At the Game Awards 2020, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla was nominated for the Innovation in Accessibility Award. This award is given to studios that help games appeal to a wider audience. The reason for the nomination was partly down to the game’s character choice functionality, which allowed players to choose whether to play as a female or male protagonist i.e. choosing the protagonist’s gender.
For decades, players have rarely had a choice when it comes to gender in games. They simply have to play with the character that the developers have chosen. Now, though, it seems as though there is a shift towards making titles more inclusive to binary genders.
Past Games Have Failed to Give Players an Option
If you’re asked to think of a list of games in which you’ve been given the choice between playing as a male or female character for the full duration of the game, you may find it hard to come up with many titles. Over the years, developers have rarely left the choice of gender up to the player and this has led the female demographic to feel excluded a lot of the time.
It’s true that there are a vast number of successful games with female protagonists, with the Tomb Raider franchise being a legendary example; however, the number of games with male leads far outweighs the list of female heroes. The reason for this could be down to the fact that in the past, the majority of gamers were male, and developers were catering almost exclusively to this audience. Statistically, this is evidenced by the fact that in 2006, only 38% of players were female and though this figure rose to 46% in 2019, it then dropped again to 41% the following year.
Another way of looking at it, though, could be that there were fewer female gamers because they felt they weren’t represented enough.
Valhalla Players Can Choose the Protagonist’s Gender
Ubisoft introduced gender selection in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and opted to continue this feature in Valhalla. This was one of the first releases for the new generation of consoles, and it’s likely to set a precedent for other developers.
With sprawling games like this, they are designed to make players feel as if they are living an alternative life. With that in mind, female players will usually want to experience these alternative worlds in bodies similar to their own, while male players will likely want to play as male protagonists that they identify with. It makes sense that players should be given this choice at the start of the game, and they should stick with their decision from that point onwards.
Gender selection in Valhalla also stays true to the history of the Vikings, where there were both male and female warriors. Mainstream culture, in the form of TV shows and films, has reflected this over the years, so it’s not out of the ordinary for video games like Valhalla to do the same. For example, in the popular History Channel series, Vikings, one of the main characters is the shieldmaiden, Lagertha. Played by Katheryn Winnick, the legendary Viking is one of the central characters with a lot of narrative development throughout the series.
Lagertha was based on a real Viking of the same name, who was once the ruler of the country that is now known as Norway. Thanks to the historical figure’s notoriety and the popular representation in the Vikings TV series, there have been a series of related games made about her. A standout offering is Lagertha, which is among the most popular free slots on the market. This game features Viking imagery and symbols and is designed to appeal to women who view the great ruler as a strong and defiant role model. Players have the chance to play the game without staking anything at first and, if they enjoy it, they can then choose to play for real money.
A Common Theme for the Future?
Valhalla isn’t the only recently released game that allows players to have full choice over the gender of the protagonist. Another notable example is in CD Projekt Red’s Cyberpunk 2077, where the gender selection options were done slightly differently. Instead of simply choosing to be a man or a woman, players were able to select masculine or feminine traits when building their character’s body. This is even more inclusive as it allows for options beyond the traditional gender binary. This could turn out to be a common theme for the future, as these early selections have no negative effects on the overall gameplay but serve to appeal to a greater range of players.
With the advanced technology available to developers today that allows them to put non-identical characters into identical situations, it makes sense that players should be able to choose the protagonist’s gender at the start of the game.
With Valhalla and Cyberpunk earning plaudits for including this, it may encourage other developers to follow suit. Assassin’s Creed has arguably set the benchmark here, and gamers may soon come to expect a choice in other games that they purchase.