It almost feels like there needs to be an E3 controversy each year. This year Ubisoft has provided the vocal gaming public with something to critique. If you’ve been keeping up with the E3 news then I’m sure you’re aware of what I’m talking about: Ubisoft’s decision to cut female playable characters from the co-op portion of Assassin’s Creed Unity.
Now, however, in a perfect example of poor timing and developer stumbles, Far Cry 4 director Alex Hutchinson has revealed that his game almost allowed for a choice between male or female co-op partner avatars as well.
So that’s two of Ubisoft’s biggest franchises at this year’s E3 admitting that they had thought about but later cancelled the option to play as a female character in co-op. For both games the developers claimed that this was all down to limited resources and timing. Is that a good excuse or is it just another endemic phenomenon of the corporate status of AAA gaming titles?
First of all let’s look at Assassin’s Creed Unity. The new entry into Ubisoft’s biggest franchise has removed all forms of competitive multiplayer. In the past, it was in this game mode where players could opt to be a female assassin. Alternatively the only game (out of 10 Assassin’s Creed titles across various formats excluding browser and mobile phone) that stars a female character is the PlayStation Vita game Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation. In Liberation, players take on the role of Aveline de Grandpré who, I would argue, is one of the series’ strongest leading characters. Incidentally that game has been given the HD treatment and ported to PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360; I recommend it if you haven’t played it.
With the removal of competitive multiplayer from Unity, Ubisoft needed to tick that multiplayer tick box and instead added a four-player co-op mode for the new game. When you play online with friends you will need to have created a multiplayer avatar. That customisable avatar will only ever be seen in game on your friends’ systems; on your system you will always be the new series protagonist Arno Dorian – a male assassin of noble origin. Assassin’s Creed Unity is about Arno Dorian. One could argue that the series has always been about the leading character, as their personal lives and progression always become entwined with the series’ major plotline. With that in mind, and considering that when you are playing with friends in Unity you are playing drop-in, drop-out co-op and not a separate multiplayer mode, it makes sense that players are always Arno. If not, then Ubisoft’s writers may as well have never been hired to weave a story with a main character in the first place. Of course, one could argue then that if you are always Arno, does it matter what you look like in your friends’ games? Even if you could opt to be a female assassin in co-op, you’d never see yourself as female anyway.
I think people are more upset that they’ve had the choice taken away from them.
Despite this, Ubisoft indicated that they had originally planned to include female assassins as an option in co-op. Speaking to Polygon, the game’s creative director Alex Amancio said that that option was dropped because of “the reality of production”. He continued: “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.” With that reasoning it’s not surprising that this caused an online uproar.
It’s now been a few days since this Internet furore kicked off, and Amancio has had a chance to clarify his initial statements. Eurogamer is reporting that after speaking with him, Amancio has “switched stance” and is “insisting” that the decision to cut females from co-op had nothing to do with production. Eurogamer’s statement, however, isn’t really backed up by any accompanying quote. Rather, they quote Amancio as he provides his opinion on the fuss this has caused: “I understand the issue, I understand the cause, and it is a noble one, but I don’t think it’s relevant in the case of Unity. In Unity you play this character called Arno, and when you’re playing co-op you’re also playing Arno – everybody is. It’s like Aiden Pierce in Watch Dogs.”
This is probably going to piss off a few people, but I’ve got to admit that I was kind of thinking along the same lines as Amancio before this new quote from Eurogamer even made it online. Yes, the fact that people get upset by the exclusion of female avatar options in games is a good thing to get upset about, but in the context of Assassin’s Creed Unity’s co-op mode, I feel that the argument is taking place within the wrong context.
What I think caused this upset is the fact that inclusivity in gaming is currently a very hot topic. When Ubisoft was quoted as saying they removed female options because of production restraints, it understandably caused an uproar because many gamers are currently hyper-sensitive to gaming inclusivity. This feels like an anger borne out of fixating on a sensitive topic, and that sensitive topic then causing heated emotions which in turn make objective deductions a little trickier. (No, I’m not being patronising; I’m just trying to make sense of what’s going on here.) It doesn’t help that Ubisoft’s representatives explained themselves rather poorly. What I think is closer to Ubisoft’s rationale is that they looked at their development plans, looked at their timing to ship the game, and decided to remove female co-op options because providing that option wasn’t going to have a direct impact on what the player sees anyway. If it wasn’t going to directly affect what the player sees, then why channel development resources into it? It was just really stupid (and one could argue topically insensitive) that Ubisoft chose to even mention that they had originally intended to include a female option.
Still, their decision, from a development, gameplay mechanic, and business perspective makes sense. From a keeping-up-with-hot-topics-affecting-the-gaming-industry perspective, Ubisoft missed an opportunity to make a statement. They could have introduced co-op avatars, stated that you as the player will never see your co-op avatar during play, but then said that they’d chosen to include female assassin options anyway because the franchise has always tried to be inclusive. That would have obviously gone against their production restraints reason provided at E3, but you cannot tell me that a game that has ten separate Ubisoft teams working on it couldn’t have managed to do the extra work required to bring female avatars to co-op. Adding to that is ex-Ubisoft employee and Assassin’s Creed III animator Jonathan Cooper’s Tweet:
In my educated opinion, I would estimate this to be a day or two’s work. Not a replacement of 8000 animations. http://t.co/z4OZl3Sngl
— Jonathan Cooper (@GameAnim) June 11, 2014
Then comes Far Cry 4, which continues the E3 theme of removed female co-op partners. Speaking with Polygon, the game’s director Alex Hutchinson stated: “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. And it was purely a workload issue because we don’t have a female reading for the character, we don’t have all the animations. And so it was this weird issue where you could have a female model that walked and talked and jumped like a dude.”
Good grief, it’s like Ubisoft puts their game directors through a course on how to side step stumble away from hot topics. This one is identical to Alex Amancio’s Assassin’s Creed Unity excuse, only Hutchinson hasn’t had the chance to clarify his statement just yet. We can, however, apply Amancio’s clarification to Far Cry 4 as well:
In the multiplayer of Far Cry 4, a friend can join your game at any time, or you can join a friend’s game. The two of you will both remain Far Cry 4 protagonist Ajay Ghale, only you’ll look like a different avatar to your friend. (Of course, what you look like in a first-person game is arguably irrelevant because you never really see yourself anyway; you’re just a floating camera holding a gun.) Still, Hutchinson and his team came close to including the option to play as a female in co-op, so why the change?
The answer, I think, is pretty simple and can apply to both Far Cry 4 and Assassin’s Creed Unity. Both games feature seamless co-op options; seamless multiplayer is apparently all the rage at the moment. However, seamless co-op in a game that stars a particular, narrative driven character obviously presents problems for development teams. Having your game world suddenly populated by another three Arno Dorians is going to wreck any immersion and break the game’s inherent narrative. Consequently other players need to look different to you, but not different to the leading character they’re playing on their platform, which also happens to be your leading character. By allowing the player to switch the protagonist’s gender the moment co-op starts, it creates a disconnect with the main narrative and completely negates the efforts to create a seamless co-op, and a character-driven storyline for that matter.
I guess this is the result of developers trying to get away from separate multiplayer modes and instead provide a seamless online experience. It was one of the much-touted next-gen features, but now that it’s here it’s clearly causing some unforeseen issues insofar as gender equality and inclusivity in gaming is concerned. Perhaps Hutchinson is more spot-on than he realises when he provided the following positive note after explaining the removal of female co-op options from Far Cry 4: “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.” So then do we treat this as a teething period while developers get to grips with new mechanics and online gameplay features? If it is then it’s a teething period that’s come at an unfortunate time when concern for gaming inclusivity is at its highest.
That or it’s what I originally alluded to: another endemic phenomenon of the corporate status of AAA gaming titles. Make cuts in order to lower development costs, resource requirements and development times, then pump out those games as fast as possible.