Opinion: Why Assassin's Creed Syndicate Is the Right Game for its Female Lead
A perfect match.
Assassin's Creed Syndicate marks a turning point for the eight-year Assassin's Creed franchise in more ways than one. Ubisoft's Quebec Studio has chosen to abandon cover-based stealth for Syndicate, retool navigation when parkouring, and add a systemic vehicle system that will change how players interact with their environment. But perhaps the most critical addition to the game is Evie Frye, the first playable lead female in a main entry Assassin's Creed game.
Of course, there have been female assassins in Assassin's Creed before, but Evie's position is unique. Assassin's Creed III: Liberation was a spin-off of ACIII's world, with players following Creole heroine Aveline de Grandpre. But it was released on PlayStation Vita at a time when the handheld was still struggling to find its footing, which in turn limited its audience. The recently released downloadable-only title Assassin's Creed Chronicles: China also features a female protagonist, Shao Jun.
We've also seen playable assassins in competitive multiplayer modes, first introduced in 2010’s Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood and kept through Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag. Multiplayer was abandoned entirely for Assassin's Creed Rogue and Assassin's Creed Unity's co-op multiplayer had no female character options.
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What sets Evie apart is she is fully playable in the main story. Ubisoft says players will control her along with her twin brother, Jacob Frye, and that for most story missions you'll be able to choose which sibling to play as. They'll both have their own unique missions as well, giving them character development apart from one another but still connected to the story. Some may gripe that Ubisoft could have simply made one playable assassin and not split the story between two. But I'd argue that the dynamic between siblings--often a mix of playful rivalry and unwavering support--is a much more interesting lens through which to tell a story than through one person alone. There's something charming about two siblings discovering and conquering the world together, working within the context of blood ties rather than romantic ones.
The presence of women in Assassin's Creed seems to be increasing significantly for Syndicate, which features not only a female hero but female villains running the seedy underbelly of London's boroughs and female grunts carrying out their work. In the brief bits of Syndicate footage Ubisoft has shared, we've seen Jacob take out every gang member in his path. I don't ever recall playing an Assassin's Creed game where a good number of the NPCs engaging the player character in combat are women; these ladies, clad in some seriously spiffy suits and bowler hats, come at Jacob with knives, revolvers, and fists, carrying out their criminal duties. And Jacob, in turn, stabs them, punches them in the face, drops crates on them, and knocks them out in the same way he would any other combative NPC. It's violence against women in a video game, and it's violence within context.
To understand what that really means, we need to look at AC Syndicate's setting, 1868 London. London in the midst of the Victorian era, at the height of the Industrial Revolution. England was the hub of technological evolution, with the city of London at its core. Thousands of people moved from the countryside into the city looking for work, starting as early as four-years-old and often working until an untimely death around 30. Only one fifth of adult males could vote and women couldn't vote at all, and most of the population couldn't afford modern medicine, or even be bothered to name their children.
It was economically necessary for many women, both single and married, to work in order to survive. These women often became domestic employees, such as nannies or maids, or found positions in textile factories and coal mines. Everyone in these lower tiers of London's society faced hardship.
Women who left home unsupervised or went out on their own were often fretted over, and societal conventions frowned on the idea of a woman alone without a companion to guide her. People who couldn't find a place within proper society turned to organized crime as a means to survive, and it is here that many women found their footholds--and something meaningful to belong to.
Between the pressures of finding stable work and wages, a place to live, and unfettered autonomy, it's not surprising that women fell in with London's criminal underground and called it home. In current gameplay previews of AC Syndicate, we see Bloody Nora, a Templar and the gang leader of one of London's boroughs. Given the oppressive restraints and demands put on London's women at the top of society, seeing one turn to a prominent position at the bottom as a crime lord is believable. And having one of her biggest opponents be a scrappy young woman from the country who was born and raised as an assassin shouldn't be hard to swallow either.
"...A setting that created violent, powerful women in the real world."
Assassin's Creed Syndicate, with the setting it chose, has the potential to break a lot of ground with its representation of women. For the series, it could be a game changer. We often rail against violent interactions with women in video games, but in real-world Victorian London, this was how people behaved. These women live in a world of broken dreams and abandoned hopes, driven to crime and bloodshed by humankind's desperate desire to survive. Syndicate's developers have spoken at length about wanting to bring Assassin's Creed into the modern era, and I can't think of a better way to do it than kicking the move off with a setting that created violent, powerful women in the real world.
Back to Evie. When I look at her, I can't help but think of another fictional figure born from London's poverty: Nancy, from Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist. Nancy, unlike Evie, is an abandoned woman in 1800s London who becomes a prostitute and eventually a caretaker of the orphan Oliver. With no options available to her, she takes the only job she feels gives her any agency over her fate. I imagine this is the same way with Evie, who is born into the world of an assassin and grows up within its cause. I recognize Ubisoft isn't sharing much information on Evie at this time, but from the brief scenes we've seen--her formulating plans with her brother and a fellow assassin, and shooting a gun out of Bloody Nora's hand--she already seems like a woman of agency. She's not a follower. And when Jacob stands up and announces to the defeated gang, "We are Jacob and Evie Frye," his inclusion of her, that "we," makes me believe they are equal in narrative importance.
We've been angry with Ubisoft in the past for the way it treats women in Assassin's Creed. Last year's storm regarding comments about animating women was loud and harmful, and while Unity did have a prominent female figure, Elise, she was not our hero. She was a lover, and this time around developers are keen to avoid the romantic plot because it "sucks everything out" of other important narrative elements. This modern setting, this 1868 London, is the perfect storm of setting and time for packing genuinely strong women into every level of importance in the series. Maybe the French Revolution just wasn't the time, or the Renaissance didn't offer the best options for believably running up against violent female NPCs. For a franchise that prides itself on its representation and accuracy, Assassin's Creed Syndicate is looking very promising as both an entertaining video game and a window into history.
It may not have been Evie's time up until now. But Ubisoft has done its research, and I think we are ready for, and should be excited, about Evie Frye.