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Is Anita Sarkessian right about Assassin's Creed: Syndicate? Is it progressive or just lip service?

'AC Syndicate' is Ubisoft's attempt to make up for the disastrous release of 'Unity,' and female fans are high on the developer's list of people to please. But, how do the women of 'Syndicate' measure up under scrutiny?

With the release of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate comes Ubisoft’s first attempt to weave a playable, female protagonist into one of its AAA console releases. The welcome addition to the gameplay was hardly surprising after Ubisoft endured some controversy before to the release of the series’ previous entry, Assassin’s Creed Unity, when it was discovered that the game would feature no female protagonists. The gaming publisher made no friends when Unity’s creative director Alex Amancio claimed the choice boiled down to a lack of available resources

Of course, the scandal was largely forgotten once Unity’s bug-riddled release became a horror story in the industry. One year later, though, Ubisoft’s flagship series is back and vying for redemption on all fronts, not least among them is a clear attempt to win back the love of its female fans. Is the industry titan up to the task?

HEY! If you have not played the entire story of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, you might think about not reading, because there will be some minor spoilers … at this point, though, you most likely know that the game’s plot is both nonsensical and weak, so what’s the harm in learning about a story that would ultimately be unfulfilling anyway, right?

Sarkeesian Weighs In

Evie Frye of Assassin's Creed Syndicate in front of a clock.

The presence of a woman sharing the spotlight in one of gaming’s biggest series was a magnet for critique from voices across the industry. Gaming’s self-appointed crusader, Anita Sarkeesian, posted a review of Syndicate on her site, feministfrequency.com, and (perhaps surprisingly) praised the game, especially its portrayal of the game’s female lead, Evie Frye, saying: 

“Evie is not objectified, she is not sexualized, and she is not created exclusively for the sexual arousal of a presumed straight male audience. She’s dressed appropriately, her fighting moves are not sexualized, and her combat grunts are forceful and fierce, instead of sounding like she is in the throes of ecstasy.”

While Sarkeesian conceded that Evie’s position in the plot is diminished by the time the credits roll, she ultimately seemed pleased with the game’s portrayal of its female and minority characters.

Sarkeesian’s appraisal of the game may be overly kind, however.

The Lady Assassin

Evie Frye of Assassin's Creed Syndicate marketing art

Let’s start with Evie, the better half of the Frye duo. She’s intelligent, capable and totally kick ass. Also, as Sarkeesian pointed out, her grunts and shouts mid-combat are an incredibly cool detail. Meanwhile, her twin brother Jacob is a brash rogue who’s attempts to conquer the city inevitably make London a worse place to live. 

This overt attempt to make Evie more responsible than her brother, however, ultimately comes off as thin praise designed to take the edge off the feminist critiques. Even the male characters’ treatment of Evie seems designed to remind audiences that Ubisoft is treating a woman like an equal. Seemingly every male character, when introduced to her, makes a comment along the lines of, “What a remarkable lady who is utterly equal to me in every way.”

Sarkeesian’s further critique, that Evie’s role is diminished as the plot moves along, is absolutely spot on.

It’s possible to suggest that Jacob’s front and center placement in the game’s final acts is a necessary result of the differing character of the twins. Evie is prone to following up stories that other consider flights of fancy; Jacob is given to grasping at more tangible goals, like wealth and territory. So, it’s more understandable that Jacob would incur the wrath of more people, while Evie, mostly alone in her scholarly pursuits, would only run afoul of those few like-minded souls who believed in her mythological pursuits.

Yet, throughout the first half of the game, Evie is constantly around to mop up after her brother’s mistakes. In the latter half of the game, she isn’t even afforded that much responsibility. It’s as though the developers devoted a little time in the beginning of their narrative to quiet the critics before moving on to the plot points that actually mattered.

If you need proof of that, just check out the box art, where Evie is afforded all the physical importance of an NPC with no lines:

Assassin's Creed Syndicate box art

And the Minor Characters?

This one thing can be said for Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. Its representation of female characters is leagues ahead of other games in the series, if only because women are everywhere.

It succeeds in much the same way as Mad Max: Fury Road did this summer in that it provides lots of different female characters with lots of different personalities and character traits. In so doing, Syndicate takes a lot of pressure off of Evie to be the sole representative of her sex in the narrative.

Evie Frye murdering Lucy Thorne in Assassin's Creed Syndicate.

Baddie Lucy Thorne is also fun to hate, even if she’s done a disservice by being set up so obviously as Evie’s foil. It's a little, let's say, old-school to set the male protagonist with a male counterpart and a female protagonist with a female counterpart. The fact that Evie’s primary antagonist is offed two-thirds of the way through the plot is further telling of Evie’s marginalized role.

Then there’s the much lauded inclusion of Ned Wynert, a transgender character whose preferences are never addressed in the game. In her review of the game, Sarkeesian (like so many others) not only praised Wynert’s presence, she applauded the fact that no one in Victorian London had anything to say about it. While she acknowledged the total lack of realism in regards to this decision, she rationalized that in the context of the overarching plot (which is completely silly), this anachronism was extremely progressive. In other words, by not addressing Wynert’s differences, Ubisoft has normalized them, a wonderfully kind gesture.

It’s telling, however, that no mention is made of Wynert’s sexuality or Henry Green’s race. It’s wonderful that they’re treated as equals, of course, but not addressing those aspects of their character which would have absolutely been a factor in Victorian London is a disservice to them. Glossing over the extra hurdles they would have endured undermines the extra effort these people would have had to exert on a daily basis. These folks weren’t normal, they were extraordinary, because they were succeeding in a world where the deck was stacked against them. It just seems as though Ubisoft had an opportunity to celebrate that strength, and instead they simply propped them up as window dressing in yet another story about a white dude punching another white dude in the face.

TL;DR

Evie Frye throwing knives in Assassin's Creed Syndicate

That’s pretty heavy talk for what does, in fact, amount to one of the best entries in the Assassin’s Creed series in years. And a lot of critiques are levied against one of the best new female characters to hit games in years. Ubisoft came off as kind of a lip service villain throughout, a verdict that’s not fair to them, either.

Sure, taken by itself, Syndicate has some work to do in developing its female characters. Of course, its male characters were in need of some development, as well, so perhaps it’s better to view Syndicate in the grander scheme of the games industry. Viewed in that scope, the game is a towering success, a huge forward leap in its treatment of women and minorities.

Ubisoft should be praised for its obvious willingness to listen to critics and adjust their material accordingly. It just would have been better if their adjustments had not seemed so clearly designed to prove that they were willing to listen and adjust their material. Syndicate is absolutely a big step in the right direction, though, and other developers would do well to take note.

Published Nov. 8th 2015
  • Gabriel_7264
    All this Social Justice Warrior bs is getting really tiresome. Not that this was the only thing wrong with the article, but the moment you started citing Sarkeesian the troll, you failed.
  • UptownFunk
    This "Social Justice Warrior bs" might tiresome to you, but it's not to me. I'm all for socially progressive representation.
  • Gabriel_7264
    way to be part of the problem. It's people like you who think that games - A) aren't already socially inclusive and - B) making everything about racism/sexism etc - that are creating this phantom problem.

    But please, by all means, let's keep pretending that women are only punching bag prostitutes in games and nothing more. There definitely haven't been any games with a female lead, and the bug ridden mess boring mess that is Assassin's creed definitely needs more pandering to "feminists" instead of...oh I dunno...fixing the problems or even making the game good. Of course. How blind of me.
  • UptownFunk
    You are exaggerating and misrepresenting an argument to make it easier to attack.
  • Rothalack
    Master O' Bugs
    Let's just pretend that there has never been a female protagonist with these qualities in any game ever.
  • UptownFunk
    It's not a 'one and done' sort of thing.
  • Jay Ricciardi
    Contributor
    It's certainly a step in the right direction! Probably the biggest win is that we've got protagonist who actually does sound like a fighter - she grunts and exhales with force when she fights in a medium where such grunts are usually softened and sexualized. Prime example - the League of Legends' death clips: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sdnYy1b8KEY

    Of course, people will still happily complain about Evie's inclusion and the generally well-written women of Syndicate. But I'll never be anything but glad that some people will play this game and feel better represented than they would have otherwise. Some people will buy this game, and play it, and be stoked because there are more inclusive design choices. It's not perfect, Syndicate could have been much better; but, this is a great step and is a testament that things are getting better.
  • Mathenaut
    The answer is: Nobody cares, because these would-be critics are all but irrelevant. They do not make contributions of any real substance.

    Not the first time women or minorities have taken prominent roles in a game, nor is this the first appearance of a trans character. Most importantly, none of this has any real bearing on the quality of the game or the structure of it's narrative.

    Is the game good? Are the mechanics solid, is the story coherent, does the gameplay have depth?

    Does it pursue bold direction or does it pander to popular culture?
    Is the economic model worthy or Is it riddled with microtransactions and DLC?

    All of these are more important and more pressing questions than whether a barely competent critic approves for particularly shallow reasons that are of no consequence.
  • Jay Ricciardi
    Contributor
    Just because you might not care doesn't mean that no one cares. Not every gamer has the exact same priorities as you do. This really matters to many people - many people who are going to look at their own set of priorities to determine whether or not they give this franchise money and give the developers more resources to further improve future Assassin's Creed games.

    And while some people aren't a fan of one critic's opinions, many other people are. Many people look to certain critics specifically because they trust those critics' opinions to inform their purchasing decisions.
  • Mathenaut
    If that demographic were at-all significant or it's critics worth any worthwhile influence, perhaps. This isn't the case, however.

    It's mostly just cheerleading by fanboys that want to give the impression that their ideas have further reach than they do.

    Nobody is complaining that there is a female lead. Some of the best games in history have female leads.
    Nobody is complaining that there are minority characters. This is not at all new or groundbreaking.

    What is annoying is treating these things like they *are* new and groundbreaking, and treating them like they've never been seen before. That's a step beyond giving props, and is just senselessly hyping up something mundane for trivial reasons.

    Coming from people that should supposedly know better, it is a mark against credibility and deservedly so.

    Like all senseless hype, it gets backlash, not because people take issue with the game per-se, but because the hype is weak and is deserving of ridicule.
  • Ashley Gill
    Associate Editor
    My big question is:

    Does it really matter?

    I honestly could not care less if a game has any female characters, much less whether their inclusion is "lip service". Honestly, one should be more concerned with whether a game is good or not. I've been playing games since 1989 and not once have I been made to feel bad by a female character being attractive, and I've never sat back and pondered on whether a series would be better with more women.

    Furthermore, the inclusion of Ned Wynert simply makes no sense. I am sorry. I know the AC games aren't necessarily known for their historical accuracy, but it makes no sense for a transgendered character to be treated like everyone else in the era the game is set in. Oscar Wilde was imprisoned in the 1890's simply for being homosexual. No matter the social circle, Ned Wynert would be given the same treatment if not worse during that time. This in particular just irks the hell out of me because of the time period, and is exactly the sore thumb that shows this is all just "lip service".

    Including a female protag in Syndicate, a transgendered character, and more racial diversity in AC:S is more about ticking off those boxes on the diversity checklist than it is anything else. Which I know sounds terrible, but it IS lip service -- this is all 2015 has been in terms of shoving diversity into games, especially in settings where it just doesn't fit. Pretending otherwise is doing yourself the disservice of willful ignorance.

    The fact that anyone really sits down and goes "I wonder if this diversity was added for the sake of lip service?" is even something that anyone worries about honestly makes me worry about the state of things.

    It would be nice if people would worry about actual PoC or women's issues or, you know, actually do something helpful for a cause instead of critiquing game developer's creative decisions to make certain groups feel more comfortable with something that shouldn't be an issue in the first place. But at least you can feel good about yourself and look good to your friends and peers if you're standing behind what is essentially manufactured outrage with the goal of creative censorship.
  • Durinn McFurren
    Contributor
    I absolutely agree. I love when we get stories involving historically realistic strong female characters (say, about Boudica), but I don't like sacrificing realism this way. Women and transgender people WOULD have been treated badly at this time. Men would have been pretty upset at the idea of a woman 'being equal' to them (heck, a lot of women at that time would have had problems with the idea!). Almost everyone would have hated transgender people. In England, just a few decades ago, homosexuality was still a crime punishable by prison time!

    A much better way of handling these kinds of issues was in AC: Brotherhood. Ezio discovered Leonardo was gay, and had no problem with it, but they still kept it a secret. Ezio of course knew that the religion and culture of the time were mythological due to his special Assassin knowledge, plus Assassins are naturally more questioning and accepting, so it made sense that he might not really have an issue with gay people (he probably had ancestral memories of, e.g., bisexual Greeks and whatnot - the ancestral memories would really give him a broader view). And Leonardo da Vinci may have actually been gay or bisexual, so the whole storyline felt organic and realistic.

    I mean what is next, a WWII shooter featuring women on the front lines on Omaha Beach?

    'The fact that anyone really sits down and goes "I wonder if this diversity was added for the sake of lip service?" is even something that anyone worries about honestly makes me worry about the state of things.'

    Again I agree. Although nobody will care about my opinions or arguments; I'll just end up being dismissed with ad hominem remarks about being a 'privileged white male.'

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