Kelly Hornung is a recent graduate from the University of Waterloo, where she completed her thesis on audience acceptance of environmental disasters in fiction. She is interested in continuing to explore the impact of storytelling in society, as well as narrative transportation theory in practice.
Following the release of their 2016 title, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, Ubisoft released a downloadable companion game in which players are given the opportunity to once again walk the streets of Victorian London with assassin twin siblings, Jacob and Evie Frye, to investigate the unsolved crimes of the famed murderer known as Jack the Ripper. Yet rather than retelling the story about two twins who use cunning and skill to save London, the DLC sets its sights on Evie as the hero of the game. Cool and uncompromising, Evie sets herself apart as a playable protagonist proving that female video game characters do not need to be young, inexperienced, or rely on others in order to succeed and win.
Set in 1888, 20 years after the main game, Jacob is beaten and kidnapped by Jack. After the attack, Evie returns from her expatriation to India to capture the fugitive responsible for both her brother’s disappearance and the murder of prostitutes in London’s Whitechapel borough. After the prologue of Jacob’s capture and introduction of Jack as the main antagonist, it is made clear that from this point onward, this is Evie’s story.
Syndicate introduces Evie in a way that is unique for young female characters in games, as we never see her as an ingénue. We meet Evie equipped and ready for battle, instead of watching her grow into fighting. The player is told to accept her as she is, rather than given a lengthy or playable explanation to relieve any doubt as to how so young a woman could possibly be a fully-trained assassin. This introduction is mirrored in Jack the Ripper, as Evie–20 years later–returns as a still independent, resourceful woman, this time with a few new tricks. Once again, Evie comes to us fully-formed and self-assured; she is not a student, but master of her skills who is ready to use them.
Assassin’s Creed has not shied away from giving attention and power to female protagonists. Predecessors of Evie include Aveline de Grandpré of Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation and Assassin’s Creed Unity’s Élise de la Serre. However, while these women show undeniable strength and well-developed personas, their stories remain framed by the expectations of women in their respective time periods, or in the case of Élise, framed by the perspective of the male protagonist.
Syndicate sees Evie develop her skills as a stealth-based assassin with brutal takedowns of enemies, as well as missions, quests and plotlines that are separate from those of her brother. Nothing about Evie is overtly sexy, maternal or gentle; she cares for the wellbeing of others, yet doesn’t flinch at killing someone who has caused harm; she is given a romantic interest, yet this is only detail to her plot; she upholds the wishes of her late father, but is an individual. She isn’t a fiery femme fatale, but calm and steady when taking care of business. She openly becomes irritated by her brother when he makes sudden decisions without her, and isn’t passive or shy to let him know when he does something wrong. In other words, Evie is a complex person.
And yet, Evie as the central character is unusual for Jack the Ripper and for action games in general: not because she is female, but because she is not young. Other Assassin’s Creed titles feature middle-aged women as members of the elusive brotherhood, but they act as members of a council or as sleeper agents used to relay information, make plans or teach lessons, not as playable characters engaged in combat. Jack the Ripper upholds the strong choices made about her character and retains the Evie of the former game. Rather than retiring from her position as an impressive assassin, she possesses similar attributes as the previous game with new weapons acquired from her time abroad.
Although the protagonist, it is important to note that Evie is not the only playable character. Scattered throughout the game are levels in which players wreak havoc in London as Jack. However, his crimes stray from the true plot of the original Jack the Ripper mysteries, as the player is not harming prostitutes, but figures of authority such as policemen and medical professionals. Because of this switch in enemy, Jack the Ripper DLC changes the rules for the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Rather than building up a hero who yearns for fairness, we are the antagonist, stalking the hero and anticipating their demise. Worse yet, the player is complicit in these crimes; like many narrative-based games, the story will not continue unless the compulsory actions are completed. Nor is there any reward when playing as Jack. Plot progression, ability to level up skills and new mechanics are found only when playing as Evie. She becomes stronger as the game progresses, while Jack sees little growth at all. Why, then, feature Jack as a playable character at all? How does Jack’s perspective contribute to Evie’s story?
Initially, it seems that the main conflict of the story is that Jack is threatening the city of London and its inhabitants. Where the story of Syndicate is concerned with Jacob and Evie fighting against the citywide oppression bred from unrestrained capitalism, Jack the Ripper presents a different central conflict: all the prostitutes Jack murders were Assassins themselves, who he kills to exact revenge on the organization. Yet this violent vendetta is not what drives Evie to seek retribution against Jack; rather, it is her sense of justice. Evie’s side missions include raiding brothels, extracting confessions from journalists trying to scare citizens with false reports, helping the weakened police force catch crooks, as well as publicly shaming men who are abusive to the sex workers. These are not initiatives to help the Assassins or to regain control over the city, as per the original game; these are actions Evie takes to restore vanished equality to London. Jack the Ripper then becomes a story about restoring justice to those who are vulnerable and at risk of harm. This isn’t unprecedented, as Syndicate previously showed Evie sympathizing with orphans, helping a ridiculed Charles Darwin, and promoting the independence of India. Making Evie the central voice of Jack the Ripper not only presents her as a hero, but as a woman who is more than her title of Assassin. She possesses qualities that are inherently good, humane and rational. Thus, the game ceases to be about revenge and is instead about helping those less fortunate, even when times are bleak.
Instead of telling the audience that Jack has torn apart the work that Jacob and Evie had done to restore balance to London and to the city’s gang of Rooks, the game shows us in a merging of gameplay and narrative. Missions completed in Syndicate have now been undone, so that Evie no longer has access to allies or safe spaces that were once made available. This is the storytelling of Assassin’s Creed at its strongest, as the player must first set up the story–Jack’s reign of terror–in order to play through it. But what is the point of playing as two characters in direct competition, besides clever narration? The answer lies in exactly what Jack and Evie disagree upon: the creed of the Assassins.
As Evie discovers the identity of Jack, she learns that he was taught and trained by Jacob as a young Assassin, but began to develop extreme bloodlust and desire for control. She also learns that the prostitutes Jack murdered throughout Whitechapel were Assassins themselves, with few others besides Jacob remaining in London. Jack’s campaign to destroy London therefore has little to do with the ‘righteousness’ of his beliefs, but rather to prove that the Assassins do more harm than good and that the city is better off without them. Jack the Ripper is thus a mission for Evie to demonstrate that one can be both noble and an Assassin, which she does through her side quests to help women, children, and the London police. This is also displayed through the use of the weapon that both Evie and Jack deploy:fear gas. While Jack will stab a ‘spike’ of fear gas into a victim in order to create a cloudy distraction and scare away bystanders, Evie will instead stab it into the ground to achieve the same effect. The decision to make an object lethal or keep it as a tool for stealth presents a further distinction in personal agenda and personality. The use of gameplay to prove the integrity and morality of Evie further contrasts her with Jack, but also works as a function of narrativity within the game. Evie is rewarded in-game for choosing stealth over violence, but it suggests something more to the player about conflict resolution; when dealing with a person who is dangerous and unpredictable, taking the time to observe one’s surroundings and reduce consequences can be more effective than through vulgar attempts at power. Evie’s determination to stifle Jack’s reign is an argument for open-mindedness and forgiveness as a defense to extremism.
It is important to note the limited presence of Jacob in Jack the Ripper in comparison to Syndicate, given how Evie and Jacob are formerly presented as a united, unstoppable duo. While the decision to exclude Jacob in the action of Jack the Ripper may seem at first to be a narrative device used to give Evie motivation to stop Jack, it offers insight into how the world and characters changed in the 20 years since the events of Syndicate. The conclusion of the former game suggests Jacob and Evie are at their best when they work together; the final level of Syndicate switches between the twins in order to complete various tasks based on their strengths, with Evie completing the stealth tasks and Jacob as the fighter, clearing their path. Syndicate ends with Evie and Jacob respecting each other’s unique skills, before their separation to achieve their own goals in India and London, respectively. In the year 1888, Jack the Ripper shows us what happened to London since Evie’s departure: corruption returned, conditions declined, and many Assassins fled the city.
This detail in the story suggests that without his sister, Jacob is unable to maintain the righteousness and nobility of their joined rule over the Rooks and the city of London. Between the two of them, Jacob is clearly presented as the brawler, who is unafraid to start a fight or stir up trouble. Yet, in the DLC this reveals itself as a weakness, as it is ineffective at keeping the city under his control. It proves detrimental to him, as we learn that Jack is well-acquainted with Jacob’s fighting style, giving him the advantage and ability to overtake Jacob and kidnap him. However, when Jack and Evie finally do fight, she is ultimately able to outwit him with stealth and surprise despite their matched Assassin training. Without Jacob, the game points out the value of skills that go beyond strength, and that those who are not brawlers themselves can still stand up to bullies and save the day. Evie rescues Jacob using a different kind of strength, one that comes from her talent for patient determination to help those who are unable to save themselves. Where Syndicate tells us that the two siblings must always work together, Jack the Ripper tells us that Evie can manage just fine on her own.
Evie Frye stands out as a particularly fascinating protagonist due to her history and personal growth within the game, and how this contributes to the overall storytelling in Jack the Ripper. Her age proves that she does not need to fit into the expected archetype of a female video game hero in order to lead a player on an exciting murder-mystery adventure any more than she needs to rely on others to accomplish her goals. It is a game that also declares that women in their forties have thrilling, important, and interesting stories to tell. While Jack the Ripper expands on the full world explored in its predecessor game, this chapter of the Assassin’s Creed universe is led elegantly and daringly through multiple points of view, presenting both in-game and moral challenges for the player. Here, Evie is the boss of her own story and leaves us with a game that is clever, meaningful – and ultimately – fun.