After plenty of leaks and rumors, Ubisoft finally announced this year’s Assassin’s Creed game, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. The trailers and demo are action packed and gorgeous, the new locale of London on the brink of the Industrial Revolution is fascinating, and all the new gameplay elements including the rope launcher, the carriages, the six-shooter, all beg to be played with. But there is one thing that just still seems off about the whole thing.
In a press event with multiple outlets, including the Guardian, Ubisoft opened up about the fact that there are two playable characters in Syndicate, Jacob and his twin sister Evie. The player is given the ability to switch back and forth between the two on the fly in the open world. If you only watched the official announcement however, or even if you were silly enough to read everything about the announcement on the game’s official site, there is not a single mention of this. In fact, Evie gets a few sentences in the announcement (nothing but a quick description of her), while her brother is introduced with the rather direct statement, “In Assassin’s Creed Syndicate you’ll play as Jacob Frye,” which is then followed by discussions of the character, an entire demo displaying his assassination prowess, and a full trailer detailing everything about him.
The rather singular focus of Syndicate is made that much more clear when looking at the released box art for the game. Jacob takes center stage, his sister relegated to the position of a secondary character, on par with four other characters that we are given about as much reason to care about as her.
Despite this, Marc-Alexis Côté, creative director on Syndicate, claimed during the press event that Jacob and Evie are both, in fact, central, playable protagonists, saying, “I think two protagonists is something that can bring a lot of freshness to the way that we do storytelling. We tried that on Assassin’s Creed 3 with Haytham and Connor, but they were coming one after the other. So, one of the things I was wondering was, what if we had those two bouncing off each other. They’re twins, with the playfulness of twins, but still have their own very different personalities. This was the intention we had from the beginning.”
With the current state of the video game industry, with Gamergate and even small games like Life is Strange being held up by publishers for not having a male lead, now is the perfect time for someone to step up and deliver a great game with a great female protagonist. But this isn’t just an equality thing. It is also a business decision for Ubisoft, a business decision that so far makes little to no sense.
At this year’s GDC, two game developers, Rosalind Wiseman and Ashly Burch showed the findings of a study they had conducted on middle school and high school students. They actually found that having the standard male protagonist alienated more female gamers than it managed to attract male gamers. Overall, past middle school, male gamers cared less about whether a lead was male, a fact going directly in the face of prevailing theories about what sells games.
More than this however, Ubisoft and the Assassin’s Creed franchise have already been down this road. Last year, Assassin’s Creed Unity, a game that featured four-player co-op, came under fire because all four characters were male. Speaking with Polygon, creative director Alex Amancio sited the “realities of production” as the reason there was no female playable character, saying, “It’s double the animations, it’s double the voices, all that stuff and double the visual assets,” a statement that earned plenty of backlash.
But here we go, Ubisoft has a female playable character, they have the answer to a major element of criticism, but still, Evie is pushed to the side, hidden away.
Overall, the whole thing just feels weird given the otherwise heavy emphasis the reveal played on the ‘new’. Being a yearly release now, Assassin’s Creed lives and dies on the idea of what’s new, something clearly evident as we were treated to the new faster combat, the new carriages, the new rope launcher, and the new mechanics brought on by the new location. Nothing gets much more ‘new’ than the first female playable character in a main release for the franchise. Evie is not just a character in a 2D game or a handheld game, she’s one of the leading protagonists in a solid, AAA Assassin’s Creed release. She’s not just another bland white guy. That’s something to get excited about, yet here we are.
I was ecstatic when I first read about the announcement. Not for the rope launcher or the gang wars of London. I was ecstatic for Evie. It was the switching back and forth between two characters (a la Tales from the Borderlands or Grand Theft Auto V) that got me excited. So why was this fact, this amazing thing that is unlike any of the other (sort of repetitive) Assassin’s Creeds games, pushed to the side and not even part of the main reveal?
There are, of course, the incredibly pessimistic answers: the mechanic of switching between them may simply not work yet, the character might be simply an aesthetic change with no effect on gameplay, or it might even be just be a very small part of the game, much like the rare instances you switch to playing as Catwoman in Batman: Arkham City. There are, after all, unconfirmed rumors making the rounds that the story missions are split as much as 75% to 25% in favor of Jacob.
But, to be fair, it is also possible that Evie was meant to be a secret, held for E3. Executive producer, Francois Pelland, avoided questions about her with, “Evie is a presentation that we are going to save.” With all the leaks before the official announcement, including the possibility of a female playable character, Ubisoft might have just gone forward, announcing the dual protagonists, even though it was too late to work into the full reveal, or anything, anywhere. This however, does not account for the Jacob-centric box art.
Whatever the reason is for the oddity of the announcement, whatever the future may hold between now and October 23rd, there is no doubt, for me, that Ubisoft fumbled the reveal. Where there should be unrestrained excitement, all I feel is a very cautious optimism, the spark of dread left to linger in the back of my mind. Simply put, the possibility of another game about nothing more than a 20-something-year-old white guy going around killing people is still far too much of bland likelihood.
In the wake of the Syndicate announcement, one of our other editors shared the emotional ups and downs he feels with every Assassin’s Creed reveal. Be sure to check out his thoughts. And of course, if you really are in the buying mood, Ubisoft has already got you covered with plenty of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate collector’s editions to pre-order.
How do you feel about the reveal? Are you excited to play as Evie? Or is Jacob enough for you? Sound off in the comments.