When Assassin's Creed III made its stunning debut a few months ago, Ubisoft proudly noted that they were using an actor with Native American heritage to bring new lead character Connor Kenway/Ratohnhaké:ton to life. In the game, Connor's parents were of British and Mohawk descent and the casting of a performer who himself is half-Blackfoot felt like it made sense. Getting Noah Watts also adds much-needed diversity to the talent pool of people behind-the-scenes for video games, which is never a bad thing.
Then, the publisher announced Assassin's Creed III: Liberation for the PlayStation Vita, featuring a heroine born of a white French father and black African mother. It seemed pretty reasonable to expect that the person voicing the character would follow the Noah Watts/Connor example.
Turns out that's not the case.
Update: Kotaku has learned that the actress Amber Goldfarb, not Sarah Natochenny as initially reported, will be doing the voice for Aveline in Assassin's Creed: Liberation.
According to IMDB (and as confirmed by a source close to the game), Aveline de Grandpré will be voiced by someone from a very different background than the 18th Century assassin. That someone is
Sarah Natochenny, a white actress and model perhaps most recognizable as the voice of Ash Ketchum in Pokémon cartoons. Amber Goldfarb (Ash is male; gender differences between voice-actors and the characters they play is common.) Goldfarb has done voices in previous Assassin's Creed titles. There's clearly a disparity between the way that Aveline looks and Goldfarb's appearance. And the difference between actress and character begs the question: is it a problem when voice performers don't match the characters they play?
Some studies show that there isn't much difference in the sounds of voices from different races. Video games have had such crossed-race instances before. Kimberly Brooks—who is African-American—did the voices for Mass Effect's Ashley Williams, as well as Barbara Gordon/Oracle in Batman: Arkham Asylum. Both of those characters are white. And the Transformers character Jazz—who was first voiced by African-American jazz legend Scatman Crothers—now gets his lines spoken by Troy Baker in the new Fall of Cybertron game, the Caucasian actor who did Vincent in Catherine and will be heard as Booker DeWitt in BioShock Infinite.
It can certainly be argued that Ubisoft got the best person for the job from whatever screening process they had. Goldfarb's resume is certainly impressive, with lots of TV work to her credit. But it can also be argued that Ubisoft Montreal could have mirrored the lead of Liberation like they did with Assassin's Creed III.
Casting Noah Watts as Connor felt like Ubisoft was buffing the worldly, cosmopolitan feel of the Assassin's Creed games even further, advancing a creative cultural mindset the same way ACIII is evolving its game engine or storytelling ambitions. Here's what Assassin's Creed III creative director Alex Hutchinson told Kotaku about creating Connor:
"It's been a big challenge to get the right guy," Hutchinson continued. "It's not like creating an Italian who is part of a robust country. We're sort of picking a character who is part of an oppressed people. We had to be very, very careful with it. We wanted to be both historically accurate and earnest in how we treated it. So we wanted to get an actor who is Native American. He is half-Blackfoot, and we wanted to get the events that happen in the game that are historically accurate as possible."
Hutchinson isn't in charge of Liberation. But his words hit the mark on why having a white actress do Aveline's voice might be a fumble. It's not about the quality of Goldfarb's work. Her narration sounds great in the clip above, affecting a French lilt well and coming across with genuine passion and drama. But it probably wouldn't have cost Ubisoft anything extra to find an African-American woman or a black actress from a Francophonic background to perform Aveline's dialogue either.
Kotaku has reached out to Ubisoft for comment and will update this story as needed.
Correction: The source that first tipped Kotaku to the Assassin's Creed Liberation voice casting informed us that Sarah Natochenny would be performing Aveline's voice, based on an IMDB listing. Natochenny's personal site held no mention of the role and no announcement had been made with regard to casting. While we asked Ubisoft for confirmation, we were not informed until a few days later that a different white actress had the role. We regret the error.