Ubisoft have recently come under fire for failing to include any playable female characters in their upcoming game, Far Cry 4, since they “just couldn’t squeeze it in in time”.
This is shortly after they announced another upcoming release, Assassin’s Creed: Unity, would contain no playable female characters, again due to timing. And then, the reason was debunked. An animator for games company Naughty Dog, Jonathan Cooper, argued extra animations for a female character would take Ubisoft’s team of 2600 “a day or two”. He’s had experience, since he was responsible for animating playable female characters in Mass Effect 2 (and was, in fact, the director of animation for Assassin’s Creed 3).
The outcry against Ubisoft just marks the tip of the iceberg. Representation in games, and which groups get it and which don’t, is a debate that stretches right across the industry. It’s not without good reason. A recent statistic showed that 45% of all gamers are women, at least in the US. At the same time, a video’s been released that shows protagonists from 33 big budget games shown at E3 this year. All of them are men.
Some people, however, claim the majority of female gamers are “casual”. While they add to the 45%, they’re uninterested in anything the industry has to offer beyond another level of Candy Crush Saga on their iPad. PC and console games, it’s argued, are mainly the preserve of men, and game creators pander to them over anyone else simply because that’s what sells.
But the backlash against Ubisoft’s actions, from all sides of games journalism and social media as a whole, shows there definitely ARE a lot of people who’d like the option to play as a woman to be made available. Already, in spite of the “40 Faces of Gaming”, indie developers and some big-hitters are tapping into that market: one journalist counted 90 games with the option to play as a woman at this year’s E3.
Meanwhile, others claim representation through playable characters is ultimately unimportant. Some of the most successful video-game protagonists – Master Chief, Marcus Fenix, Far Cry 3’s Jason Brody – are basically just blank slates, bereft of real characterization. They’re something you just jump into to enjoy the game’s mechanics: you can enjoy a round of Titanfall, for instance, without emotional investment in your pilot’s PTSD and his dreams of buying a coffee shop in Malta.
Fair enough. Those are e-sports; games in the truest sense of the word. The story’s irrelevant. But more and more, games are selling themselves on their story and characters – Far Cry 4 did a whole ten-minute trailer showing off its whimsically psychotic main villain. More and more, the industry tries to move towards that banner marked “True Art” – well, True Art keeps moving. It innovates. And it always looks for new points of view.
There is a third option. Story-driven games like Portal 2, BioShock and, indeed, Far Cry 3 use the blank-slate protagonist to immerse the player into the game’s world. At the same time, the interesting characters are the ones that surround them, and these themselves can provide representation.
For the record, Ubisoft claim that Far Cry 4’s supporting cast will be “packed to the gills with women”. Two of the game’s four antagonists will be women, as well as “one of the main leaders of the rebel faction” on your side, and about half of the rebel ground troops. “They’re everywhere”, the company argues, “just like life”. Granted, representation doesn’t necessarily mean quality representation – a female character can be plopped in a game with no character beyond her appearance, some would say far too often – but for the moment, we should hold out enough hope not to dismiss a game that hasn’t even been released yet.
Undoubtedly we should embrace the inclusion of rounded female characters in games, whether as playable heroes or interesting supporting characters. Already, sections of the industry seem to be making steps towards it, and if it works for them companies like Ubisoft will inevitably follow suit. As for Far Cry 4, judgement on how well it represents women should be held off for now; at least until we actually see the full game in action.