In an age of increasingly complex games which offer a great deal of player customisation and choice, expectations have evolved and changed. Games that don't want to offer that variety have become increasingly controversial in the industry, and developers that want to succeed will find they will be expected to have that diversity if they want to succeed. But maybe not the diversity we seem fixated on.
There has been quite a controversy of late over the depiction of female protagonists in games, or rather the lack of depiction, as games continue in this day and age to be primarily filled with generic grizzled white males as stock protagonists. In particular grievance with the community as a whole of late has been Ubisoft's excuses made for Unity cooperative multiplayer mode not including the option to play as a female character, something that has brought that long-standing issue to the forefront again. I'm going to address two things here - first of all, the specific example of Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed: Unity and their provided excuses, and the overarching issue that this all calls back to, in my opinion, which I suppose I've kind of spoiled in the title.
Games are an entertainment media we can project ourselves on
We play games because we want to be entertained in an interactive way. For a lot of gamers, we enjoy this media because it is interactive: we can change that experience, making choices or using our skills to create a game experience that is unique to ourselves and our wants. In essence, we craft a story, using the tools provided in the ways that the environment we are given allows us to. Some game creators have very specific stories they want us to make, others allow us a lot of freedom to piece together the story we wish. Yet every key-press, thought, emotion, and so forth, is something unique to our own experience, a single facet of a whole that is our unique gameplay.
Games appeal to us when they have elements that we enjoy in that story. We dream of being a nimble assassin on the streets of medieval Europe, a commander of a multinational force trying to repel aliens, or a soldier in the trenches of the Warsaw resistance. Those elements which we envision our own stories and how we can live them through these games. In that way, games are very much a power fantasy. They empower us to live out those stories.
When a game doesn't offer us the tools we want, it detracts
from the experience we as gamers are trying to capture
The root of the complaints about equal representation is the feeling that the players aren't experiencing the story in the way they want to. This is a complaint that both can and can't have merit. On one hand, there is something to be said for giving the player the agency to create the protagonist and story they wish to, on the other hand, there is also something to be said for creating a deep and immersive world. Ultimately, a good game balances on a tight-rope between those two overarching aims. It is trying to find a way to both allow the player to experience a story in the way they want to, and simultaneously craft the world that is the vision that the developer had.
Anyone who would debate that the ultimate player's aim is as selfish does so in the face of a mountain of evidence to the contrary. Take, for example, the veritable mountain of Skyrim mods available now, where trying to go through all of them is a mountain one can never quite finish climbing, or the or the slew of games that feature player-made content as the centerpiece, such as Little Big Planet. It's not a bad thing. Games are entertainment, after all, and we play them to entertain us; having those experiences we feel we want and have contributed towards is the chief factor in that, when it comes to video games.
Expectations have shifted as a result of these games that offer such customisation, where the bar or baseline of what we have come to expect in terms of player character customisation and freedom of choice in games has risen. Increasingly it has become a cause for consternation in gamers, and they have become more sensitive to restrictions in games. Take for example the recent remake of Thief, another sojourn into the well-worn boots of footpad Garrett: it received a lot of criticism from some corners for the limitations it had in terms of the ways you had to infiltrate the various target locations. Whereby the previous Thief games, especially Thief 2, had sprawling levels with multiple routes to the objective, the remade Thief had much less choice in that regard and much smaller levels, relatively speaking. As games have evolved, tools have been improved, and costs have reduced, we have come to expect more of games, and rightly so. We need more than 8 colours and a PC speaker for sound effects these days, after all, as much charm as the Atari 2600 had in its day. People wanting their games to have these improvement isn't out of the ordinary or overly demanding.
Story doesn't have to be sacrificed to give that experience
The thing that seems to get mostly forgotten is that there is one quite simple way to still make a very singular experience even with that desire for customisation is to create a different and compelling game. Easier said than done, no doubt, but there are obvious examples where games with a single and strongly-characterised protagonist succeed. Recent examples include Transistor, or the crew of polygons in Thomas Was Alone. Both of these games were powerfully-written stories that impacted with the audiences with a combination of brilliantly-written player characters (and NPCs) and moving and masterful narration. They told a very linear story, yes, but they told a story we wanted to hear again and again, because they were very vibrant and moving stories that affected us.
Even those experiences had player agency. Transistor allowed us to choose our level of immersion; we could go through the game reading and examining through all of the things to be found, or simply go along the linear path of the story. Much like the original Half-Life, while the actual progression path is quite linear, we are given a deep and interesting world to explore, and it compelled us to investigate what this fascinating world offered to us held.
Much of the desire for equal representation or player
customisation is a desire for more diverse protagonists
No doubt the question comes to mind: games like Ubisoft's Far Cry 3 have had quite strong storytelling, so why are people still upset with the representation of protagonists in their games? Well, this comes from two places: the reasons Ubisoft gave for not having variety in protagonists fall flat under any scrutiny, and the protagonists that Ubisoft does offer are very homogeneous. The former point has been examined in much better detail elsewhere (see for example Jim Sterling's episode of Jimquisition on the topic), but let's examine the latter.
The underlying problem people have with the protagonists in Ubisoft's game is that they are all essentially the same. In Far Cry we have a grizzled white guy fighting another white guy. Blood dragon's protagonist is a husky-voiced American with a bionic arm. Assassin's Creed features a fashion model of a white future guy reliving the memory of a variety of white guys in the past. Watch_Dogs has a generic American vigilante guy. It's all the same. And it would be just as much a problem if they were all women, or if they were all ethnic. There's so little variety, and when there is that variety, such as in the rare example of Liberation which featured a female protagonist, it's so understated and goes with so little marketing that many people discussing this actually weren't even aware of that example. There's no variety, and people are becoming tired, weary of making the story with that same element, that same brush, and they want something different.
The ball is in Ubisoft's court if they want to embrace the variety that this age of player agency has to offer us. It would do well to remember: you either ride the wave or change, or you find yourself underneath it. Gaming has evolved. People expect more, expect better. It's up to any developer that wants to succeed, to deliver.