Let’s not pretend we’re crazy, the new Assassin’s Creed Shadows Samurai isn’t Asian – IGN

Ubisoft has finally announced its highly anticipated Assassin’s Creed game set in feudal Japan. Subtitled Shadows, it follows two protagonists: a ninja named Naoe and a samurai based on the historical black samurai Yasuke.

While it’s a well-known issue that Asian representation is sorely lacking in Western games, I find it hypocritical and laughable that we’re only talking about the need for an Asian protagonist now that it’s been revealed that Assassin’s Creed Shadows will star a black samurai. This misses the forest for the trees. While I always advocate for more Asian men in AAA games, I’ll be the first to say that better representation is not will be found in yet another samurai hero.

You can't pretend you want Asian representation by asking for another samurai.  Credit: Ubisoft
You can’t pretend you want Asian representation by asking for another samurai. Credit: Ubisoft

Enough with the Samurai

Ubisoft’s decision to focus on Yasuke – a well-known historical figure – is a smart move. An Assassin’s Creed game set in Japan that would otherwise, quite frankly, have been difficult to distinguish from some other recent open-world samurai games. And if I want to see an Asian samurai protagonist, I don’t have to look very hard.

Asian samurai protagonists are a path already well-trodden. There’s Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, Katana Zero, Like A Dragon: Ishin!, Samurai Warriors, Rise of the Ronin, Onimusha, Way of the Samurai, Way of the Samurai 2, Ghost of Tsushima… There’s also my personal favorite, Muramasa: The Demon Sword. I can go on. So it’s hard to come to any conclusion other than that the limited imaginations of AAA game development can only imagine Asian heroes wielding katanas or ninja stars.

If I want to see an Asian samurai protagonist, I don’t have to look very hard.

Worse still, the complex characters so wonderfully brought to life in shows like Shogun are often distilled into their simplest forms in games, especially those made by Western studios. While Japanese developer-led titles like Sekiro and Like a Dragon: Ishin use their samurai protagonists to tell nuanced stories of overcoming fantastic challenges, or offer glimpses of street-level heroism in Edo Japan, the Western-developed games fail to reach a comparable level. level of complexity, often falling back on tired tropes of honor and stoicism.

And that only applies to games that try to tell a story using their samurai protagonist. More often than not, the samurai archetype is a vehicle for combat first, eschewing any sort of narrative flavor for a cool sword and topknot. Consider hero games like Overwatch with two types of samurai and a ninja for their Japanese cast. And all kudos to Ghost of Tsushima for its beautifully rendered open world and combat, but Jin Sakai has about as much charisma as a wet piece of cloth.

Second verse.  Same as the first.  Credit: Suckerpunch.
Second verse. Same as the first. Credit: Suckerpunch.

Wow, cool sword

The main complaint I have as an Asian-American in games regarding representation is not the lack of it – as evidenced by the Wikipedia page full of Asian fighters, ninjas and samurais – but rather the lack of diversity in there. I previously reported in a story about Asian American game developers and representation: We are not a monolith and I, a Korean American, don’t get a sense of representation from seeing a Japanese samurai, or a Japanese ninja, or a kung fu master or old gray-haired mystic, for that matter.

Of course, all of this comes with the caveat that the nature of AAA game development is to focus on “cool” characters with broad appeal. Samurais and ninjas Are cool, and their tools and weapons lend themselves to big action blockbusters, so is it surprising that such characters are becoming the standard? Maybe not, but after so many games it’s still disappointing to see how little chance these stories have with these characters.

Considering the history-hopping concept of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, with a little effort we could have our cake and eat it too. Why settle for another samurai hero when the franchise could easily go to the Mongol Empire or post-revolution China? Or even the Pacific Theater in World War II, which was a hotbed of Asian-led counter-imperial espionage?

I don’t want us to get the roles we expect. I want the roles we haven’t had before.

This problem of only defaulting to an Asian protagonist with katanas is not exclusive to Western studios, as both Capcom and Square Enix often choose to rely solely on Asian heroes when they need a samurai or ninja. But even then, Japan and other Asian studios are still thinking more progressively than their Western counterparts about who can be the face of their games.

It’s ironic, but Tango Gameworks is responsible for what I think has been the best Asian protagonist in gaming in the oft-overlooked Ghostwire: Tokyo. It’s a game set in modern-day Tokyo with a 21st century Asian protagonist whose responsibilities lay with his dying sister. There is no feudal lord and honestly it’s everything I could have asked for from a AAA game project with an Asian lead. Not to mention the work Sega and Atlus have done with games like Yakuza, Persona, and Shin Megami Tensei, which portray modern characters in unique environments.

More of this.  Credit: Tango Gameworks, Bethesda
More of this. Credit: Tango Gameworks, Bethesda

We shouldn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger

I find the comments saying that Assassin’s Creed Shadows is a missed opportunity to represent even more Asian protagonists shameful. As an Asian man, I don’t want us to get the roles that are expected of us. I want the roles we haven’t had before. I’d love to see the next Alan Wake-style horror game have an Asian protagonist, or for Star Wars to follow in The Acolyte’s footsteps and have an Asian protagonist.

When I push for greater diversity in games, it’s not that the next AAA samurai game will star an Asian protagonist, it’s that the next Naughty Dog game, or the next Hideo Kojima game, or even a Final Fantasy game, one could imagine an Asian hero.

Matt Kim is IGN’s Senior Features Editor. You can reach him @lawoftd.

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