Freedom Cry’s Worst Sin is Turning Slaves into Loot
Assassin’s Creed IV’s Freedom Cry DLC is a new story, in which you take on the role of former slave Adewale as he attempts to start a slave uprising in Haiti, a couple years after Edward Kenway gave up piracy at the end of AC4.
But what sounds interesting and even sort of unique in our race-ignoring universe of AAA story games — the idea of working on a slave uprising in a historically semi-accurate context — ends up actually being quite racially insensitive and offensive in Freedom Cry.
This is the danger of gamification in the new age. Our games are more advanced, and our stories more dynamically curated, than ever before. Leaderboards and scoring (the most common traditional gamifying elements) persist, but they’ve been mostly expunged from story campaigns because they can kill immersion if used incorrectly — imagine how distracting it would be for something like The Last of Us to score your kills, for example.
Assassin’s Creed has been increasingly gamified since the series launched in 2007, with ACIV: Black Flag being excessive about it by giving the player so many different numbers to increase as part of the story itself, which the previous games didn’t do. A lot of people seem to enjoy that — fine, have your fun — but requiring the player to spend hours participating in all the OCD-fueled mini-games and activities that game offers in order to progress through the story is a mark against it artistically because those things are not there to aid in telling this story, but merely to pad its length.
But whereas gamifying the breezy blur of Kenway’s tale is just kind of annoying for somebody like me who just wants to get through it in a timely manner so I can play the next item on my list, gamifying Adewale’s conflict is morally troubling. Freedom Cry is about freeing slaves, and while for Adewale that’s a very personal thing, Ubisoft has framed it so that we (the players) are just in it for the loot. That “loot,” by the way, is the slaves themselves.
For the player, these slaves are just a number we need to increase. We fight for their freedom because if we just collect like 86 more of them we’ll get an extra pouch for darts, and then if we find and collect 50 more after that we’ll get a sharper machete. And in legit Black Flag fashion, there will be points where you can’t progress through the actual plot until you collect more slaves via ambient events, e.g. when you’re strolling down the block in Saint Domingue and decide to fight some French bros to free slaves being auctioned, or fight some French bros for a key to a cage holding some other slaves, or fight some French bros beating a slave next to that one church.
Sometimes the game is more specific about how to collect the slaves you need to keep going, such as when you’re tasked with taking a slave ship or killing all the guards on a plantation. Exploiting these larger events is the best way to get the collectibles you need for that upgrade you’ve been pining for.
It’s as if Ubisoft was saying that saving people from the richly undeserved plight of slavery and giving them a chance to fight back isn’t in itself an engaging enough concept to keep players from getting bored.
The plantations in particular are galling in how they up the gamification of Adewale’s tale. In order to free the plantation slaves, you must kill X number of guards without starting a ruckus. If you are noticed by the guards and get into a straight-up fight, you see, some of said guards will attack you while others will put their blades to the slaves at work. This makes so little sense for so many reasons, but here are the main ones: 1) time spent stabbing slaves would be better spent trying to stab Adewale, 2) if they manage to kill Adewale anyway then the net result is they just burned a pile of money and 3) those freed slaves joining the resistance (what the game says the guards are trying to prevent when this occurs) is really the least of these guards’ worries when Adewale is attacking them with a machete.
On top of the wild logical deficiencies of this scenario, this conscious design decision Ubisoft made further dehumanizes the slaves. If you get some of them killed, you’ll probably be less upset that an innocent human being has been murdered than that you only collected 35 of them out of the possible 40 and now will have to do random activities for three minutes to make up for it. The guards attacking the slaves isn’t about the atrocities of the situation or telling a compelling story about inhumane actions that actually occurred in history — it’s about damaging the player’s bottom line.
That there isn’t a finite number of slaves to free — opportunities to free slaves outside missions will respawn every few minutes — actually makes them individually worth less than a data cluster in Saints Row 4. “Oops, I accidentally hacked into that slave there when I was swinging at his French captor. LOL.”