The power of female representation in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate
This article contains minor spoilers for Assassin’s Creed Syndicate’s Jack the Ripper DLC
A few days ago, media critic and Feminist Frequency founder Anita Sarkeesian released the latest episode in her Tropes vs. Women in Video Games web series, an episode which focuses on the often imbalanced nature of representing female combatants in video games, both as playable characters and as opponents for the player to fight. Sarkeesian uses several prominent examples to support her argument, including Ubisoft’s laughably stupid justification for not including playable female Assassins in Assassin’s Creed Unity and DICE’s unwillingness to put even a single playable female avatar in any Battlefield game to date. However, as Sarkeesian briefly notes in the video, Ubisoft did manage to redeem itself somewhat with the subsequently released Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, crafting an adventure which was friendly towards female representation in a surprising number of ways, many of which I have catalogued below.
The Better Of Two Protagonists
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate allows the player to play as both Jacob and Evie Frye, twin siblings who were raised as Assassins and who are both heavily devoted to the Assassin cause. While both Evie and Jacob are skilled combatants and problem-solvers in their own right, Jacob is presented as the more brash and impulsive of the two, whereas Evie is calmer, more methodical, and often displays a level of intelligence not seen in her male sibling (not to imply that Jacob is stupid, just that Evie tends to use her head far more than he does). Personally, I found Evie’s demeanor to be much more in line with how an Assassin should conduct themselves, and thus found her to be a much more compelling character than Jacob, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that regard.
Giving Evie Time To Shine
While there are certain segments where you’re forced to play as one twin or the other, most of the time you’re free to play as whichever sibling you like, a seemingly simple decision on Ubisoft’s part which allows the player to foster a personal bond with their favorite Frye twin. I imagine it would have been easier for Ubisoft to just put Jacob in the starring role and have Evie act as an NPC ally/confidant, but instead the studio made the wise decision to let players decide for themselves which Frye twin they wanted to get to know more during their time with Syndicate.
Brawling In The Boys’ Club
Even though it may not align entirely with actual historic facts, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate also features plenty of female representation within the various gangs which Jacob and Evie encounter as part of their quest to free London from the grip of the Templars. Both the friendly Rooks (the gang which the player founds and grows over the course of the game) and the villainous Blighters contain male and female members in their respective rosters, helping to combat the stereotype of all-male enemy organizations which often appear in other video games.
Going back to Evie, one of the various side-activities players can participate in as part of their Syndicate playthrough is fight clubs in which the player must take on increasingly difficult waves of opponents in unarmed hand-to-hand combat. Again, it would have been easy for Ubisoft to segregate these side-activities, keeping Evie from participating in the more “manly” pursuits, but such is not the case. If a player wants, they can bring Evie into the fight clubs and have her put the smackdown on her challengers just as easily as her brother would.
A Solo Adventure Against An Iconic Killer
An optional DLC story campaign for Syndicate pits the player against one of the most infamous killers in human history: Jack the Ripper. While Jacob Frye shows up during the opening moments of the DLC campaign, the main bulk of the campaign is played from Evie’s perspective, allowing her to star in her own solo adventure as she works to uncover Jack the Ripper’s murder-fueled intentions. Overall, the DLC campaign doesn’t do much to build off of the mythos which surrounds the real-life horrors Jack the Ripper inflicted, but it is still nice to see Evie given a proper opportunity to shine without the aid of her brother.
Remaking History For The Better
In addition to putting Evie Frye in the spotlight, the Jack the Ripper DLC also makes an interesting departure from recorded history. As even casual historians likely know, Jack the Ripper earned his infamy by brutally slaying a series of prostitutes in London’s Whitechapel district, seemingly at random. However, in typical Assassin’s Creed fashion, Syndicate’s Jack the Ripper DLC tweaks the facts a little, revealing to the player that the prostitutes were in fact Assassin spies working for Jacob and the Assassin’s Brotherhood, and explaining why Jack targeted them specifically (Jack has a personal vendetta against Jacob for reasons I won’t spoil). This change, while minor in the grand scheme of things, helps to give added agency to characters who could have easily been portrayed as nothing more than helpless victims (especially since that’s how history often remembers them).
The gaming industry still has a long way to go towards finding any sort of meaningful equality between male and female representation, but it’s good that Ubisoft was at least willing to take its mistakes to heart and so thoroughly rectify them in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. Now if only DICE could take a page out of Ubisoft’s book and make a Battlefield game which didn’t relegate its paltry cast of female characters to background roles (looking at you Battlefield 4 and Battlefield Hardline). There’s still hope yet for this year’s Battlefield 1, but as Anita Sarkeesian points out in her video, the fact that it has taken this long for female characters to gain what limited prominence they have in games now is still very troubling.