Friday, June 21, 2024

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla Would Have Been a Stronger Game if Eivor Had Been a Lesbian

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey was nominated for a GLAAD Media Award for its LGBT+ representation and romance options. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey also released a DLC which forced your potentially queer main character to be straight in order to conceive a child. While many queer people do conceive, this is not presented as a bisexual lead entering into a heterosexual relationship. Players had no choice around this conception, and after working hard to establish queerness at the heart of Odyssey, the DLC negated it in a single act.

In fairness, GLAAD nominated Odyssey before this DLC, and released a statement post-DLC which condemned the move, even if it didn’t quite walk back the nomination fully. But the mess around this sums up the biggest issue with the recent Assassin’s Creed; they can’t decide how progressive they want to be, they can’t decide who their audience is, and they can’t decide what they want to say. Assassin’s Creed finds itself in the same spot so many of us did in high school: Assassin’s Creed needs to admit that it’s gay.

Spoilers for the ending of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla follow

Over at Fanbyte, Kenneth Shepard wrote about his experiences playing Assassin’s Creed Valhalla as a gay man. Valhalla lets you choose Eivor’s gender, and even allows you to play as both, either through changing manually or allowing the game to flip them at certain story beats. Despite Ubisoft promising that either gender option would be canon, the ending confirms that female Eivor is in fact the one true Eivor.

Shepard then was naturally disappointed that his gay male relationships had been rendered straight without his knowledge or consent. Personally, I played the game as female Eivor, only trying the male version out briefly. Much like in real life, I decided that while being male had some benefits, all things considered I’d be happier making the permanent switch to female. As female Eivor, I entered into a queer relationship with Randvi, and so you’d think the game’s confirmation that my choice was canon would be reaffirming, but I didn’t feel that way.

I play a lot of video games with choices, and it’s rare that I feel any choice is the ‘correct’ one. I’m a Liaramancer through and through, but I’d never say anyone was playing Mass Effect wrong for getting with Tali, Garrus, Miranda, or even Jacob. Ditto “Bay or Bae” in Life Is Strange. With Valhalla though, it does seem like there’s a right and wrong way to play it. Despite giving you the illusion of choice, the game flat out tells you female Eivor is correct. And while the other romance options have interesting chemistry, some unique scenes and dialogue options, only Randvi’s romance actually influences the story.

Randvi, one of Eivor’s many love interests

Assassin’s Creed is a franchise that struggles with the concept of “less is more”, and the romance options in Valhalla prove that. While there are fewer than in Odyssey, there are still too many scattered across the world. Having so many means less time dedicated to Randvi’s, in terms of the writing, the screen time, and the emotional weight the game puts behind it. Valhalla would be stronger with less choice and more development on Randvi. We’ve already seen this in Assassin’s Creed previously, where AC II hero Ezio has an established love interest in Cristina. The game doesn’t pad out the world with an array of options for Ezio, it dedicates all of its time on an in-depth romance between him and Cristina, making their connection much stronger and their story more complex.

Conversely, while Randvi is the most thematically important love interest, Ubisoft is well aware that there are several other options for Eivor to pursue, so her story is not as rounded. Despite having more bearing on Valhalla than Cristina does in Ezio’s narratives, Randvi is suffocated by the options around her, and only allowed brief cutscenes or dialogue tweaks, not the rounded, nuanced romance she deserves.

I’ve sat through enough games where I’ve been forced to play as a straight man to think a fully canon lesbian Eivor would be justified. Hell, even if there had been choices around how far to go with Randvi, that would be better than the butcher, the baker, and the bloke at the wedding as romance options.

I understand why the game wasn’t made this way. As well as Ubisoft’s struggles around “less is more”, there’s also been many stories of abusive workplace policies at the company, with claims of a big divide between the people who make the games and the people who make the decisions. This same expose claimed that the team behind Syndicate had to fight hard for Evie to be included and for Jacob to be bisexual, that originally Aya was set to lead Origins, not Bayek, and that Kassandra was always written as the lead of Odyssey before Alexios was added. This time around, we’ve seen far more praise for female Eivor as a character, and had her recognised as the canon option, yet she was almost entirely absent in the marketing campaign.

Assassin’s Creed needs to come out of the closet, already.

This internal struggle breeds the confusion we’ve seen around Assassin’s Creed’s queerness. The kind of confusion that sees them offer up a range of GLAAD worthy queer romances, then wipe them all away in a DLC. The kind of confusion to write a lesbian coded story about intimate betrayal, then allow you to play through the story as a man who romances someone else entirely.

I’m not saying Assassin’s Creed needs to only have lesbian protagonists from now on. I firmly believe Valhalla would be better if female Eivor and Randvi’s relationship was baked in for all players, but that longboat has sailed. What I’m saying is, as long as Assassin’s Creed continues to deal in ancient conspiracies, shady secrets, and dark deals in dark rooms throughout history, it needs to acknowledge that history is gay. Super gay. The history of war and piracy is full of people assigned female at birth disguising themselves as men, falling in love, and then living out the rest of their days as men; people who may in the modern vernacular have identified as transgender. The most famous love story of World War I was between two gay poets, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. That’s not to mention all of the historical civilizations which embraced homosexuality, from the Ancient Greeks, to the Ancient Chinese cultures which has records of homosexuality going back to 600 BC, to the many African cultures forced to adopt puritanical heterosexual lives by the arrival of religious colonialists.

This ever-present queerness means sometimes, the queerness will be indelibly tangled with our assassin. Not an optional sidequest, not something to be scrubbed away when a new story beat calls for it, but a core building block of their existence. It’s too late for Jacob, and for Kassandra, and for Eivor, and all the assassins I’ve loved before. But Ubisoft, hopefully set for a reckoning in the wake of the allegations of abuse, it’s not too late for whoever comes next.

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