Something really stood out to me in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. It wasn’t the improved controls, zippier story, or the gorgeous scenery. It wasn’t even the sea shanties. It was the realization that the game does female characters in an excellent way (ok, it was also the shanties).
There is a huge outcry for more dynamic female characters in games: women who are more than eye candy and deeper than just “strong.” Black Flag, being a pirate game, is full of colorful characters. Its women are no less so, and they are interesting and relatable not only in their personalities but their relationships with others. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag spoilers are to follow, so don’t read on unless you’ve played the game or don’t care about knowing what happens.
There are two female names in the game’s roster of famous pirates: Anne Bonny and Mary Read. It was with some trepidation that I waited for them to make their appearance. While they were undoubtedly fascinating women in real life, lady pirate sounds like the kind of character that game writers would stick squarely into the “strong” category.
It turns out that one of these women, Mary Read, had been a major player in the game for longer that I thought. The Assassin’s Creedified lore for this notorious pirate is that she posed as “James Kidd,” the bastard son of pirate Captain Kidd to start her career. She is also a skilled member of the Assassin Order. Throughout the game, she is a fitting counterpart and a foil for protagonist Edward Kenway. Edward is the most tepid star of the series about this whole assassin thing. He’s a good dude, but opportunistic and mostly driven by self-gain. Mary is looking at the big picture and wholeheartedly devoted to fighting the corruption of the Templars. She is clever, resourceful, and always calls Edward out on his bullshit. When she reveals her true identity as a woman, those qualities don’t change. Edward also doesn’t waver in his respect for her. It’s often the case in stories in which females must pose as male that there is a palpable weakening of the character when they are shown to be women.
Mary dies in prison late in the game. It’s a heartbreaking event and turning point for Edward. I do not believe, however, that it falls into the trope of women dying simply to advance male character development. You can tell that the effect Mary’s philosophies and convictions had on Edward genuinely touched him, and that it was a change in him that had been stirring for a while. It’s rare in games to see this kind of true friendship develop without turning things romantic. Another small thing Black Flag did was to normalize female sexuality. Oftentimes, female characters are only sexual if it’s in the context of a romance with a male protagonist or used as a negative to mark her as a temptress or otherwise morally compromised. After her death, Edward and Anne Bonny discuss how Mary came to be pregnant by the time she was imprisoned. It was just a young man from Mary’s ship. Matter of fact, no judgment.
Anne Bonny, a former barmaid in the pirate haven of Nassau, is Edward’s second quartermaster. She has a livelier personality than Mary’s, but she’s no less the badass. It’s neat to me that the game shows it to be Mary who recruits Anne to pirating. The Bechdel Test, used in discussions of female representation in fiction, asks: if two women are present in a work, do they talk to each other about something other than a man? It’s astounding how many works fail this checklist. Black Flag certainly passes, and we get the sense that Anne and Mary developed a deep friendship in their time sailing together.
One of my favorite scenes in the game shows Anne and Edward in a moment of vulnerability after falling on hard times. This is one of the best examples of why the women of Black Flag avoid the strong female character trap. Anne is definitely strong, but the game isn’t afraid to show her experiencing complex emotions. Just like Edward, Anne and Mary get to be many things: cool, sad, doubtful, sassy, defeated, etc. By the end of the game, Edward has had two amazing friendships with women. I think it’s pretty special.
The game’s treatment of Edward’s marriage, while a much smaller role, is also well done. His estranged wife Caroline disapproves of his choice to leave England for privateering. Usually this plotline would go the stereotypical route of portraying Caroline as a nag who’s just bringing Edward down. Instead, Edward realizes that he was not a supportive partner.
Some of these points may seem insignificant. It would be easy to play Black Flag without stopping to think about its characterization of women. It wasn’t until after I finished the game that I fully understood why the characters and relationships struck me like they did. There’s a lot of disappointment to be found in the search for games that give us memorable, dynamic female characters. I for one am glad to stop and celebrate one game that did it right.