(This article is mainly a share of the news coming out of Ubisoft, and the evidence supporting these allegations, but contains opinion based commentary from Jesse. His views are his own and anyone is welcome to disagree. Please keep comments respectful.)
Some very interesting articles came across my path during my latest news research. Ubisoft has been in the news a lot recently, and not all of it has been good. Ubisoft has seen some high ranking members step down to various allegations about sexual misconduct allegations in the work place. Now, it seems that a few news outlets, including heavy hitters such as IGN and PC Gamer, have dug up allegations that Ubisoft in the past has discouraged its developers from having Female protagonists in their games, as far as forcing them to minimize their presence or existence in games. The last three Assassin's Creed games apparently had their female protagonists significantly reduced.
This article is essentially an "I told you so" piece. I wrote this article, "Is Ubisoft Afraid of Female Protagonists" way back in February of 2018. Back in the beginning of 2018, I had just finished Assassin's Creed Origins, which prompted me to write that opinion piece. The ending was the final straw that made me suspicious that Ubisoft had something actively against female protagonists. I went about making arguments for why I suspected something was going on behind the scenes at Ubisoft, and now it turns out I was right all along. In 2018, I only had suspicions based on certain reasons, but now it turns out statements coming out of Ubisoft proved my suspicion was correct back in 2018.
To summarize my original article, I first pointed to minor pieces of evidence that Ubisoft seemed to have something against female protagonists. I critiqued the fact that while Assassin's Creed Syndicate (prior to Origins) had two protagonists of equal importance, Evie was off on the side of the cover art while Jacob was front and center. Many felt that Evie's role was minimized in the game for some reason, and she did have less missions than Jacob. Despite being a franchise that has had more games than most, it had yet to feature a sole-female protagonist in a mainline game. One would think that after enough games the developers would want diversity to add something new to the next game. However the biggest and most suspicious argument comes when players get to the end of Assassin's Creed Origins. That ending truly baffled me. I remember finishing it, after sinking at least a 100 hours of my life into that game, and feeling just...odd. While an otherwise masterpiece of a game, Origins to this day still has one of the most strange narrative decisions I have ever seen in a game. It also contains a detail, a clue going all the way back to Assassin's Creed II, that blew my mind it's implications.
If you wish to avoid spoilers for Assassin's Creed Origins, please skip this paragraph.
Assassin's Creed Origins has players control a character named Bayek, as he goes on his quest to hunt down a cult (pre-cursors to the series antagonist group, the Templars) because they are responsible for the death of his son at the very beginning. We get to meet Bayek's wife Aya, periodically throughout the game, even controlling her for a short period, but her role is pretty tiny. Over the course of the game, we see the establishment of the Assassin's, the formation of their symbol, and one of history's biggest assassinations. The weird thing is, Bayek is completely irrelevant and unnecessary to the story. At the very end of a hundred some hours playing as Bayek, the final mission is an assassination performed by Aya. I found it odd that the developers would have you switch to essentially a side character for the final mission. Furthermore, Bayek just feels unimportant to the whole overarching story of Assassin's Creed, because in the story, Aya is the one who decides on the symbol. She is the one who forms the Brotherhood of Assassin's. Bayek isn't even necessary for the players to control because Aya is just as capable of an Assassin as he is, and the story's overall motivation (the death of their son) she obviously would share. Bayek is just... there. He feels "inserted" into the game. He plays no part in the outcome of the story. He has no importance to the history of Assassin's Creed. It is just strange! I didn't understand at first the scope of how weird this game was, until Near the end we get the shocking reveal of Aya's assassin name, Amunet , and realized it's internal lore implications for the franchise. You see, Bayek wasn't just unnecessary, according to the pre-existing lore of Assassin's Creed, he was INVENTED for this game solely so it wouldn't have the female protagonist it was originally supposed to have. The important detail is in Assassin's Creed 2, players discover a vault with multiple historical assassin's throughout Assassin's Creed history, and Amunet was there. Years before Origins was ever made, Amunet was supposed to be the hero the whole time. This means, she was purposely sidelined from the game and Bayek was created to be the "protagonist". When I realized that Amunet was there the whole time, it was blatantly obvious to me Bayek was a tack on character. The only explanation I could think of was Ubisoft didn't want to have a sole female protagonist in the game and changed it.
To be clear, I (and I'm sure others reporting this news) have no problem with male characters. Several of my favorite games contain male characters. I stand by artists to tell the story they want.
Here we are fast forwarded to 2020, and voices coming out of Ubisoft are confirming the idea that I suspected over two years ago. I never followed up on the idea because Ubisoft seemed to have skirted around the issue by widely adopting create your own or choose your own characters in their game since then. I felt it was a good compromise, but maybe after all it was to cover up their desire to avoid having a "woman on the cover". I don't even understand it either. Regardless of political complexity and other social divides, at the end of the day, games are a business. If it could be proven that games with sole female protagonists just made less money, I could at least "maybe" understand (not agree, but understand) their perspective. But I don't even feel the business argument has any legs to stand on because we live in an age where plenty of AAA titles have female only protagonists. The Last of Us Part 2, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Control, Resident Evil 3 Remake, Nier Automata, Hellblade Senua's Sacrifice are just a few of the recent examples of major titles from this generation alone in recent few years that were both critical and financial successes. If a game was always meant to have a male protagonist, fine. Obviously, this has nothing to do with male protagonists "being wrong".
I also stand by games that want to have historical accuracy when that makes sense. Also, I don't have any issue with games that offer both. There's plenty of argument for high quality character creators so that players can create a hero that looks like them. As a white male, I don't agree that all characters must look like me. I want ALL my gamer friends to have that same experience. Some developers have done that well. Games like Mass Effect, or the upcoming Cyberpunk 2077, put player choice and expression front and center. Gender is given equal importance, left up to the player, and done well. There is still a point to be made about the motivation behind custom characters. Most studios use it to offer more choice and offer more diversity and representation. Some studios like Ubisoft, I suspect, are using it as a cover up for not wanting female lead games. It's a small, subtle, but important distinction.
However, all this said, it's another thing all together for a studio to actively discourage developers from having female protagonists, forcing them to minimize existing female characters. That's infringing on the artists intent, and that's swinging the pendulum in the wrong direction. As of this writing, I'm working on a mini-series of my favorite video game characters. One of the articles is favorite female video game characters, and in that article I reference how I think diversity and representation in games is important. For those who don't know, I recently became a father and I want my daughter to have strong and badass characters to look up to like I did when I was a kid. I hope she loves and enjoys games as I did growing up. I think it is important we applaud and support studios that do it right. Whether it is with quality choice or just allowing for diverse pre-made protagonists when the developers wish. I don't mean to make this political or controversial, I just mean to report the news of this information coming out of Ubisoft, and point out that I shared this suspicion two years ago.