The Cost Of Immersion In Games
I’ve been playing the AC games since 2012, when I started PC gaming after I got a new desktop in grad school. The Assassin’s Creed games were hard for me, but when I finished them, the experience was deeply satisfying. I could, even with low vision, achieve the end of a game which depended on my ability to sneak ‘n stab. To stealth through the Duomo or hide from guards after killing an evil man, this was all stuff that sighted gamers often take for granted, but for me it was a thrill. I could play these games.
The Assassin’s Creed games made me feel like a good gamer. They were fun. They were escapist. They were difficult even for my sighted spouse, but I could complete them. I had a certain amount of pride about that.
After AC: Syndicate, my taste for playing a female assassin was barely whetted. I wanted to play a woman assassin for the entire game, not just for parts of it. In AC: Odyssey I would get my chance.
I was looking forward to it.
Like within fiction, the ability to self insert can be a great tool to give players agency. When you can choose to look like your main character, or to at least identify with the same gender as them, it gives you a deeper sense of immersion. It feeds the audience’s imagination, and keeps us embedded in the story for hours at a time.
But for me, I was kicked out of the game during the first boss story, because my agency was surface level. While I could choose to play a female character, and I could choose who lived and died by my own hand, I couldn’t choose whether or not to commit actions in game which I never would have if I had been given the choice.
The “big bad” on your home island of Kephallonia is called the Cyclops. He’s built up as a Bad Dude. He steals from people, beats up your friends, and is generally portrayed as strong and mean.
When I was in middle school, we read a kids version of the Odyssey. Somehow, one of my classmates got the bright idea that I – the kid with one eye – should be called Cyclops after that.
Which was unfortunate, because it turned into a barb. It turned into a joke. It turned into the kind of nickname nobody wants.
It was a nickname designed to make me feel crappy about the realities of my disabled body – to make me feel like the other. It worked. I hated that I had eyes that were different from everyone else, I wanted to conform, but I couldn’t.
My ophthalmologist offered me a prosthetic to help me blend in with the other children, but it would be purely cosmetic. My family and I decided against it.
I survived with one eye in middle school. Now I carry that as a badge of honor.
So I wasn’t thrilled that there was a big bad carrying my disability and the horrible nickname I had shed long ago.
But I kept playing because I had been looking forward to this game for a very long time. Because I got to play a sword wielding woman.
And then it happened.
I had to steal the Cyclops’ prosthetic eye.
So here’s the thing.
When I declined that prosthetic in middle school, it was because it was only cosmetic.
Now in my thirties, I wear a prosthetic eye to prevent ocular migraines. I need to wear my eye armor every single day to stay safe.
An ocular prosthesis is used to keep your eye comfortable and safe, or to replace an eye that was lost. It makes your socket more comfortable (because believe you me, you don’t want to get stuff in your eye socket when you don’t have an eye there.)
So, stealing a prosthetic eye from someone who needs it? I wasn’t comfortable with that.
I especially wasn’t comfortable with the fact that in order to progress in a game I’d been anticipating for a year, I would have to do it.
But I stealthed in, stole the eye, and completed the quest. Fine.
Except it wasn’t fine at all.
Once you finally meet the Cyclops, you find out that’s not a name he chose for himself.
It’s a joke. Just like the children who used it to hurt me on the playground, and my character, the character I had so looked forward to playing was using that line to bully a person who had the exact same number of eyes I do.
Kassandra tosses the eye in the air. She plays with it while teasing him with a name he hates.
And then she does the most horrifying thing I can imagine doing with someone’s prosthetic eye.
She shoves it up a goat’s butt.
The video game plays this for laughs. It’s funny, that she does this to him. The game wants us to laugh at the Cyclops, to laugh with Kassandra.
I wasn’t laughing.
I walked away from my computer.
I didn’t have the agency within the game to not participate in an action that I found harmful, not just as a representation issue, but to me personally.
For some reason, able bodied and sighted people think its funny to shove ocular prosthetics places they shouldn’t go. For some reason that’s comedy.
I was let down by a series I love, and required to participate in an action that I as a player would never take. When my agency in that moment was denied, I felt like I was re-enacting the bullying that I experienced as a kid on the playground. I remember people stealing my glasses, and the level of helplessness I encountered when that happened. I can’t even imagine what I would feel like if someone stole and then effectively destroyed my prosthetic.
Video game writers especially have to be aware of who might be in their audience. Requiring a player to commit an act of violence against a disabled character, using their prosthetic shouldn’t be an option. It should never be a requirement to participate in any kind of abuse of a marginalized group, whether it be people of color, sexism or ableism.
The immersive nature of video gaming makes it significantly less easy to shake off the feeling of complicity, and for me, that complicity felt particularly insidious.
While I did eventually finish playing AC: Odyssey, I will never be able to shake the fact that denying me the choice to take that action felt like forcing me to be complicit in ableist actions.
I don’t know that I’ll ever stop playing Assassin’s Creed games. But I know I’ll be wary every time I do. Worried that I might stumble across another action I can’t stomach, one which brings back the taunts of my childhood.
That alone will keep me from immersion for the foreseeable future.
Four time Hugo Finalist Elsa Sjunneson-Henry writes fiction, non-fiction and game design texts. She and her guide dog frequently roam the country, teaching writing skills and participating in disability related activism. She can be found @snarkbat almost everywhere on the internet.