclusive, it launched against its far larger and overshadowing main console system version Assassin's Creed III which featured Connor as the protagonist. This was the first game set in America during a hugely popular historical setting of the Revolutionary War, and this game eclipsed everything it touched. The Playstation Vita was not a high selling console; it is all but gone from the modern landscape. Liberation was a secondary game made for a secondary platform. Most people never owned a vita and have never played it. Now, some could try to defend Ubisoft with the argument that "at the time", Ubisoft maybe didn't view the Vita as a "failing" system but still had trust in it and viewed it as just as important as the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. It is a weak argument but I will accept it. That defense is strengthen by the fact that Liberation was ported to current get when the lackluster Vita faded into the background. There was a "Chronicles" game with a side scrolling female protagonist, but that barely counts as a game let alone a valid point. Those games were just average and not main games. The next big game, Syndicate, was an amazing game. I enjoyed the most modern setting for Assassin's Creed to date, and unlike Liberation it was a main game for main consoles. The game didn't do toogreat because players were suffering from annual fatigue with Ubisoft's accelerated annual release schedule; as well, the previous title Unity had a poor buggy lackluster launch that left a sour taste in buyer's mouth. Those factors clouded Syndicate's greatness. However, Syndicate took a unique path. It featured not one but two main protagonists! Jacob and Evie Frye were a brother-sister duo who fought templars in Industrial London. Like I said before, having gender options for players is not a bad thing; this is not a complaint of having a male protagonist. In Syndicate, both characters are equally important to the plot and players are able to switch back and forth between the siblings at will for most of the game. It was a great step in the right direction for Ubisoft. Both characters were both important to the story; you didn't have to really choose between them because both were available. They had both joined missions, different play styles, different level trees, and even had story specific missions for each of them. Ubisoft made the right direction by making it not "gender for the sake of it". They were both important yet both different. It wasn't all great; even though Jacob was important and great to give players choice, he was still a semi boring character compared to his sister. Evie Fry was funny, charismatic, and a very likable character, while her Brother just was somewhat forgettable. She was the obviously more fleshed out character; and could have carried the entire game if it had been written just for her. Jacob (again, while not bad to have a male option) just felt unnecessary to the story. Gender aside, from a story standpoint, he was the inferior of the two characters and could have been omitted with no ill effect. In fact, Evie alone would have been a better game still. When one character is dimensional and likable while the other feels flat, the question stands out why they didn't just make the game with Evie. I feel it was obvious that he was simply added for the sole purpose of having two gender options for the protagonists. While that isn't a bad thing, If they added him for gender options alone it could still be ok. As well, just because I liked his character less that is just my opinion. Other may have liked Jacob more than I did. However, here is where Ubisoft really messed up. Going back to the part where they both were equal to the plot and able to be played an equal amount of time, one would gander that they might SHARE the box art? If it's two siblings of equal storytelling value then they both should be center stage on the box art right? Maybe standing back to back in serious assassin poses?
Nope. Jacob is center stage on the box art while Evie is off center like a side character she definitely is not. If you knew nothing about the game, looking at this you would assume the "Jacob" character is the solo main protagonist, and the other characters around him are sub characters. In fact, the other four characters on the box art are unnamed unimportant npc characters. There were important historical characters, a side character assassin, who could have taken their place. This choice feels odd when Evie feels more like the main protagonist than Jacob does, but even with that aside, they are a team. Now, one could again try to defend Ubisoft with the argument that Jacob has a more traditional "assassin" silhouette for the box art while Evie does not. I find that a pretty weak argument but I can see the point. After all, I wanted to give Ubisoft the benefit of the doubt because it felt like a step in the right direction! They made so many good decisions like different stories, skill trees, and play styles for the two characters, even if I felt there were some missteps. Box art aside, we still had great progress: developed Female protagonist in a main game, unique and important, not created simply for gender choice. Things have been improved? Then we come back to Assassin's Creed Origins' ending. What they did in this game is just shocking to me. Ubisoft crossed a line, and took two huge steps backward. Unlike the weak defenses for past games, I can't even think of anything for this game. I hate that this takes away from an otherwise beautiful game. It distracts me when I play more of it. For those of you that maybe don't normally care about this topic, I think you should still care about Ubisoft's decision on Assassin's Creed Origins. It's subtle, but once you see it, it is incredible. While Liberation or Syndicate could maybe excused as trying to make the attempt, trying to find a good balance, with just some missteps, Origins is different. There is a huge difference between doing something poorly, and ACTIVELY AVOIDING having a female protagonist, even when doing so makes no sense for the story. Here's what I mean, the reveal at the end that Aya's assassin name is Amunet is HUGE. Since Amunet was created as a character 9 years ago in Assassin's Creed II, that means she has existed in lore all this time. She was there in Egypt all along. Bayek was never mentioned throughout the series, as he was created specifically for this game. He has little lasting effect on the established timeline. Here's what surprised me so much. If you remove Bayek completely, nothing changes the ending; especially since he was absent for the final assassination and the building of the Brotherhood. The protagonist Bayek is completely pointless in the end... Amunet is just a good a fighter as he is. Plus, their son is killed in the first act, so he isn't even needed for "reproductive based story purposes". The entirety of the the game could have been fine as Aya as the main protagonist. She could have been the Magi hunting down the Order of Ancients and killing hippos. You cant blow it off as coincidence and argue "they just decided to make Bayek the protagonist" because Amunet has existed as a character they created 9 years ago, and she is still who built the Brotherhood. They didn't even try to do the "joint protagonist" like in Syndicate which would have been reasonable. While you get to play Aya very briefly in a side mission or two, she is not a shared protagonist. From a story standpoint alone, it makes no sense to have you play as one character an entire game, just to play as a side character in the final mission and make the main character completely irrelevant. It makes it worse when you find out that Aya/Amunet has existed in lore for years and Bayek was just created for this game. For those of you who played Mass Effect 2, there was a side mission where you play as a side character Joker for a small mission while the hero is away. Imagine, instead of being a fun side mission, Joker defeats all of the Reapers (bad guys) single handedly and ended the series all while Shepard (protagonist) was a way somewhere. Gender issues aside, it would feel very weird. It feels even more weird when theres a gender swap for that scenario. That's exactly what happens in Assassin's Creed Origins. You play as one hero for 70 hours and then the final mission is performed by a side character who saves the day and is the one who is actually important to the entire story. Aya was absent from all the marketing, box art, and yet she is the one is supposed to be the ACTUAL protagonist of this story? She is the actual origin of the Assassin's Creed? She was supposed to be the assassin we see in ancient Egypt all the way back in ACII? It boils down to this. Ubisoft had a female character from that historical period all this time already made. She was important, and thought of for years. Then they actually put her in the game, but as a side character only. In game, theres NO REASON she couldn't be the protagonist. Bayek (while developed and likable) is shunned aside in the end and has no purpose being the main protagonist. In the end, it was like we played the entire game from the wrong perspective. I believe Bayek was created and inserted simply because they were afraid to use the female protagonist they ALREADY MADE. -If Aya's character wasn't already created for 9 years than it would be less of an issue. -If Bayek and Aya worked together in the final mission it could be acceptable. -If players could choose to play as either of them as a joint protagonist throughout the game, then it would be fine. I have no problem she ended up being the "hero" in the end. I obviously have no problem with male protagonists. I have a problem she was supposed to be the hero all along and they went out of their way to make a new male character to replace her, and their reason for doing so IS NONEXISTENT. I see it as a slap in the face to gamers, not just female gamers. They created an important character years ago, and were afraid to show us because she was a female? They actually put her in the game, gave her the final mission and importance to the story, but then needlessly inserted a male protagonist for the for 98% of the game for NO REASON that I can think of other than out of fear that having a solo female protagonist in their game. It just feels so weird to switch out the "real hero" at the end of a game. Ubisoft took a extra year off to make this game; they had everything riding on this for the franchise. They were afraid, and needlessly so. At this point, Ubisoft has multiple examples of high selling games with female protagonists. I believe they created Bayek, and inserted him needlessly and pointlessly into AMUNET's story simply out of fear of gamer's reactions. Maybe I am wrong, but I have never seen such an odd last minute switch in a story. Gender aside, I've never seen a protagonist swapped out in this way. It just feel weird. Why should a game developer be afraid to tell a story they have because its from the point of view of a female protagonist? I feel Ubisoft robbed us of the story that was meant to be told because they were afraid that their hero was actually a woman all along. I challenge Ubisoft to make their next main game with a female protagonist. Yes, she can share the game with another (equally important and developed) male protagonist, but if so they must share the box art. Mostly, don't compromise a story because of fear of who the hero is. Heroes come in all shapes, sizes, ages, and genders, and that is ok.