Evie Fry being the hero of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate’s Jack The Ripper DLC shouldn’t be a huge surprise. She’s a far more interesting and entertaining character than lunkish cover star and brother Jacob. What is interesting here, though, is that this is a woman of a certain age playing the hero - a 40-something lady after the story’s 20 year leap from the original setting. Okay, sidelined somewhat in an expansion but holy shit, name one other older playable female character that looks her age?
We tried it at GamesRadar and, once we’d weeded out all the immortals, elves, witches, aliens and people that simply don’t age (Chun Li’s looking good for nearly 50), we were left with… Sonya Blade in Mortal Kombat X and Evie.
Admittedly on the male side of things the list is still slim: MGS4’s Old Snake, Assassin’s Creed’s Old Ezio and The Last Of Us’ Joel are the most notable. But Evie’s significant because video games are still struggling with the idea of women being any more than set dressing and plot motivation. It’s getting there, but you only have to look at the Syndicate box, focusing on Evie’s brother Jacob, or to hear Naughty Dog talk repeatedly of the pressure to downplay Ellie’s role in promotional art, to realise that representation of women still has a way to go.
When it does come to representation in games (and media in general) women have two roles: sexy reward or expositional crone. You’re either Scarlett Johansson or Maggie Smith. There’s little middle ground because the message for years has been that, for women, ‘young and hot’ is all that matters. Got a few crow’s feet showing? Could you possibly go away until every hint of remaining sexiness has been aged out of you? There’ll be some character parts then. Men, on the other hand, are regularly portrayed as powerful and potent well into their 60s.
A middle (ish) aged woman having the gall to look it and still be the hero? Big deal. Huge.
Check out this graph from an old Vulture article.
There’s one for most of the big actors, all aging but dating a steady pool of largely steadfastly 30-something actresses. So yeah, a middle aged woman starring in a game as a playable character, and not second to a guy? Quite the thing. A one-off right now but a step ahead of Hollywood all the same. When our current curmudgeonly Bond, Daniel Craig, was questioned about starring against ‘an older women’ as apparently something unusual, he rightly pointed out - corrected even - that she was a woman “his own age”. (And, grumpy all the same, he’s doing a way better job than Sean ‘hitting women is okay’ Connery.)
Now, usually at this point, there will be someone reading this arguing that an older woman as a hero is a rarity because it’s mainly men buying games (literally not true) or that woman are represented just fine and stop making a fuss - cue the usual list of Samus, Lara, Chell, Faith, Bayonetta et al from 20-odd years of history as proof that everything is okay right now.
If you are one of those people then try to understand that this isn’t about anyone trying to mess with your toys, it’s about letting everyone have equal access to the same toys. Women are still woefully underrepresented as playable characters, full stop, let alone being allowed to noticeably age. The message apparently being that girls aren’t hero material and that slightly older women shouldn’t be anything. All mainly because of some differences in bits on the outside. You might as well judge people by the hats they’re wearing - people in red hats can’t be the hero. Makes about as much sense.
Ubi might have put its foot in it a few years back with the whole ‘woman are hard to animate’ balls-up, but this is a step towards making up for all that. And it’s definitely something worthy of praise - up there with Freedom’s Cry’s Adéwalé and Far Cry 4’s Ajay Ghale for showing well represented gaming heroes that aren’t 20-something white dudes. You know, like a lot of real people aren’t. So well done to the studio and here’s hoping it opens the way to more characters as interesting as Evie.