When ASSASSIN’S CREED ODYSSEY launched a few months back, I was thrilled that there was a playable female protagonist in its lead role. Playing as Kassandra is an absolute joy, and her design is an example of how to create a female character that’s more than her looks or her sexuality. She’s strong and scarred and muscular (her arms are a work of art!), she’s superbly animated, and her voice acting is just as spectacular. Melissanthi Mahmut imbues Kassandra at once with strength and vulnerability, harshness and gentleness. She makes Kassandra a fully-formed human, and beyond that, a badass character to control.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of ODYSSEY players who won’t get this experience, because Kassandra is not the only character you can play as. At the game’s start, you are prompted to choose between playing as Kassandra or her brother, Alexios. While both siblings are mechanically identical, it’s a decision that affects the story, and players are locked in with their choice until the end of the game. And, honestly, Alexios is not a great pick. The guy is pretty dull, even by Assassin’s Creed standards (There’s a reason Ezio has been the only character to get an encore so far). Like a poverty Kratos, the only emotional spectrum Alexios exists on is a brusque sort of anger; there’s no nuance or subtlety to him. It doesn’t take long for that to become grating—and in a game this long, that’s a real problem.
Honestly, how are you going to say “no” to a face like that?
Offering two choices when one of them is clearly second-rate is not a choice at all, only serving to punish the player who makes the wrong decision. Previous Assassin’s Creed games have multiple playable characters, and some of those have been women, but never have players been made to choose whether or not they want an XX Assassin. So why is it a choice in ODYSSEY? Can it honestly be that Ubisoft just… didn’t trust their game to a female protagonist?
Assassin’s Creed is a video game franchise with a questionable past—to put it lightly—when it comes to its portrayal of female characters. Ubisoft drew the ire of fans when they cut women entirely from the customizable multiplayer mode of ASSASSIN’S CREED UNITY, and their justification that women are “too hard to animate” did not help.
As it turned out, animating women was the least of UNITY’s troubles
Even when Ubisoft did feature women in leading roles, it wasn’t always ideal. 2012’s ASSASSIN’S CREED LIBERATION featured Aveline de Grandpré, but her adventure was a spin-off that was exclusively relegated to the Vita, meaning that all of 14 people had a chance to play as her. In ASSASSIN’S CREED ORIGINS, released last year, we meet Aya, a vibrant mother-turned-warrior, and more importantly, the founder of the titular Creed itself—but she’s not the main character of the game. She’s playable, but only for small sections, while her husband Bayek takes center stage.\
Before ODYSSEY, the only mainline title that placed the player in control of woman in a substantial role was ASSASSIN’S CREED SYNDICATE. SYNDICATE offered another pair of sibling assassins, Jacob and Evie, who were both playable. Each had their own storylines, strengths, and weaknesses, creating a fun change of pace for the franchise. Their sibling dynamic is different from the Kassandra vs. Alexios choice in that the other sibling is not locked out—players assume both roles pretty much equally throughout the main story of the game. There was no wrong choice to be made, only an entertaining dynamic between two valuable protagonists. Even so, it isn’t quite the same as a woman having the cover to herself.
Thank goodness for reversible sleeves
Ubisoft’s statements make it appear as though they believe the choice between Kassandra and Alexios is the way forward, the way to solve their own mess with UNITY, in order to appeal to as many players as possible. And that makes a certain sort of sense—everyone likes to see themselves reflected in the media they consume. It’s certainly not a bad move forward for the franchise. But in terms of the video game industry’s relationship with female protagonists—and the constantly growing demographic of female players—it’s not enough.
At E3 in 2018, 8% of the video games presented featured a written, sole, female protagonist. Single digits. And the games featuring male heroes? 24%—three times as many games. A decent 50% of games at the conference offered a choice between male or female protagonists, or multiple protagonists of different genders in the same game. This seems like such a great number of female protagonists on offer—half!—but it’s not enough. Like Meg points out while discussing the importance of Lara Croft, when the game’s sole protagonist is a woman, everyone who plays the game sees the world through that lens. They are seeing that women can perform just as well as men, regardless of who is holding the controller. They are seeing a narrative shaped by the challenges that women face. They are seeing that women are deserving of a place in games, and entertainment, and in the world itself.
Keep it coming, Lara
In the real world, where women face so many terrifying consequences of being seen as lesser than, or only as sex objects, or only as static background characters, it is crucially important that the entertainment industry (including film and television) step up and show women as fully formed human beings, deserving of empathy and respect. There’s a terrible, prevailing belief that men’s stories are about humanity, and women’s stories are about women. That women should be able to project themselves onto male characters, but men should never be forced to do the same for female characters. And 8% is not going to make any change in that belief. 8% is not acceptable. The more this percent grows, the more normal it becomes in video games, in movies, in television, in CEO positions, in government.
ASSASSIN’S CREED ODYSSEY is only half a step forward, when it could have been a leap. Though Kassandra should be the main character, and quite frankly a star, she has to share the stage with a mediocre sidekick. So many players won’t experience the world through her lens, and consequently won’t start to see her and characters like her as normal. It’s long overdue for the industry to take that leap, and sign on for a new Creed. One where Kassandra gets the spotlight, like she deserves.