Human Resources 1


rsz_adewale

The path to free­dom has been gru­elling. For the past hour I’ve been silent, care­ful­ly slip­ping through the grounds of the plan­ta­tion, dart­ing from bush to cot­ton field as vig­i­lant guards patrol unceas­ing­ly around me. Their dili­gence is admirable, but it has not been enough to save them. One by one they’ve fall­en to the patient hunter, the stalk­er in the shad­ows. The weak­er mem­bers of the herd were called into the long grass with a whis­tle only to be brought down by the hid­den blades. The wan­der­ers, end­less­ly loop­ing around the fields, were caught alone and brought down with a charge. The wiser or more skit­tish – and isn’t it wis­dom to be afraid when an invis­i­ble night­mare dogs your every step? – grouped togeth­er in their mis­tak­en belief that num­bers bring safe­ty, to be felled by sound­less darts which send them to the deep­est of sleeps, swift­ly fol­lowed by the thrust of the knife and a trip to the well that will be their watery grave. Finally, it is done. The bells are silenced, the posts unmanned, and the fields run red with blood. Soon word spreads amongst the slaves as they work the land: the guards are dead. We are free!

Like a pro­tec­tive father I stand watch, count­ing heads as my charges flee. Some will become Maroons, insur­gents against the tyran­ny of their once mas­ters. Others will head for the jun­gles, to qui­et­ly dis­ap­pear and dream of a peace­ful life. As is the way of things, oth­ers will doubtless­ly be recap­tured, and I will see them soon down in the town receiv­ing pun­ish­ment or caged with their fel­lows where once again I will play the role of a bloody Moses lead­ing my peo­ple to free­dom over the bod­ies of their oppres­sors. It is not these thoughts that occu­py my mind as I watch the newly free men and women stream past me and away from their life of servi­tude, though. Only one mus­ing occu­pies my mind as I tally num­bers:

Will this be enough to buy that new machete?”

***

Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag: Freedom Cry: This Time It’s Personal is, as all pre­vi­ous AC titles have been, about free­dom. The over­ar­ch­ing con­flict of the series is that of the semi-Orwellian Templars pit­ted against the ide­o­log­i­cal­ly con­fused1 but gen­er­al­ly pro-freedom Assassins, bick­er­ing over the future of human­i­ty while by and large never achiev­ing any net pos­i­tives for the race as a whole. The mes­sage over­all is that free­dom is good, restrict­ed free­dom – even when born from benev­o­lent goals – is bad, although Ubisoft doesn’t seem to trust play­ers to reach the same con­clu­sions and is given to mak­ing promi­nent Templars into kitten-strangling sons of bitch­es just to illus­trate which posi­tion is the “right” one. In the past this divide over what free­doms a man is enti­tled to has been argued on a nation­al or glob­al scale, the fate of the human race hang­ing in the bal­ance as Assassins and Templars fight their wars away from the pub­lic eye. In Freedom Cry this con­flict takes a back seat to the notion of per­son­al free­dom and the rights of the indi­vid­ual.

Adewale, the slave turned pirate turned Assassin turned free­dom fight­er  and stab­ber of backs, has more legit­i­mate rea­son to be per­son­al­ly involved in the strug­gle than any of our pre­vi­ous pro­tag­o­nists. While past char­ac­ters have strug­gled against oppres­sion in their own ways, none before have been born and raised into a world which casu­al­ly accepts them as prop­er­ty. On arriv­ing, ship­wrecked and bedrag­gled, on the island of Port-au-Prince, Adewale’s first action is to rush to the aid of a threat­ened slave, an encounter that will set the course of the game to come.  The mis­sion Ade was under­tak­ing for the Assassins at the time of his ship­wreck fades into the back­ground as the focus shifts to aid­ing the Maroon rebel­lion and free­ing the bru­tal­ized slaves of Haiti, with sev­er­al of Black Flag’s game ele­ments repur­posed to fit the theme: ware­hous­es are replaced by plan­ta­tions, naval con­voys make way for well-guarded slave ships, and the encoun­ters with poten­tial crew mem­bers or assas­sins become set-piece sce­nar­ios in which human chat­tel is freed from bondage.

Another ele­ment brought for­ward but slight­ly tweaked is that of upgrades, both for Adewale’s gear and for his new ship the Experto Crede. As before, item upgrades are unlocked at inter­vals until Adewale com­pletes req­ui­site tasks, but the twist this time around is that the only require­ment is to lib­er­ate a cer­tain num­ber of slaves. Free ten slaves, unlock a larg­er dart pouch. Free twen­ty, more bul­lets for the blun­der­buss. Free a whop­ping 500, and become eli­gi­ble for an improved machete. As a game mechan­ic it’s per­fect­ly ser­vice­able, pre­vent­ing those who focus on hunt­ing down trea­sure chests from buy­ing every upgrade with­in the first twen­ty min­utes. Looked at with­in the con­text of the tale being told, how­ev­er, this presents a very dark impli­ca­tion.

When upgrad­ing the Experto Crede, Adewale must col­lect not only money but the cargo required for the upgrade. This cargo comes in the form of cloth, wood and metal, all of which are loot­ed from the holds of defeat­ed enemy ships, and is the con­tin­u­a­tion of a mechan­ic intro­duced in Black Flag. The sys­tem is func­tion­al­ly the same regard­ing per­son­al item upgrades, with the excep­tion that rather than col­lect­ing cargo, one must col­lect freed slaves to unlock new upgrades. To put it sim­ply, the newly lib­er­at­ed slaves are equiv­a­lent to cargo in the eyes of the game.  Freedom Cry moves its nar­ra­tive away from the tra­di­tion­al AC ancient mys­ti­cism and not-quite-aliens and focus­es on man’s inhu­man­i­ty to man, with an empha­sis on the deeply immoral and uncom­fort­able prac­tice of wide­spread slav­ery. To then turn Adewale’s per­son­al rela­tion­ship to the insti­tu­tion of slav­ery and his fight against it into essen­tial­ly a resource col­lec­tion minigame feels hyp­o­crit­i­cal at best; at worst, it under­mines the game’s mes­sage that slaves are not just a resource, but think­ing, feel­ing human beings.

It’s a jar­ring expe­ri­ence when, after fierce­ly bat­tling across the decks of a slave ship or ghost­ing around a bustling plan­ta­tion drag­ging the unwary to die in hid­den places, Freedom Cry brings up a tally of those freed and what rewards they have unlocked. Adewale’s quiet, cold fury against the injus­tice of slav­ery – shared by the play­er who inhab­its his hor­ri­bly scarred skin – dis­ap­pears to be replaced by con­grat­u­la­to­ry mes­sages and the cal­cu­la­tion of self inter­est: “Hmm, only ten more slaves before I can get a bet­ter gun? I’d bet­ter go and find a mar­ket to raid.” In that moment the slaves stop being oppressed peo­ple and become a resource to be col­lect­ed. Adewale ceas­es to be a right­eous avenger and becomes a cam­paign­er for his own ends, whose stat­ed feel­ings are sub­sumed by a desire to bet­ter his own lot.

The in-game jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for this is patent­ly non­sen­si­cal, stat­ing as it does that the freed slaves will trust Adewale more as he lib­er­ates more of their com­pa­tri­ots. To begin, with he is an unknown quan­ti­ty and they wise­ly fear betray­al, but as Ade proves him­self to them they will offer him more and more of the good­ies they have plun­dered from their erst­while mas­ters. The twist­ed logic at play2 here sug­gests that Adewale – and by exten­sion the play­er — should work to free more slaves, not from any noble pur­pose, but through avarice. The slaves them­selves are, in the eyes of the play­er, just as much of a com­mod­i­ty as they were when stand­ing on the auc­tion block.

For all that I’m a sup­port­er of the idea that games can be used to tell any kind of story, it’s becom­ing clear that there are some pret­ty big prob­lems with their approach. “Gamification” is applied to areas in which it does not belong.   We seem to think that in order to be includ­ed in a videogame, any sub­ject must be struc­tured in as ‘gamey’ a way as pos­si­ble, regard­less of what that does to the game’s story.. Point A) Assassin’s Creed games tra­di­tion­al­ly have an upgrade sys­tem. Point B) this lat­est expan­sion is a tale of a for­mer slave foment­ing an upris­ing amongst his com­pa­tri­ots. At some point a design­er must have sat down to think and decid­ed to marry those two con­cepts, to make free­ing the down­trod­den into a mechan­ic that serves the play­er not in an organ­ic fash­ion – per­haps grate­ful for­mer slaves could thank Ade as they encounter him, or press upon him small gifts and tokens with what lit­tle they can afford, or even by aid­ing him in his escapes or in the lib­er­a­tion of oth­ers — but in a way that direct­ly rewards the “cor­rect” moral choice and incen­tivizes the play­er to do the right thing for phat loot. In doing so the very idea that the Adewale is bat­tling against the con­cept of using other human beings as a resource for per­son­al prof­it is nul­li­fied, because that’s exact­ly what the play­er is doing.

There will be, inevitably, those who write off these obser­va­tions because “it’s just a game”, and that slap­ping that label on a prod­uct pre­cludes any deep­er con­sid­er­a­tion into what the game is say­ing. Games exist to be fun, after all. To counter that, all that needs high­light­ing is that this game revolves entire­ly around the con­cept of humans enslav­ing one anoth­er, reduc­ing other races to the level of ani­mals and claim­ing them as prop­er­ty. Does any of that sound “fun”? Unlike pre­vi­ous entries to the fran­chise, Freedom Cry is notably miss­ing in lev­i­ty or comedic side char­ac­ters, the devel­op­ers per­haps feel­ing that such was out of place amongst a bleak tale of human mis­ery. While Freedom Cry is able to escape the usual tongue-in-cheek nature of the series to address a gen­uine his­tor­i­cal tragedy, it is appar­ent­ly not capa­ble of address­ing the issue with­out under­min­ing its own point and turn­ing said tragedy into just anoth­er game mechan­ic.

By all means address awful things in a game. Human his­to­ry is rife with the unpleas­ant, things that make us uncom­fort­able to think about even today. When doing so, though, take care to treat these things with respect. Not every­thing in a game needs to be about achieve­ments fol­lowed by rewards; some pay­offs can be emo­tion­al or mean­ing­ful with­out being mate­ri­al­ly reward­ing, can be done for the sake of doing because they feel right, or even expe­ri­enced so that we might not for­get or triv­i­alise the hor­rors or the past.

 

Notes:
  1. Having played as Assassins from the Crusades all the way to 2012, I’m still not sure pre­cise­ly what they stand for other than oppos­ing the Templars in all things. Sometimes they appear to advo­cate resis­tance to all author­i­ty (while still retain­ing and respect­ing rank struc­tures with­in them­selves) while at oth­ers they put forth sup­port for a sort of con­trolled anar­chy, where peo­ple are free to do as they like until they do some­thing the Assassins don’t like, at which point they get a knife to the brain stem. []
  2. Did you hear the news? That Adewale guy just saved my wife and her sis­ter from a beat­ing, killed their mas­ter, set them free and then sailed off to res­cue a hun­dred men, women and chil­dren from the hold of a slave ship!”
    “Wow. What a guy!”
    “I know, right? He’s out there risk­ing his life for us! We ought to help him out. Do you still have that pouch, the one that car­ries ten blow-darts?”
    “Well…yeah, I do, but…”
    “But what?”
    “It’s just…yeah, he res­cued a cou­ple hun­dred of us from a life of servi­tude and gave us our free­dom, but…do you real­ly think he deserves the slight­ly larg­er pouch?”
    “Hmm. You could be right. What’s he got on the tally, two hun­dred freed? OK. When he man­ages to free three hun­dred of us, let’s give him the pouch. That’s fair, right?”
    “I dunno, still feels like he’s doing pret­ty well out of us. What if we were to sell him the pouch?”
    “Perfect.” []

Tom Dawson

About Tom Dawson

Tom Dawson is, in no particular order; a two-time Olympic bronze medallist (synchronised swimming), ancestrally Atlantean, a compulsive liar, the Green Lantern of space sector 2814 and the inventor of the cordless drill. His fondest wish is that someday he’ll get paid for writing stuff like this.