The Absent Woman: Ubisoft and Rockstar’s Huge Oversight

When I first saw Zoey from Left 4 Dead, I was instantly sold on Valve’s version of the zombie apocalypse. Standing in an elevator, hordes of the undead outside, she turns to Louis and goes: “Game over, man. Game over.” Not only was she good with a rifle, she also was an Aliens fan–a character after my own heart.

This isn’t an analytical, introspective post. I’m not going to talk about ludonarrative dissonance or pretend I care about agency on some deep level.

No. This is a love letter to Zoey—and to those before her as well as those after. To Aya Brea, to Impa, to Lilith, to Claire Redfield, to Regina, to Kerrigan. This is about how they made me who I am today by simply existing and giving me something to aspire to.

Unfortunately, it’s also about how disgusted I am right now thanks to Rockstar and Ubisoft. How let down I feel. How tired I am of their excuses.

And how I’m done accepting them.

When I was growing up, I didn’t know sexism existed. It’s funny in a sad way because it seems to be all I’m aware of thanks to this year’s E3. Despite it being 2014, Ubisoft and Rockstar don’t want leading ladies in their games; Rockstar explained it away last year by saying that their games “are manly.” They went on to say that the inclusion of women simply didn’t work for them. In a similar vein, yesterday at E3, Ubisoft took a less controversial route of citing budget limitations leading to the exclusion of women in both their key upcoming titles, but it doesn’t make it any better. It’s still an excuse and it’s still unacceptable.

Anyway, more on that later. The point is I didn’t know sexism existed because I was surrounded by women role models. The late 1990s and early 2000s were a goldmine for women in gaming. I killed bugs as Vela in Jet Force Gemini, I took down the sorceress Ultimecia with a party containing Selphie Tilmitt and Rinoa Heartilly in Final Fantasy VIII, and I had Chun-li as well as Cammy to keep me company in Street Fighter II: Turbo. Pretty much every game I played had a strong woman in it and a lot of the time she was playable. Sometimes they had multiple strong women in one title—both protagonists and antagonists. I still remember playing as Diddy and Dixie Kong in Donkey Kong Country 2. I never once realized how special Dixie’s inclusion was.

I never realized because at the time it wasn’t—it was just the status quo. In a world where Aya Brea saved New York City in Parasite Eve and both Claire Redfield and Jill Valentine starred as playable characters in the Resident Evil series, it was completely expected to have women in games. In fact, back then, they rode shotgun in the gaming car.

But recently, there has been a trend of putting women in the backseat perpetuated by two monoliths: Ubisoft and Rockstar. I remember when I tweeted in 2012 about a lack of a playable woman in Grand Theft Auto V’s three character narrative. It was a simple observation; I was excited for the game but ultimately wondered why they chose to include three guys when I felt a major selling point could have been to include a woman. Maybe, I thought, they were scared of writing a woman who was a criminal.

But that didn’t seem right. While largely considered one of the last boy’s clubs in video games, Rockstar had been getting better with representation and diversity over the past several years. In Grand Theft Auto IV, women definitely took a backseat, but there were still progressive characters like Elizabeta Torres who were just as corrupt as their male counterparts. And of course, in Red Dead Redemption, Bonnie MacFarlane was a beacon of humanity next to the taciturn John Marston.

The next step actually seemed like they would include a female playable character in one of their titles. A drug dealer, a madam, a terrorist. I would have completely bet on it for Grand Theft Auto V.

Unfortunately, Rockstar didn’t go that route. When I tweeted my confusion of the seemingly logical yet forgotten step, a playable woman someday in one of their titles, I remember my feed blowing up at me angrily. One person told me women don’t sell games and that it was a harsh fact of the business world I had to learn. Another told me that I shouldn’t expect women in a man’s world. Someone else asked me why it even mattered. After all, they tweeted as a follow-up, didn’t I have more important things to think about?

To them, it probably looked like I did. For the average male playing games, women just exist. Or don’t. It doesn’t matter. They can play as Vi in League of Legends without any thought one way or the other. They won’t realize how progressive Vi really is—a tomboy with fierce, short pink hair who lets her fists do the talking—because they don’t understand what it’s like to be underrepresented. They can’t relate to the elation I felt when she was released nor the joy I felt when her nemesis, Jinx, ended up being a champion and a woman as well. They can’t fathom how pleased I was by the diversity in these two characters, both in personality and appearances.

To them, it was just another day in another digital world.

Ultimately, this is probably why people aren’t as outraged as they should be about Ubisoft’s recent speech. They don’t realize the impact and they don’t understand the message it sends. It’s easy for them to look on the bright side, too. After all, there are many outstanding representations of women in video games lately. It could be argued that sometimes you just have to cut your losses—that we’ve made a lot of progress in a short time and eventually the remaining companies will see the light.

And sure, we could just accept that. However, we should always be moving forward and part of that means being vigilant for backtracking. After yesterday’s statement, Ubisoft is indelibly moving backwards. Even worse, they’re trying to take the industry with them; they’re justifying the recline by talking about money and saying it costs too much to offer two genders in next gen series like Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry 4, implying this is an appropriate excuse other companies should be able to use as well.

Yet somehow, other companies never seem to run into this issue or seem to care about the added cost in recent years. The Elder Scrolls and Fallout series let you play as a man or a woman; BioWare gives you the choice when it comes to Shepard and Hawke; and in Saints Row, you can play as any gender you want.

Historically this is true as well. Even in the early 1990s, you could choose your identity. The 1991 game Paperboy II let you play as a papergirl if you so desired. I know that because it was one of the first games I ever played.

But here Ubisoft is, trying to take that progress all away. Telling us that women can’t be assassins. Telling us the French revolution didn’t involve women on a large scale. Telling us women are a feature and not a right.

What Ubisoft doesn’t seem to realize, however, is that women aren’t a feature. They’re a necessity. We live in a world where we can call Ubisoft out on this ignorance while also taking a long look at Rockstar’s stagnancy. These two offenders are some of the last vestiges of resistance, managing to hold on with vigor to the idea that gaming is only for boys and offering endless excuses as to why they don’t want to change.

Honestly, it’s not even about women’s rights or so-called social justice at this point, either. It’s just about women being women on any medium—women being there like they’ve always been, doing things they’ve always done throughout history. It’s about being able to be Lilith or Brick in Borderlands. It’s about taking down Albert Wesker as Chris Redfield or Jill Valentine in Resident Evil. It’s about having Fran or Balthier in your party in Final Fantasy XII. It’s about playing as Caitlyn or Graves on Summoner’s Rift in League of Legends.

It’s just about playing a game, having fun, and having a choice.

It’s also about how Ubisoft can’t take it all away even if they want to. How the industry has been moving forward since the 1990’s and how it will continue to do so, with or without Ubisoft and Rockstar.

The time has come to get with the program or get left behind, Ubisoft and Rockstar. And hey, while you’re at it, reconsider your horrible answer to DRM: uPlay. It’s almost as bad as your reasoning for not including women as playable characters in the new Assassin’s Creed. As far as I can tell, neither of these things belong in this decade.