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.
- 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. [↩]
- “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…”
“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?”