10 Years Later Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation Remains a Compass for How to Approach Diverse Representation in Games

Games Features Assassin's Creed
10 Years Later Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation Remains a Compass for How to Approach Diverse Representation in Games

10 years ago today Ubisoft surmounted one of their greatest challenges in game development by animating a woman, Aveline de Grandpré, for the protagonist of Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation, a PS Vita spin-off of Assassin’s Creed III. The company would conveniently forget about this when developing Unity two years later and come under criticism for not including even one female protagonist in a year where the industry was seeing mostly forward strides in diverse representation.

But perhaps I should rephrase that. Ubisoft didn’t so much have selective amnesia about Aveline’s existence as they wanted to reframe the reason for not including a playable female character as being too much trouble. Creative director Alex Amancio and level designer Bruno St-André would famously cite in interviews that it wasn’t worth doubling the production work and that it would take “more than 8,000 animations” to include a female protagonist alongside Arno Dorian; ex-Ubisoft dev Jonathan Cooper would later call BS on that claim. In the years since, the franchise has seen at least three more female protagonists, with Evie, Kassandra, and Eivor, although all three of these protagonists are optional playable characters, instead of being the default playable character.

I recount the above because a decade later Liberation remains a compass of sorts for how to approach diverse representation. Aveline was not just the first playable female protagonist of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, but also a New Orleans Creole of mixed Haitian and French heritage. The Bulgarian developers of Ubisoft Sofia had envisioned Aveline with this background from the start and according to Jill Murray, one of the head writers of the game who spoke on writing diverse characters at GDC 2013, they were inspired to make the game’s Persona System because of that background. This system focused on how differently Aveline had to navigate her role as an assassin who was also a member of society living with a complex set of legalities outlined in the Code Noir that made her privileges as a noblewoman contingent on her father, a former slave owner. The player took on the guise of a lady, a slave, or an Assassin depending on the situation or setting, emphasizing the fluid nature of being a mixed race woman in 18th century New Orleans.

Some reviewers at the time wrote that using this system felt like being limited to only one-third of Ubisoft’s archetypal assassin class at any point in the game. Others, like Evan Narcisse, applauded Liberation for how authentic the game narrative design made Aveline’s experience feel alongside the well-researched narrative of Aveline’s Haitian mother, portrayed in diaries the player could find as non-trivial collectibles throughout the game. The game is also an example of the ongoing friction present in game development regarding the inclusion of not just female protagonists but protagonists from marginalized groups, in general.

Despite games slowly becoming more inclusive of women as central protagonists in Liberation’s initial release year of 2012, the only other woman of color protagonist I can remember from that year in AAA games was Clementine of Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead series. In 2017 interdisciplinary scholar Soraya Murray notably analyzed how Liberation’s poetics (both in its mechanics and its aesthetics) and its identity politics made the game’s initial release seemingly prescient in the wake of Gamergate, which primarily took place during 2014-2015. Coincidentally, the wider release for Liberation on consoles and PC was in January 2014. Less coincidentally, Soraya Murray, Jill Murray, and scholar Adrienne Shaw observed that Assassin’s Creed III and other historical fiction media like it was subject to “the tyranny of realism”, a sentiment which motivated internet commenters even before Liberation was released to claim that including a female assassin to the American revolution narrative would be inappropriate, since the revolution was a story about men.

Soraya Murray also made another striking observation whilst analyzing Liberation within the context of its place within a franchise that at its core carries over some of the Orientalist tropes of Prince of Persia, a series that preceded and inspired Assassin’s Creed’s creation. Whilst Aveline is quite a nuanced depiction of a woman of color, who Narcisse noted subverts stereotypes like the Tragic Mulatto, her positioning in a game heavily influenced by Orientalist mechanics of swashbuckling recall the stereotypical movies Jordan Mechner used for Prince of Persia’s inspiration (namely Old Hollywood’s The Arabian Nights and The Thief of Baghdad). But as Jill Murray mentioned during her GDC talk, the reality of game development can limit how deeply diverse writing efforts can go. For instance, research for the game’s story had to be very strategic and focus on Aveline’s context mostly, because Jill Murray was brought on eight months from the end of the project.

I believe that the most important achievements of Liberation’s narrative direction was not just in making Aveline’s intersectionality core to the mechanics of the game, but in showing players right from the game’s earliest moments that an intersectional perspective was needed for playing through Aveline’s story. Liberation’s story is one of nested frames: the player’s perspective is constructed in the introductory sequence as being a consumer of Abstergo Entertainment’s (a subsidiary of the Templar corporation Abstergo) first product, which is the game you’re playing. The company’s motto is “History is our playground” and they introduce Aveline with a sensational tone, using the tired phrasing of her being “caught between two worlds” to entice the player to “connect with the past” and “relive history”.

To put this in more frank terms, Abstergo is using the knowledge they gained from exploiting test subjects like Desmond Miles in previous titles, so that they can access and repackage genetic memories as sanitized episodes of edutainment. Essentially, this ironically turns Aveline, a free French Creole woman, into a product. This act of commodifying a woman of color’s existence connects Abstergo to the legacy of Western economy that Jill Murray acknowledges we have inherited in her GDC talk—an economy built on 18th century slave trading and the money made not just from slave labor but from “the actual transaction of taking people and selling them” as products.

The third narrative frame is that while you play through Aveline’s memories, you are contacted by a hacker group called Erudito, who reveals how Abstergo has censored many portions of Aveline’s timeline that reveal information about the Assassin-Templar war. The result of these three significant narrative framings is that it shows us how history is written by the “winners” or at least those who believe themselves to be best suited to writing and influencing it. Meanwhile Erudito shows the player via their intervention that the truth is also highly contested and must be considered from multiple perspectives.

Liberation is important to players like me for several reasons. As a biracial woman of color myself, I see myself in Aveline and that is so rarely a gaming experience I get to have. As well, the fact that Liberation considered Aveline’s background to be important to reflect holistically throughout the game’s narrative and mechanics is also something that is still lacking in a lot of game development today. Lastly, elaborating on the point of game development, it’s rather disappointing to find that a game like Liberation, which was deftly handled by two white co-writers and a team of Bulgarian designers 10 years ago, hasn’t seemed to prompt more teams to innovate from or at least follow their example. As well, hiring efforts haven’t become much more diverse (for both writing and design teams) since then.

The International Game Developers Association’s 2021 satisfaction survey still shows an industry that is three-quarters “White, Caucasian, or European” with only four percent of respondents identifying as Black, African American, African or Afro-Caribbean. While diverse hiring won’t solve all of the gaming industry’s systemic issues, it would certainly help projects like Square Enix’s upcoming Forspoken to avoid embarrassing oversights and miscommunication both in the writer’s room and at press events. The lack of multiple perspectives clearly had a noticeable impact on how the game’s portrayal of its biracial protagonist Frey was perceived, especially by the “diverse audiences” Square Enix said it envisioned Frey for. Aveline and her game are an important milestone for how to approach representation in an empathetic and authentic manner. But Liberation is also aware of and comments on the contested nature of diverse representation in game development, which is still very much a reality on its 10th anniversary.

Phoenix Simms is an Atlantic Canadian writer and indie game narrative designer. You can find her work at Unwinnable, Videodame, Third Person, and her portfolio. Her stream-of-consciousness can be found at @phoenixsimms.

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