I’m sure most of us have faced a situation like this: a friend or acquaintance has some problematic views and, in turn, we point out what’s wrong in hopes that they change their ways and recognize why what they were doing is problematic. Results of this, of course, vary, but sometimes it’s hard to tell if the changes these people make are because of an honest desire to fix their errors, or if they’re just trying to appease you in particular, to get you off their case. This is the predicament I’m in with Ubisoft right now.
As you may remember, I’ve been keeping a wary eye on the game developers ever since this year’s E3 conference when they released word on the white dude-tastic Assassin’s Creed: Unity—now with four times the white male protag!—and commented on their stumble with the reveal of the non-playable love interest, Elise. This time, however, the facts aren’t so black and white.
Back at the beginning of the week Ubisoft released information concerning their season pass for Unity. For those unfamiliar with the season pass system, it’s essentially a payment plan in which a player pays for all, or the beginning portion of an upcoming DLC for a title, sometimes with some bonuses included. Within this, Ubisoft has developed a DLC titled Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China and, like the title states, the story features an assassin in China. However, not only are the players venturing out of the rather Eurocentric universe of the series, but this will mark the second time a woman has taken a lead role, and a woman of color, no less. Players will get to experience the story of Shao Jun as she ventures through 16th century China alongside a beautiful art style that is more reminiscent of traditional ink paintings than the gritty realism the series has utilized thus far. (Relevant coverage starts at 1:58.)
If I’m being completely honest here, I’m shocked, in a good way, that Ubisoft added a story like this. It’s about time the series starts exploring more of the world rather than remaining comfortable in stories that serve to make the audience comfortable enough that they don’t think about the cultural significance of these assassins. While Aveline’s story in Liberation and Connor’s in AC3 make an effort to show how culture and power intersect, it will certainly be interesting to see how Shao Jun works within the last days of the Ming Dynasty and the obstacles she must overcome in terms of the heavy events happening around her as well as her gender.
As interesting as this DLC looks and sounds, however, Ubisoft seems intent on setting it up to fail—or at fail in terms of industry standards—just as they did with Aveline’s story. When I mentioned earlier that Chronicles: China was a part of the season pass for Unity, what I really meant was that you can only get Chronicles: China if you purchase the season pass, which adds thirty more dollars to an already sixty to seventy dollar game. And while it’s not atypical for developers to add a little something special for season pass purchasers, it’s typically not an entire DLC story. If Ubisoft is trying to feel out how many people would be interested in this kind of story, be it a story of a woman, a woman of color, or just a story about the Asian part of the world, then they’re severely limiting their scope.
To my surprise, Chronicles: China is not Shao Jun’s first appearance. Thanks to an article on The Mary Sue, I learned that she also appeared in a previous short film titled Assassin’s Creed: Embers. Also that she was introduced as “…a former concubine who was rescued by the Chinese Assassin’s Brotherhood and journ[ied] to Italy with her mentor so that they [could] beg Ezio for training to avenge their dying order.” And, you know, I guess that’s cool. But I think I would have appreciated it more if her background had nothing to do with sex or the possibility of becoming a typical Asian woman trope. I guess merchants and farmers aren’t cool enough to join the Brotherhood, at least if you’re a woman. Speaking of tropes, I understand that each assassin has their different playstyles, but it seems kind of strange to me that she—or any assassin really—would be using martial arts as their main fighting style. It’s not exactly the most subtle technique. This combined with the ink brush environment really makes me wonder if Ubisoft is experimenting with style, in both a gameplay sense and artistically, or is trying to make the game that takes place in Asia as stereotypically Asian as possible. Heaven forbid we forget where we (the player) are.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad to see Ubisoft taking the chance to innovate and adding a sorely needed story driven and led by a woman of color. However, they shouldn’t be making their playerbase work so hard to get such a story. If they really were as inspired by Shao Jun as they claim, why wasn’t it her that had the big name release title? With the nest egg they’ve made from the rest of the Assassin’s Creed series, as well as their various other titles, they could have taken the chance. By releasing the game in such a manner, it really makes me feel like they’re putting what we’ve been asking for on the top shelf of a very tall bookcase, telling us that if we want it bad enough we’ll find a way to get it. I’m hoping that the sidescrolling aspect of the game will serve to bring in people rather than turn them off to this DLC, and the same goes for the rest of the changes. Ubisoft is giving us what it thinks we asked for, but again they missed the mark. They’re trying—or I’d like to believe they’re trying—but we shouldn’t have to jump through hoops for representation.