Let’s Not Pretend We’re Mad the New Assassin’s Creed Shadows Samurai Isn’t Asian

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.

Even though it is known that Asian representation in Western games is sorely lacking, I find it hypocritical and laughable that we are only talking about the need for an Asian protagonist now that it has been revealed that Assassin’s Creed Shadows will feature a black samurai. It 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 it 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 decision. An Assassin’s Creed game set in Japan that would otherwise have been, frankly, hard to distinguish from some other recent open-world samurai games. And if I wanted to see an Asian samurai protagonist, I didn’t have to look very hard.

Asian samurai protagonists are a path already well traveled. There is 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 is also my favorite , Muramasa: The Demonic Blade. I can go on and on. So it’s hard to come to any conclusion other than that the limited imagination of AAA game development can only imagine Asian heroes when they wield katanas or ninja stars.

If I wanted to see an Asian samurai protagonist, I didn’t have to look very carefully.

Worse yet, the complex characters that have been brought to life so wonderfully in series like Shogun are often distilled down to their simplest forms in games, especially those created by Western studios. While titles led by Japanese developers like Sekiro and Like a Dragon: Ishin use their samurai protagonists to tell nuanced stories about overcoming fantastical challenges, or provide insight into street heroism in Japan from Edo, games developed in the West fail to reach a similar level. level of complexity, often falling back on tired tropes of honor and stoicism.

And that’s only considering games that attempt to tell a story using their samurai protagonist. More often than not, the samurai archetype is primarily a combat vehicle, eschewing any sort of narrative flavor in favor of a cool sword and topknot. Think of hero games like Overwatch that feature two types of samurai and a ninja for their Japanese cast. And all props to Ghost of Tsushima for its open world and beautifully rendered combat, but Jin Sakai has about as much charisma as a piece of wet cloth.

Second verse.  Same as the first.  Credit: Sucker Punch.
Second verse. Same as the first. Credit: Sucker Punch.

Wow, cool sword

The main complaint I have as an Asian American in gaming when it comes to representation isn’t the lack of representation – as evidenced by the Wikipedia page full of Asian fighters, ninjas, and samurai – but rather the lack of representation. diversity the flange. I’ve spoken before in a story about Asian American game developers and representation, we’re not a monolith and I, a Korean American, don’t get the feeling of representation from seeing one Japanese samurai, or a Japanese ninja, or a kung fu master or ancient gray-haired mystic for that matter.

Of course, all of this comes with a caveat: it’s the nature of AAA game development to focus on “cool” characters with broad appeal. Samurai and ninjas are cool, and their tools and weapons lend themselves to big action blockbusters, so is it any surprise that such characters become the default? Maybe not, but after so many playthroughs, it’s still disappointing to see how little these stories take chances with these characters.

Given the historical leap concept of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, we could have our cake and eat it too with a little effort. 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 during World War II, which was a hotbed of counter-imperial espionage run by Asians?

I don’t want us to play the roles we’re supposed to play. I want the roles we haven’t had before.

This problem of defaulting to only a katana-wielding Asian protagonist is not exclusive to Western studios, as Capcom and Square Enix often choose to rely on Asian heroes only when they need a samurai or of a ninja. But even then, Japan and other Asian studios are still more forward-thinking than their Western counterparts when it comes to who can be the face of their games.

It’s ironic, but Tango Gameworks is responsible for what I think is the best Asian protagonist in the often overlooked Ghostwire games: Tokyo. It is a game set in modern-day Tokyo with a 21st century Asian protagonist whose responsibilities fall to his dying sister. There are no feudal lords and, honestly, that’s all I could have asked for from a AAA game project with an Asian direction. Not to mention the work Sega and Atlus have done with games like Yakuza, Persona and Shin Megami Tensei that depict modern characters in unique settings.

No more of that.  Credit: Tango Gameworks, Bethesda
No more of that. 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 embarrassing. As an Asian man, I don’t want us to have the roles that are expected of us. I want the roles we haven’t had before. I would love for the next Alan Wake style horror game to have an Asian protagonist, or for Star Wars to follow in the footsteps of The Acolyte and have an Asian protagonist.

When I advocate for greater diversity in games, it’s not so that the next AAA samurai game features an Asian protagonist, it’s so that the next Naughty Dog game, or the next Hideo Kojima game, or even a Final Fantasy game, can imagine an Asian hero.

Matt Kim is IGN’s senior features editor. You can contact him @lawoftd.

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