The odds should've been against Assassin's Creed III: Liberation. It starred a woman—specifically the half-black, half-French heroine Aveline du Grandpre. And it was an exclusive on the PlayStation Vita, a system that many people see as a sadly under-supported platform.
But Liberation shipped a very strong 600,000 units, according to Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot. Sure, that number doesn't amount to much when compared to the Call of Dutys or Halos of the world. But it puts the lie to the corporate reasoning given for the inexhaustible supply of square-jawed Central Casting white guys who wind up starring in most video games.
But, to me, Liberation's biggest success isn't sales. Right now, it's the best example of how to craft a character descended from African heritage in a video game. The game takes the historical moment where the action happens and finds ways to integrate the experience of being a mixed-race woman in 18th Century New Orleans into a playable adventure. Tricky but very well-done.
Curious about what went into making Aveline so great, I e-mailed Jill Murray, who worked with the Bulgaria-based Ubisoft Sofia dev studio as a writer on the portable Assassin's Creed. It's not just me who thinks Aveline's story was memorable. Murray, along with co-writer Richard Fareze, just won an award for Outstanding Achievement in Videogame Writing from the Writer's Guild of America. (It's got an award-winning soundtrack too.) In the interview below, she talks about the research that went into the game, why the attitudes keeping more games from having more diverse characters suck and how she wants to write herself out of a job.
Kotaku: At what point in the game's development was the decision made about Aveline's ethnic make-up? From the very beginning of design, or was it when the story was being fleshed out, presumably a bit later?
Jill Murray: Who Aveline is and where she was from were important to the team in Sofia from the very beginning, long before I or even Richard joined the project. They did their research and decided from the beginning that a woman Assassin of French and Haitian descent would be a compelling character. They were right!
Kotaku: I pointed out some of the historical tropes that show up in Liberation, like the tragic mulatto, slave revenge and the Back-to-Africa movement. Was it coincidence or was it a conscious decision by you and the other developers to work those elements in there? Did you and the team do any kind of research in the name of authenticity?
Jill Murray: Personally, I am unevenly read, and my academic background is in Theatre Production, not English or cultural studies. In theatre, our approach to text was with an eye for how to bring worlds and characters to life, rather than for the sake of analysis itself. Consequently I don't have a strong vocabulary of tropes and conventions, and continue to approach everything from a practical standpoint, looking for the best way to learn about people and understand life by making things.
It would have been a mistake to attempt to reflect the entire eighteenth century black experience in Aveline all by herself; she's an individual, not a people or an issue. So, we looked for other opportunities to represent different points of view through the characters she meets. The result is an array of men and women trying to survive and carve out their own destinies in diverse ways. The story of Jeanne's kidnapping and life as a placée is recounted in diary entries. Aveline helps abused slaves, meets a man who has no territory he feels he can call home, locks horns with a soldier who has opted to fight for the English in exchange for his freedom. Each of these characters speaks for him or herself.
The formal research Richard and I did was primarily into the official documents of the era that directly impacted life for our characters— particularly the Code Noir, the French legal document that lays out the rules of slavery in French territories at that time. I also read a lot of slave narratives from different eras to get a sense of the variety of experiences and reactions people had, as well as their use of written language.
Often, people will ask me "did you interview any actual black people?" This is a more complicated question than it seems on the surface. I think that people really want to know if we actually care what black people would think, or what their real experiences are, or what their ancestors went through, compared to how history is recorded. The simple answer is yes. We are aware that colonial history was recorded by colonizers, and that it is inadequate to the task of representing the genuine experience of slaves, native people, and a host of others denied a voice in recorded history. The more complicated reality is that there is no one living today who knows what it felt like, in their own body, to live in the eighteenth century. If you want to really delve into authenticity, we also don't have ready access to young women political Assassins. At some point, a character must be invented—a responsibility we approached with enthusiasm, curiosity and, I hope, compassion.
That said, of course we talk to people informally all the time! At work, at school, over drinks, as one does as an alert and social writer, friend and colleague, personally interested and professionally nosy about the lives of others. I also have people in my family of Haitian and French Canadian descent, and I cannot look into the eyes of these toddlers I love and do anything but try create something that in some small way might help build a world in which they can grow up not feeling like they need to stab something. All I can do is try to be an ally. I hope it's working.
Kotaku: If people were intrigued by what they experienced in Liberation's plot and characters, where would you direct them to get similar stories?
Jill Murray: Aveline's story is first and foremost an Assassin's Creed story, so I would invite them to play not only the other Assassin's Creed games, but also have a look at some of our other media, in particular the excellent comic books by Karl Kerschl and Cameron Stewart, The Chain and The Fall.
…The concept that we don't need to try to create diverse characters—that if it's right for the story, it will just happen. Of course it's not going to just happen.
Kotaku: There's been a lot of talk about diversifying the protagonists of video games along gender and racial lines. You've been part of a lot of such threads on Twitter. What frustrates you about the current state of racial and gender representation in the medium?
Jill Murray: Two things frustrate me, and together they frustrate me doubly by existing in parallel, when they should cancel each other out. I'm glad you asked this because I'll be addressing it in detail in my Twitter-frustration-inspired GDC talk, DIVERSE GAME CHARACTERS: WRITE THEM NOW!
Essential Frustration #1: The fear that "diverse" characters are risky and might offend or alienate players by their simple inclusion—that including them requires a magic touch, special bravery, a trembling sensitivity, or a mandate to ignore sales. (Liberation is selling very well, thanks for asking!) In fact, creating "diverse" characters is no different than creating any character, and I believe that those who struggle with it need to address deeper issues within their own creative process. A writer or designer needs to be able to dig deep, research, and find the humanity of the people they invent. It should be exactly the same process whether the character is white, black, comes from planet Krypton, lives in the future, or is a sea creature. (Sure, sea creatures aren't people, but they'd still need to be relatable.) I strongly believe that if an audience can't connect to such a character, it's not because women, brown people, old people, queer people, or any type of character at all doesn't belong at the helm of a game; it's because the creator didn't dig deep enough to find a way to connect with that character. A good writer should be able to make you weep for, laugh with, even aspire to be an amoeba if necessary. Blaming a character for failure is like blaming a hockey stick for losing the game—a hockey stick you made with your own hands, to use in a game of your own invention. I call shenanigans.
Essential Frustration #2: The concept that we don't need to try to create diverse characters—that if it's right for the story, it will just happen. Of course it's not going to just happen. If it did, we wouldn't be having this discussion. The reason it doesn't just happen is contained in my first frustration. It's necessary to fight these assumptions, and stand up for our characters. If we believe in them, we have to rise to the occasion and show ourselves and the people we work with how to bring them to life successfully. But this does not require magic, scary effort—it's effort anyone can put in. It's fun, it adds variety, and it makes a lot of players feel good. It's more than worthwhile and we should definitely try to do more of it.
Kotaku: What's your big takeaway from the experience? What do you wish there were more of?
Jill Murray: What I always want more of, are actual game mechanics used to communicate point of view and experience. I want to strip everything down to its mechanical essence and add back only the words necessary to round out the experience. This is the "show, don't tell" of video games—put as much of experience as possible in the hands of the player. Basically, I want to run myself out of business.