Thursday, November 21, 2013

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The Best Part of Assassin's Creed IV Black Flag Might Just Be The Employee Bathroom

ACIV Black Flag 11
Janine "Iris Ophelia" Hawkins' ongoing review of gaming and virtual world style

My favorite thing about Assassin's Creed IV, released for PC earlier this week, might just be the unisex bathroom.

That's not a slight against the game at all. Though I've yet to finish it, so far it seems to have taken all the best lessons from the run away success of Assassin's Creed 2 as well as the mixed reception of 3, leading the series' latest iteration to blend the fun characterization of the former with some of the impressive mechanics introduced in the latter. Top everything with a healthy dose of game industry self-awareness (right down to notes in the lore files) and you have a recipe for one hell of a game.

Then, you step back from all the freerunning, shark-hunting, and swashbuckling... And by "you", I mean the character you're actually playing.

ACIV Black Flag 6

As in previous Assassin's Creed games, the character in the past is (spoilers!) actually a simulation being controlled by another in the future, but this time it's not Desmond Miles or anyone else of apparent importance. When the camera pulls back and shifts suddenly to first person, you find yourself in control of... Yourself.

You're a new employee at Abstergo Entertainment, a QA Tester, and you're almost entirely unidentified. You have an employee ID number, but no name. When others speak to you or about you, they use no gendered pronouns. You will never see your character's hands, so looking for anything as obvious as hairy knuckles or a tidy manicure won't do you any good. The office is culturally diverse (something that the game's actual developer, Ubisoft, mentions about itself often) and has a nearly even split between male and female employees. It also has a unisex bathroom, so there's no wrong door to walk through, no social faux-pas waiting to surprise you, no either-or gender binary staring you in the face. You're not even asked to think about it. 

While I have mixed feelings at best about unisex bathrooms in reality, I think they represent something rather important about this game. What I've seen of the fluid treatment of the player's identity in Black Flag is well executed, and it's certainly deliberate. If someone had simply decided that gender wasn't an important part of this side of the game, it would have been easy to slip into using "male" as a default position. It's not a conscious bias, but it's one that's engrained in us. The level of care put into this ambiguity tells me that someone at some level thought gender was very, very important. You don't just stumble into something like this; you craft it.

... But then again, I'm nowhere near done. There is still plenty of time for all this lovely work to be thrown out the window with a sweeping reveal or a questionable element in the main story. Perhaps the camera will pull back one more time and reveal that you were John T. Dudebro the whole time (!!!) and the last moments of the game will be spent running madly through Abstergo Entertainment and assassinating everyone with a badge. But God, I hope not.

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Mixed reality iris 2013Iris Ophelia (@bleatingheart, Janine Hawkins IRL) has been featured in the New York Timesand has spoken about SL-based design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan andwith pop culture/fashion maven Johanna Blakley.

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