In video games, the protagonist serves as the player’s vehicle into the world. They determine how the player will interact with the game, and because of this, it makes sense to mirror aspects of an actual person in a character such as gender, beliefs, and culture. While most AAA publishers err on the conservative side of character design, we've seen two unique protagonists representing some of the frequently neglected cultures.
Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed III and SuckerPunch's inFAMOUS SecondSon created two Native American characters, and while the divergence from the diversity norm is refreshing, the two companies fail to create a culturally complex character, blundering in different ways.
Reid McCarter mentioned similar feelings in his DigitalLoveChild.com post. But while Reid shines a glimmer of hope through Assassin’s Creed’s Ratonhnhaké:ton, aka Connor Kenway, I think we still fall short of viewing a completely developed Native American character. Despite their heritages in these awesome games, Ubisoft and SuckerPunch both fail to completely fulfill dynamic, yet diverse Native American characters.
inFAMOUS SecondSon and the Akomish Tribe
Throughout inFAMOUS: SecondSon, you play through Delsin Rowe’s transformative relationship with his brother, Sheriff Reggie Rowe. This relationship helps define the viewer’s perception of Delsin while simultaneously intertwining Delsin’s cultural values with his motivations. His temperamental relationship with his brother proves that he prioritizes his family’s safety above all, which drives him straight into hordes of Department of Unified Protection forces.
This single personal relationship is expanded by Delsin’s cultural heritage as a member of the Akomish tribe. Delsin’s growth from protecting his brother to protecting his entire tribe early in the game legitimizes Delsin’s insane decision to take on all of Seattle. This sounds like a solid design, right? But there’s one problem.
The Akomish tribe is fictional. SuckerPunch made it up.
It’s not only a fabricated tribe, it’s fabricated in a real world setting. inFAMOUS: SecondSon is the first of the entire inFAMOUS series that takes place in a real location – Seattle. So the sudden inclusion of an entirely fictional element in a game that has, in painstaking detail, attempted to recreate a factual city, challenges the design of Delsin. Couldn’t SuckerPunch have pulled a meaningful story about ethnicity from a factual tribe instead of concocting a new one just to fulfill their story’s purpose?
Assassin’s Creed III's Connor Kenway: Accuracy without Complexity
From a research standpoint, SuckerPunch could have learned from Assassin’s Creed III. You can believe Ubisoft’s Alex Hutchinson when he says they tried to “reflect [Mohawk culture] as accurately as possible.” In Assassin’s Creed III you can see Ubisoft’s efforts to accurately illustrate their protagonist Ratonhnhaké:ton, colloquially named Connor Kenway. Ubisoft specified that Connor was a member of the Mohawk tribe, and even recorded dialogue in the native Mohawk language to help solidify his heritage.
Thanks to Ubisoft’s extensive research, Connor dresses and speaks like a Mohawk would while living on the brink of the American Revolutionary War. But despite this meticulous attention to physical and historical detail, Connor’s culture doesn't seep into his personality. He's not a complex individual. While his primary relationships involve his father and his mentor, most of his interactions with the two appear flat and unrelatable. The player never really understands what drives Connor, which ultimately presents him as yet another Native American caricature instead of a fully realized, meaningful individual.
So now we have Connor Kenway, a fully researched, culture-heavy character lacking any developed personality, and Delsin Rowe, a dynamic, relationship-focused protagonist grounded in his cultural heritage that was completely made up. Both characters play to the strengths of each other's weakness, and like Goldilocks, we arrive at two extremes in search for something just right.
Why does Assassin’s Creed III place so much faith in this new character that was supposed to revitalize the franchise, only to have a one-dimensional character? And how, especially when there are real Native American tribes to choose from, did SuckerPunch justify making up a tribe, when they clearly undertook heavy research for their game's setting?
Why are two critically acclaimed games glossing over a character trait that holds so much potential? I don’t believe it’s the classic profit excuse. Games like The Last of Us and The Walking Dead have proven that a compelling narrative sells. The Walking Dead’s Lee Everett may be one of the few shining examples of cultural characterization, but that’s a topic for another day.
My frustration is also magnified by the fact that I really enjoyed these games. I loved how Assassin’s Creed III introduced the naval warfare gameplay that Assassin’s Creed IV was centered around, and inFAMOUS SecondSon features a redesigned, super-smooth control scheme and has been been praised as a must-have for the PS4. But thinking critically about the choices Ubisoft and SuckerPunch made while creating such great games is also crucial for more complex and defined characters.
Culture and ethnicity are two powerful tools for characterization in video games, and done properly, it could allow a player to understand a new character they never could have experienced otherwise. And while Connor and Delsin illuminate diversity in AAA games, they still fall short of perfectly complex protagonists. Ubisoft and SuckerPunch can learn from each other; authenticity does not equate to unforgettably dynamic characters, and sometimes you have to ground your fictional characters in fact in order to create a more expansive meaning to your game.
Mary Harrigan is an avid gamer in the Washington DC area who focuses on constructing a more thoughtful conversation around video games.