Ubisoft didn’t give us a ton to chew on when it unveiled Assassin’s Creed Red, which will follow next year’s Mirage in the long-running historical fiction series, beyond the fact that it’s set in Japan. However, that hasn’t stopped AC fans from making comparisons to Ghost of Tsushima, Sucker Punch’s 2020 open-world RPG that players have already widely likened to Assassin’s Creed for how it blends action and stealth mechanics. But as you contemplate just how similar or different Red may end up being from GoT, consider this: Ghost of Tsushima was mostly a joyless slog that replicated the western tendency to depict Asian men as devoid of any individualism or human appeal, and I’m hoping that Red offers me more than “play as an assassin, but in Japan.”
Before I get into my specific gripes about Ghost, I feel compelled to note that some people have responded to the announcement of Red by commenting about how we supposedly have too many open-world games set in Japan. Can I just talk about how weird this reaction to Red is? Just because Sucker Punch did it first, Ubisoft now can’t make a modern open-world RPG set in Japan? This is a double standard that we don’t apply to western nations. Has anyone ever said there are too many games set in England, or the United States? AC fans are forced to visit England regularly, and London appears in Assassin’s Creed III, Syndicate, and Valhalla. Until we reach 1:1 parity with the number of times that I am forced to visit fog island, I say: Bring on the Japan-based video games.
However, I do have concerns about the kind of fictional Japan that a western studio might create. I reviewed Ghost of Tsushima near when it released, and I was not impressed. The characters, as in so many western visions of Asian people, were obsessed with honor to the exclusion of all else. None of the NPCs were flirting with the actual aristocrat who was trying to liberate the island. Everything was just so constantly dour, and I wondered if the protagonist Jin Sakai knew what a joke was. Although the rocket launchers were fun, and the scenery was certainly very photogenic, I found myself emotionally detached from Ghost’s Japan. Tsushima Island didn’t feel worth saving. Although I see players praising Ghost, they also make it clear that, for them, one stealth adventure in Japan was enough. Sucker Punch’s game showed them all the Japan that they wanted to see.
The big problem with Ghost of Tsushima is that it relied too much on couching its world in the historical accuracy of its aesthetics, but didn’t deliver on approachable characters with relatable human foibles. While I explored the villages on Tsushima Island and met the people who inhabited them, I couldn’t help but yearn for the Greek coasts of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. I’d previously thought of ancient Greece as a stuffy and intellectual world because my main exposure to the country was through learning about it in public school. But Odyssey showed me that ancient Greeks could be fuckups. They could be horny, lazy, and selfish. In contrast, Tsushima was obsessed with respect to the point of sacrificing the verisimilitude of life. Everyone in Jin’s world is beautiful, but no one is horny.
The sterile beauty of Ghost comes from the west’s uncomfortable relationship with Asian gender and sexuality. Jin Sakai is a man who is obsessed with honor, and has nothing else going on in his life. His most tender moments occur while he is alone, and rarely (if ever) with other people. This sexlessness is in line with how Asian men are viewed in the west: impotent, devoid of romance, and free from personal desire. As I’ve said time and time again: Let Jin Sakai fuck. Let him shoot the shit at the tavern. Let him have a rich internal life that feels separate from his quest to liberate Tsushima Island. Now, with Red, Ubisoft can do what Sucker Punch didn’t. After all, I’ve seen the viking Eivor get high off mushrooms and chug a massive vat of beer. I just need Ubisoft to treat the Japanese assassins of its upcoming game no differently than their European counterparts.
This may be a tall order for the Assassin’s Creed publisher. Red is being directed by Jonathan Dumont, who was accused of bullying in 2020. New allegations against him have recently surfaced on TheGamer. Developers allegedly asked not to be placed on the Red project because of Dumont’s behavior. And last year, Kotaku reported that an Asian developer at Ubisoft Montreal was told by her assistant director: “You Asians, you all look the same.” And despite having talent all over the world, developers at Ubisoft Singapore alleged that the studio was subject to a “French ceiling” that prevented Southeast Asian staff from succeeding in the company.
We deserve better western games set in Asia. I’m just not entirely sure if Ubisoft Quebec is the studio that can deliver.