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.”

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16 Comments on Freedom Cry’s Worst Sin is Turning Slaves into Loot

Sperelthegoose

On February 11, 2014 at 1:29 pm

As a black man I feel that you are reading way to much into this game. Give up on the white guilt!

Phil Owen

On February 11, 2014 at 4:23 pm

I thought I had enough psychological difficulties, but now I feel bad for not having white guilt.

Blindman

On February 11, 2014 at 7:05 pm

This seems like White Guilt/Apologizing for being white.

yes, they made the slaves an arbitrary number, but you proved in your own article why they had to do this:

“… somebody like me who just wants to get through it in a timely manner so I can play the next item on my list”

If you had 0 reason to free the slaves, no unlocks, not a mission requirement, they dont even help you when you free them they run off to void being captured, would you have even bothered? Im willing to bet not. im willing to bet you would walk right by, “absorbing the atmosphere”. Thus they had to add a reason. They had to make you want to free them, otherwise they would have had to force you to free them.

As for why the guards attack the slaves, it makes total sense. Send 3 guys to take down one armed black man (whom they dont know is a highly trained killer) and put down any thought of the slaves trying to rise up. Remember, to a plantation owner a slave is property, like a desk or couch. if you though your desk was gonna rise up and try to murder you, would you treat it better or just bash it with a axe and buy a new one?

As for gamifying Kenways story, your playing a pirate. They sunk a lot of tech into the pirate bits, and it was arguably the most enjoyable portion of the game. Adding a number to something most players are probably already going to enjoy and do isnt a bad thing.

kyle

On February 12, 2014 at 12:43 am

Easily one of the worst articles I’ve read in awhile…so tired of this race crap every where I go

MarkEMark

On February 12, 2014 at 12:54 am

Thoughtful article.

I haven’t played the game but it sounds like something that would irk me too.

HArdc4stle

On February 12, 2014 at 8:17 am

In some sort of strange way there has been of these guilt fueled plots such as as the movie Django: Unchained, where somebody is trying to either clear their name of not being seen as a racist by being as violent as possible. We get it! Slavery was wrong and nobody here in the 21st century is happy with our ancestors actions. Looking back is not necessarily the best way to move forward.

Qasim

On February 12, 2014 at 8:23 am

WOW….. This game actually made me feel happy when I freed the slaves…I mean when your on the plantation and you are fighting with the slaves against the guards it was really amazing…..also the gamifying thing. …um just be happy that a GAME can actually pull something like this off….really making the player feel for the slaves…..I personally think this article is Idiotic….but that’s my opinion like yours is yours…

Swcloud99

On February 12, 2014 at 9:49 am

I think people crying white guilt are missing the point.
This article isn’t about racism, it’s about gaming’s place as an artistic medium and how poorly implemented “gamification” is getting in the way of the comments the piece was trying to make.

Uckey

On February 12, 2014 at 10:20 am

I’d trust this judgement a lot more if it wasn’t written by someone whose main goal since he arrived has been to stir the pot. In fact, he’s previously complained about Assassin’s Creed ‘white-washing’ history because it was too westernised for him. Then again this is the same site that regularly beats us over the head with liberalism and PC editorials, so it’s hard to take any of this seriously anymore. The worst part is that on the rare occasions that discrimination/bigotry/insensitivity actually exists, it will go unnoticed because of the number of occasions such as these that the writers have reactively cried wolf because they think they should be.

Sorry, but this isn’t even a story. It’s sneering bulldookie.

T. Jetfuel

On February 13, 2014 at 2:01 am

Swcloud99 is correct. This is not about “white guilt” at all, it’s a valid critique of gameplay design compromising the impact of the story the game is trying to tell with a massive unintentional irony. It’s not even about how we view the institution of slavery (with abhorrence, I should hope), but how the protagonist views it. Presumably he doesn’t exactly approve of treating people as property… yet the gameplay mechanic is “Gotta Catch ‘em All!”

T Jetfuel

On February 13, 2014 at 2:09 am

Correction: “Gotta Catch ‘em All!” might actually 1) imply individualized slaves to liberate and 2) call for responsibility not to allow any to be lost. This is more along the lines of “Gotta Collect X Number of This Resource!”

Sorry about that.

T. Jetfuel

On February 13, 2014 at 2:36 am

Sorry, correction: NOT “Gotta Catch ‘em All!”, rather “Gotta Collect X of The Resource!”

Which is worse.

Pony

On February 13, 2014 at 2:50 am

Sorry Jetfuel, but you’re wrong to say it has nothing to do with white guilt. Phil Owen has launched previous attacks on IPs including Assassin’s Creed for being too white for his liking while not explaining why he’s so upset beyond “well obviously it’s bad.” Not to mention his recent at riling the masses by dredging up Mass Effect 3 to try and explain why we’re wrong to hate the ending even though his theories were almost entirely made up.

Even if the point itself is legitimate (which it might be, I haven’t played the DLC yet so I’m not going to judge) it loses credibility because Owen has done this too many times before, as has the site’s staff as a whole, so it’s hard to see this as anything other than another attempt to set an agenda that most people on here don’t care about or don’t accept is evidentially valid.

The problem is poor writing in the games industry, mostly because games hasn’t been a writing medium for very long and the culture is still in its infancy. It has nothing to do with racism, sexism, whatever, and I refuse to be intimidated into thinking otherwise by the intellectual snobbery of a staff that ironically enough is far from socially representative of gamers as a whole, instead being a bunch of mostly white men overcompensating for the lack of diversity in their make-up by inferring prejudice on everyone else.

It’s about time some of the trendier writers on here stopped flogging a dead horse and tackled the real issues. This is, after all, a website about videogames.

T. Jetfuel

On February 13, 2014 at 5:29 am

I think you’re seeing something in this article that isn’t there because of your perception of Mr. Owen’s writing in general, Pony. The argument doesn’t turn on whether “white”=”bad”. It’s simply that a story of someone supposedly concerned about the “liberation” of the enslaved population is made to use these slaves as a resource to stockpile in order to progress through the story. This is a case of gameplay directly contradicting the central motivation of the story, a prime example of what the critics are calling “ludonarrative dissonance” in these intellectually ambitious days.

As for these other articles you are referring to, well, Mr. Owen’s exegetics of Mass Effect 3 certainly seem entirely misguided to me, but surely not because of any attempted enforcement of any brand of “Political Correctness” recognizable as such. I guess that’s just a desperate attempt to keep justifying something that he invested in extremely heavily as worthwhile. I recall making all kinds of excuses for the derpier elements of ME3 right until I reached the ending myself. But that was an absolute breaking point. Ugh. No more.

The “white-washing” piece on Assassin’s Creed may indeed have such elements, but there are some real problems with the series. Then again, should Ubisoft have made the Assassin’s in AC1 speak Arabic ? (The historical Assassins were actually Persian, though.) Surely the protagonist speaks English for the benefit of English-speaking audiences because, uh, people maybe shouldn’t be portrayed as exotic and indecipherable from their own point of view? Nevertheless, the AC3 story for example is a real mess because of Ubisoft’s insistence on having a Native American protagonist all but single-handedly win the American Revolution for Team Washington. True, various tribes made strategic alliances with both sides. But it was actually one of the hated policies of George III that kept the colonists from grabbing Connor’s beloved Mohawk Valley sooner. Even in the game, Connor hunts down the loyalist guys who had designs on his people’s lands… but when Washington gives the order to destroy his village, he just kills the messengers, with Washington looking somewhat embarrassed over the incident. Hey, it’s all good bro, because FREEDOM.

zef

On February 20, 2014 at 3:44 pm

This isn’t really gamification. Gamification describes the use of game elements in non-game contexts, but this is clearly a game…

salxs

On March 1, 2014 at 2:48 pm

Slaves were loot, that’s the point and the irony. I just finished playing freedom’s cry, didn’t start with AC4. Never got very far with any of the other AC games as got bored after an hour. Freedom’s Cry a breakthrough in historical gaming of this genre and am playing it again. Went and tried to play AC4 but now it is vacuous and trivial by comparison. Am very impressed with Ubisoft for making freedom’s cry and speaking truth to power. The dialogue and the writing do not flinch or shy from the truth. I hope this is the beginning of a trend.