The representation of Asian people and the representation of women are both vast and complex topics to explore. Working on the game For Honor when I wrote this article, a year and a half ago, I found in the Samurai and Wu Lin factions a representation of Asian women that I liked. I reached out to other Asian women that I knew were also working on the game at that time: Elise Trinh (Writer), Klarissa Armada (Product Manager) and Elisa Choi (Community Developer). We all have different descents or origins and have been raised in different countries, so comparing their opinions to mine was interesting. The article dives into how Asian women characters have been represented in video games, specifically on For Honor.
The past representation of Asian women
On the topic of Asian women characters in entertainment, the thing that immediately comes to mind is hyper-sexualisation. Even if it tends to decrease with time, it may result from a fetishism described by the slang term ‘Yellow Fever’ — like the disease — described by Urban Dictionary as “a term usually applied to white men who have a clear sexual preference for women of Asian descent. It can also be used in reference to white women who prefer Asian men”.
With this in mind, Asian women representation as well as Asian cultures seem to have been a marketing way for several video games editors or publishers — both Western and Asian — to drive people to play video games in which these characters were appearing.
Then, we realized the diversity and differences, from one Asian culture to another, were unclear to many. From architecture to physiological and behavioural characteristics, including martial arts, food, history and symbolism — everything has been homogenized in a huge mix of cultures. Klarissa Armada confirms that it was noticeable in community discussions around For Honor: “When the Wu Lin faction dropped for Marching Fire, there was definitely discussion around that with the community — it’s interesting to see how some people really have no idea about the difference between Japanese and Chinese cultures specifically”.
We can see that with the evolution of video games, especially from a technical standpoint, making characters look more and more realistic seemed obvious. Development teams look for accurate references in order to get a better depiction of their characters, for a better feeling of representation .
Research and referenced designs
Elise Trinh shared that the process for creating For Honor new heroes evolved from focusing on body-type first followed by backstory and design to a weapons first approach.
She noted, “Now (during Year 3), we start with a weapon, and characters are depicted in both body-types, with not many differences between the two — just enough to differentiate them. Usually, artists and narrative teams collaborate and brainstorm to find keywords for the characters, adding contrast, narrowing down options. We are trying to involve more and more people in the character design. Heroes are a mix of narration, gameplay, animation and art.”
As I wanted to go further into detail on the creation process, I had a chat with Andrew Jangwoon Im, Art Director on For Honor. He said: “It’s very challenging to make a character visually interesting. There are many ways to do it, but sexualisation is not the path that we are taking to make them stand out.” The reason why the team chooses a character’s weapon first, and then the Art team searches for the ideas for this character’s design, is that it offers a variation of flavors for the players. Once they have their key-element, the weapon, they can search for additional elements like armor or outfits, which will support it. Their weapons and outfits have a meaning, they were based on items which have been created and used during these periods of time.
The Art team submits a lot of concepts, then picks the one that represents the chosen archetype and presents it to the global For Honor team. “The questions we want to ask ourselves are ‘Does the armor suit the character with this weapon?’, ‘Does the armor explain well the background or personality of the character?’.”
I took the opportunity to ask how they managed to create designs representative enough of each culture (Japanese for the Samurai faction, Chinese for the Wu Lin), without being stereotypically offensive. Andrew told me they did ask for help from people within our Ubisoft network, leveraging expertise from Ubisoft Chengdu and experts on Japanese culture. The Art team wanted to recreate very accurate designs and make sure the designs’ timelines were correct, and most importantly, they did not want to violate Chinese or Japanese design lines or cultures, even if they took the liberty of “translating” these references in-game, due to technical constraints. As for the Heroes’ faces, they recreated faces, using references from real people; it is the most accurate way of doing it, but also gives more personality to the Heroes. This way, players can relate more easily.
Writing backstories, between myth and reality
Elise Trinh had several discussions with the narrative team of the game about what the Wu Lin’s beliefs and core motives could be. The team was not familiar with the Asian culture, but wanted to learn and understand the cultural concept in order for the Wu Lin Heroes to reflect this. Elise told the team about the Mandate of Heaven and how Chinese philosophy often revolves around cycles, sharing her knowledge, along with their Chinese consultant for the Betrayer.
For the Samurai, the Narrative Director at that time drafted various beliefs/philosophies about the ideas of a cataclysmic event. It turns out that it is very Western centric, and it was not present in Japanese myths until Hiroshima. They had valuable discussions with the former writer on the project, who is also Asian and was very knowledgeable about Japanese culture.
Elise explains: “The ‘realism’ criteria is blurry and complicated to apply to For Honor which is not meant to be completely realistic. The most important is that is has to be believable, kind of ‘light-fantasy’. We try to develop stories that will support characters on the battlefield in giving meaning to their moves and outfits. If Vikings have a wolf on their outfits, it has to have a reason to be there.”.
Backstories are “mix and match” of real-life and mythological references. The Writing Team members have worked on depicting different Heroes inspired by various weapons or types of infantry soldiers, as well as historical or mythological warriors. This precise research led them to deliver a diverse roster in terms of moveset and Heroes to the Art team, and then to players.
These stories offer us different types of personalities. Protection is a recurring element in these stories, very often as a starting point: Nobushi was a defender of villages too far from the Imperial City, Nuxia worked as a secret bodyguard of a Wu Lin Governor, Tiandi was described as a protector of Kings and Queens, Zhanhu used to defend the Empress. The Hitokiri, on the other side, is depicted as a ghost possessed by the Spirit of Death.
For example, Jiang Jun, one of the Wu Lin heroes, was inspired by Guan Yu (and has the same name in For Honor). Guan Yu was a general serving who served the late Eastern Han dynasty of China, and is often represented with the same weapon, a guandao.
Elise shared that before the Shadows of the Hitokiri season reveal, they were unsure which Hero would be highlighted: either Yato, the male character, or Sakura, the female one. Some wanted Yato to be the main Hero, but the decisive point was that cherry blossom trees were already appearing on key artworks. It then made more sense to put Sakura under the spotlight, as her name is a direct reference to these trees, very famous in Japan, also known as Sakura trees. She says: “Sometimes, decisions can be made on details than mean a lot”.
Is the Asian women representation in For Honor accurate?
For myself and people I talked about it with, it is. These characters have more to them than their appearance. It is well referenced, and depicted in a respectful way. It does not fall into the usual stereotypes, but still pays tribute to Japanese and Chinese cultures. For Honor Heroes have meaningful weapons and outfits, accurate faces — by that, I mean not whitened or westernized — and various interesting backstories.
It is a good representation, but it does not mean the ones that were made a few years or decades ago were entirely wrong — it’s just that some ideas around representation have changed over the years. While there are many other areas that can be explored to better represent Asian women in video games and other media, this is already a great way to do it.
Representation as a whole keeps evolving, and people keep on improving the way they work on it, by making characters a bit deeper and more accurate than what was previously done. In the end, what makes a difference is to stay focused on trying to do better — by asking the right people, researching further, opening our minds to other points of view and different depictions. This is the reason why to me, highlighting good representations and the process behind it is important.
As mentioned by Elise Trinh, if we want to have better Asian women characters in games, we have to speak with people who are closest to what we are targeting, so their knowledge can influence decisions regarding what feels right.