Ubisoft's Alex Amancio, Creative Director for the upcoming Assasin's Creed: Unity might be the games industry's most quoted man this week. His reasoning for the lack of a female character option in the main story's co-op facility -- or as he likes to refer to it, 'shared experience' -- involved a lot of claims of doubling, be it time, resources, animations or whatever. This along with the "reality of production" line has had the most press coverage, and it all started here on Polygon.
The article, published on June 10 was based on an interview between Polygon and Amancio, the video of which was not published on this site until June 11, or to be more exact some 18 hours later. Plenty of time for outcry and debate to build in the Polygon community and beyond. The topic of female assassins comes up at the 21:38 mark.
Amancio had a little more to say on the matter than what had been quoted, but something I felt was still pertinent to Ubisoft's decision making. Emphasis mine:
... When you're playing co-op, everybody is Arno; everybody else is another assassin ... for example if we're all playing together, you will be Arno on your screen, and we will have our gear, our custom gear, but our faces will be just other assassins. So because of that, we know that the common denominator between everything was Arno, the only real option was to cut the female avatars.
Whether you're a man or woman playing Unity at home in the near future, you will be in control of Arno on your own screen during co-op in the main but otherwise single player story. Your friends when they appear on your screen are essentially just Arno with a different lick of paint, but with their own limited upgrades and customisations achievable through their own journey as Arno in their own main story experience. These are not 3 different male characters that your friends become, they're all Arno with a slightly modified skin to differentiate them. Technically and mechanically everyone is the same.
And really that's the point of the limitation: the game is about Arno because he is the protagonist that drives the narrative forward. The game is about Arno's journey through that narrative. It is not an MMORPG where you're free to become an avatar of your own choosing on deep and multiple levels, where the narrative is more abstract and about the world you inhabit. It is not primarily a multiplayer game where the narrative tends to be shallow just to set the scene for team and individual deathmatches or 'capture the flag' style gameplay experiences.
It's all about Arno, about his story in the secretive Assassin's Creed brotherhood, their continual battle with the Templars and their unearthing more of the mystery that is the First Civilisation. It's also probably about how Arno links to the modern day protagonist through DNA ancestry and genetic memory. For Ubisoft to continue these narrative threads that have been maintained since the very first game in the series, they have to stick within the limitations they've set themselves if each game is just about one protagonist.
One work around for this game would be the choice of a female skin to represent yourself on your friends' screens, but you'll still be Arno on your own screen. Even then the representation of Arno to your friends would just be a case of 'man with boobs' since the skeleton and animation will otherwise be the same. This may be enough to placate some people, but considering 2013 was the year of examining tropes in videogames Ubisoft may be just as damned with that decision. But then if you're still Arno on your own screen, what would the point be of a female assassin skin?
Perhaps going forward when Ubisoft can free themselves from the over-arching narrative they've dug themselves into. One idea is to take a multiple protagonist approach with their own individual-yet-connected stories in the game. It worked so well in the fan and critically acclaimed GTA V, with character switching becoming a revitalising gameplay element as players got to flit between Franklin, Michael and Trevor during the same mission that featured them. Perhaps then a female assassin with her own story and experience in an AC setting can be one of these multiple protagonists, and can be used as a co-op element with the other protagonists.
The only problem is, who gets to be who when it comes to co-op? GTA V worked because the player got to be all 3 protagonists; co-op with friends would mean arguments of who got to be Franklin, Michael or Trevor at that time. The same problem would exist in Assassin's Creed.
It's a far trickier issue than some might appreciate, and perhaps the only way Ubisoft can appease fans is moving away from the protagonist driven narrative entirely and become more like the flexible MMORPG genre. Are fans of the series ready for that though?