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28 May, 2024 19:55

Is Assassin’s Creed’s black samurai a historical triumph or woke overreach?

What is lurking in the newest game in the franchise – diversity and inclusion or good storytelling and historical accuracy?
Is Assassin’s Creed’s black samurai a historical triumph or woke overreach?

In November 2024, a new installment in a popular videogame franchise will be released – Assassin’s Creed Shadows. Set in Feudal Japan, the game will tell the story of two protagonists – Naoe, a Japanese female ninja, and Yasuke, an African samurai. 

Finally, a game about stealth, cinematic assassinations and a centuries-long conflict between global shadow societies takes place in Japan – a land of unbreakable honor, invisible ninjas, and sharp katanas. The first leaks about this setting began surfacing in 2021, just as Ghost of Tsushima, another game about being a warrior in Japan, was released to high critical acclaim.

This is not the first time when an Assassin’s Creed game has used two protagonists. In Syndicate, set in Victorian London, you played as the Frye twins - Jacob and Evie. The two characters embodied two different playstyles - Jacob specialized in open hand-to-hand combat, while Evie relied on stealth and ranged weapons. Another game, Origins, that told the story of the creation of the Assassins’ Brotherhood in Ancient Egypt, had several missions that let you control Aya, the wife of the main protagonist Bayek. So, if this is not the first time this has happened, what made the initial reaction to Shadows so different?

At first, people were surprised by the inclusion of an African man as one of the playable characters. Sure, Yasuke was a real person, who lived in Japan during Oda Nabunaga’s reign in the 16th century. But even today, historians can not agree whether he was really a mercenary samurai, or just a slave in Nabunaga’s court.

Assassin’s Creed games have always included prominent historical figures as characters – Leonardo Da Vinci, Napoleon, Cleopatra, Socrates, Benjamin Franklin, all to immerse the player in the time period and to make them feel the importance of their contribution to mankind’s history.

Out of all the people that lived during that period and could be used as a protagonist – why choose Yasuke? He did not impact the history of Japan that much and is not symbolic of any events that happened. So why was a big black man chosen for a game seemingly about Japanese people, stealth and ninjas? Maybe the developers wanted to add the same “choose your playstyle” feature they already had in Syndicate. Or maybe they saw the opportunity to put another “underrepresented” person in a setting they probably have no place in, just to show the world how progressive they are. This move is sure to place them on a few liberal game awards organizations’ radars, but for now it has only made a lot of gamers upset. At this time, Shadows’ reveal trailer on Youtube is the most disliked in the series’ history, with people all over the world, including in Japan, sharing their disappointment with Ubisoft. Some are even calling out the hypocrisy by saying that adding a black character is seen as progressive (and you can be called racist for objecting), but if a white samurai was the main character, the uproar would be unimaginable.

The decision to make one of the protagonists non-Japanese is a brave one. Since the reveal, the community has split into two parts – the more vocal one expresses their displeasure with another example of meaningless diversity and inclusion, while the other one is seemingly happy with finally getting their Japanese Assassin’s Creed. Both groups have their reasons. Adding a diverse character for the sake of diversity and progressive optics is now commonplace, and people are tired of seeing it. The intentions could be genuine, but it’s hard for gamers to trust corporate boardrooms. The silent majority, meanwhile, is excited for the game, if sales are any indication. Shadows is the #1 best seller on Amazon Japan. But then again, if a gaming industry titan like Ubisoft, as part of an insanely popular franchise like Assassins Creed, were to make a game about India, Russia or Türkiye, there are good chances that the game would be an instant best seller in that country, African protagonists or not.

There is an opinion online that adding a black samurai is not a betrayal of Japanese culture or history. That the stories that can be told about Japan are not limited to stories about Japanese samurai; that it’s a harmful cliche. While it can be a stereotype, stories that are based on a stereotype resonate the most with people - a cowboy movie, a samurai game, a World War II series. It’s a hook that grabs the entire human population interested in that genre, and then it’s up to the story to prove itself and show that it is much more than just a stereotype. Red Dead Redemption 2 for example, is “just another cowboy game,” but its story and its characters attracted many people, even some that had no previous interest in gaming.

But the main problem of Shadows might not be its questionable choice of characters. Ghost of Tsushima, a 2020 Sony game about the first Mongol invasion of Japan, whose success was probably the reason Shadows was made, is being compared to the upcoming Assassin’s Creed, six months before its release.

Journalists worry that we've come full circle – Ghost of Tsushima was created as an ‘Assassin’s Creed in Japan’, improving on its mechanics and storytelling. If Ubisoft learns nothing from their shortcomings in game design, it looks like Shadows will be their typical open-world game, and will pale in comparison to a Japanese game about Japan.

Come November, the dust will settle and the game will be released. As usual, fans will be hyped, and the game will be full of bugs and lacking in features. After a while, the bugs will be patched, downloadable content will inevitably be released, and the in-game store will bombard gamers with ads. In the end, some will remember the game fondly for years, some will leave it halfway through, but its success will be measured only by Ubisoft’s earnings report for that year. That is the only way that corporations see the right and wrong in their decisions – their bottom line.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.