So, in recent video game news, Ubisoft has said that they aren’t going to provide a playable female character in Assassin’s Creed: Unity because it would be too much work. As you might imagine, there’s been a lot of discussion over whether this is true, or whether if even if it’s true that means that they shouldn’t do it, and so on and so forth. But I’m not going to talk about that. Instead, I’m going to talk about this article that I saw in a tweet from Shamus Young, which he recommended as being particularly good, and takes a bit of a different take on the issue.
The article starts out talking about the deep and rich involvement of women in the actual French Revolution — the period the game is set in — in much detail. Much detail. A lot of detail. While this was interesting, this detail goes on for most of the 2 pages of the article, and while it was interesting and taught me things I never knew — not being particularly interested in the French Revolution because military history is more to my interest — by the second page I was skimming the article thinking “Great, but what’s the point?”.
This seems to me to be the point, and the argument for why it is bad that Ubisoft didn’t include a female playable character in the game:
It was wrong because presenting a French Revolution with women as NPCs rather than PCs reinforces the narrative that women were the “passive” citizens that politicians and laws painted them as. Well-written NPCs can certainly teach players about women in the revolution, but by definition an NPC is a character with a scripted routine, one who isn’t free to make her own choices. An NPC does not act – she is acted upon. In other words, by confining women to NPC roles, Ubisoft figuratively condemns its female characters to the second-class status and scripted life women in the actual French Revolution fought – and died – to escape.
In this way, playing a woman in Assassin’s Creed: Unity would in itself be a revolutionary act. To play as a historical woman taking part in political life – and in that period violence was a part of political life – upends the narrative that women were “passive” citizens. But more than that it gives the character a sense of freedom and choice that NPCs don’t have – the power to act rather than react. There is no greater act of liberation than putting a character under player control. A character under programming is an asset, but a character under a player’s hand has free will within the game’s laws. To make an oppressed character playable is to give them the tools to break their chains.
And to quote the legendary sages Hall and Oates: I can’t go for that, noooo, no can do.
The problem here is that it actually seems to conflate two things: game organization and characterization. NPCs are, of course, always in a game to support the narrative and immersion of the player, and so in that sense they aren’t agents, as their agency is, as stated, programmed and scripted. But that doesn’t mean that the characters themselves are agentless or second-class in any way. You could indeed convey all of the history — good and ill — of women in the French Revolution as NPCs even though they are there to support the story, as in any deep story in a game the NPCs are generally there to lead the player into and motivate them to experience the wider world you’re building for them. This is easier to do if the NPCs seem to be full agents, with real desires and real fears, so that then the player comes to believe them and want to help them achieve their desires, or in fact understands that what they desire is what it is right to desire and so comes to desire it themselves, and either tries to remove the threats that they fear or comes to fear those threats themselves. Done well, NPCs build and define the world that the play is immersed in, and the player chooses their path through that world. In some sense, it would be easier to tell the stories that the article tells through NPCs than PCs, because the player can always decide not to care and, if the game is not to be too linear, to work for or against these groups, but the NPCs always have to care and always have to demonstrate that they care and, indeed, why the player might want to work for their interests.
Now, it would have been interesting to have the only playable character be female, as then that would allow them to tell the story of these groups in detail, something that might be more difficult with a male lead. So that’s an opportunity lost. But the major issue in the article is that it assumes that if the role of an NPC is passive in games and is only there to support the player’s narrative, that doesn’t mean that the NPC themselves are passive or don’t have a narrative themselves. To paraphrase Kant, while all NPCs are a means to the end of the player and player character and player character narrative, that doesn’t mean that they are not also ends in themselves in the narrative, that they don’t have a story or even an active role in their own narrative, that the player can link to and drop in and out of as necessary. Women, then, in the game don’t have to be anything like the passive objects that the women of the French Revolution revolted against, even if their concerns may or may not be the main concerns of the player. Good NPCs are still, at the end of the day, characters, and if I’m to believe that the character I’m playing is a person then the same techniques can be used to make them seem like people, too.
So that, perhaps, can be the rallying cry of the NPC revolution: NPCs are people (characters), too. And to insist that not having a female or a male playable character and leaving those stories to the NPCs makes those stories passive, scripted, second-class, chained is to ignore what good story NPCs, at least, are for.
Whether Ubisoft manages to make good story NPCs is another matter, of course …