Freedom Cry’s Worst Sin is Turning Slaves into Loot
Through the thick gamification of this story, 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.
And on top of that, Freedom Cry’s gamification serves as a stark emotional buffer between the player and plot. It actually takes specific emotional effort to give a damn about what’s happening, and if you don’t, you’re not really any better than the game’s slave owners, since you’re freeing these slaves so you can make them do shit for you.
“Congratulations, you are now free from the yoke of slavery. Now head over to my R&D lab and get to work on a better machete design for me.”
It’s not that difficult to avoid the huge mistakes Ubisoft made here, by the way. Just strip out the number goals and make the story strictly separate from game-y stuff like collectibles, unless the gamification is used for commentary or to subvert expectations — which is not how it was used here. When telling a story, gamification just isn’t inherently necessary. Keeping score has traditionally been a method for engagement when context was absent, but within a story context, keeping score tends to be intrusive unless it’s worked into that context (as in, for example, Bulletstorm).
In Freedom Cry, keeping score is a frustrating crutch that, even while it works to keep players involved, damages the purported purpose for the content to exist in the first place: to tell Adewale’s story.
What is even the point of telling a story about a former slave rescuing current slaves if all that story does is treat these newly freed slaves as resources, as tools, as anything other than actual people? The slaves in Freedom Cry are nothing more significant than the shops Ezio built up in Monteriggioni or the trading/crafting businesses Connor started or even Kenway’s ship — they certainly aren’t characters. After you free a group, one of them says thanks and then they run off, disappearing around the corner the way a coin looted from a corpse disappears into Adewale’s pocket.
As I’ve discussed before, the Assassin’s Creed franchise has long had a problem meshing perceived accessibility with whatever potentially compelling setting it tries to present. Freedom Cry’s overt racial insensitivity is a new wrinkle in that tradition, however, as now even game mechanics — rather than mere shyness in the writing — are managing to ruin what should be a tough look at a troubling chapter of our past.
We still deal with rampant racism today, institutional and otherwise. To tell a story about an extreme evil of institutional racism (slavery) wherein those subject to this abuse are portrayed as less-than-human currency actually reinforces a racist mindset. I’m sure Ubisoft didn’t plan for that to happen in building a story around Adewale, and to think a video game is going to end racism is silly. But in Freedom Cry, black people are loot, and the player ends up doing to them exactly what Adewale is trying to free them from.