The newest Assassin’s Creed game, Syndicate, is getting much-deserved praise for its playable female character, Evie Frye. Evie’s fantastic — she’s a little cold, sarcastic, even ruthless at times, but also a history geek and legitimately concerned about helping people.
But as great as Evie is, and as important as she is in the history of female representation in games, she’s also made possible by UbiSoft’s decision to have two main playable heroes (players can switch from one to the other on the fly). Evie isn’t just Evie, but she’s also not merely an extension of the player.
This works in two ways. First, Evie and the other protagonist, her twin brother Jacob, are both given extra depth by their interactions with one another. The siblings bicker amusingly, plan strategies, and make decisions based on their knowledge of what the other will do. Because neither has to do the work of being a generic hero with mass appeal, they can relax into a personality. Evie has detached competence, Jacob is more brash and confrontational.
They also provide two different impulses for engaging with the game as a game: Jacob’s goal is to take over London, capturing territory and pushing the Templars back on the political front. Evie’s more into the Assassin-Templar history, and finding the magical items associated with that complicated backstory. This creates an interesting little tension where Evie’s personality is way better, but she’s more interested in the boring parts of the Assassin’s Creed story. (Syndicate also provides some gameplay differences between the two - she’s supposed to be better at stealth, him at combat, but these systems aren’t well-designed enough to really matter, sadly.)
Another benefit of having multiple protagonists is that it allows the traditionally conservative game industry the opportunity to experiment, particularly with representation. Ubisoft has gotten in trouble before for doing a poor job of representing women. With multiple playable characters, instead of a lone Hero-Who-Is-You that they have to market to a specific target demographic, they can relax.
Syndicate isn’t the only game to experiment with multiple player characters. Grand Theft Auto V recently had three playable characters, including the hilariously hyper violent Trevor, who could never have worked as a lone hero. The award-winning, story-focused The Last Of Us had arguably its best level when players got the chance to take control of Ellie, who had previously been the plucky sidekick.
Smaller games are doing even more with multiple heroes. The zombie action/strategy game State of Decay had a really neat mechanism where you could take control of any survivor you’d recruited. Perhaps the best example is the role-playing game Divinity: Original Sin (just released on consoles), where players create two characters, and then actually receive benefits from making them argue with one another!
For many game players and developers, video games exist under the assumption that the player-character relationship is one of direct identification; that you are Nathan Drake or Commander Shepard or Lara Croft. But the interaction is a lot more complex and fascinating than that — and it’s good to see games like Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate engage with that idea. Multiple player-controlled protagonists, in this case, aren’t just good for the audience; they’re good for the game.