Freedom Cry Tried to Take On a Tough Subject — and Failed

The developers of Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed franchise pride themselves on taking on real events and ideas from history and bringing them accurately into a video game setting. In the case of Freedom Cry, the standalone downloadable content that follows the story of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, that meant trying to portray a real sense of the horrors of slavery in the 18th Century.

Today at the Narrative Summit at GDC 2014 in Seattle, Freedom Cry’s narrative designers, Jill Murray and Hugo Giard of Ubisoft Montreal, discussed the ways they attempted to tap emotions through narrative and take on the very difficult subject of slavery. Throughout the discussion, as reported by The Escapist’s Greg Tito, the pair pointed out ways in which gameplay was used along with history to drive narrative and change the way players might feel about what they were doing in the game — which, to put it bluntly, was freeing slaves.

“There was also a change to the A.I. that made players change their actions,” The Escapist’s report reads. “When Adewale attacked the overseers on plantations, the master would begin killing the helpless slaves, not just the player. ‘This made players much more likely to use stealth when attacking the plantation,’ Murray said, noting that Assassin’s Creed developers are always searching for ways to motivate stealth over direct action. Here was a narrative or emotional reason for stealth, and Murray appreciated its success. She also noted how not being able to save every slave conveyed the helplessness and dire plight of these people much better than a cutscene or a QTE would.”

Murray and Giard talked about the need to take on tough subjects in video games in order to tell stories that affect players, and also talked about the need for diversity in the subjects of games and among those people who create games. Those are important goals that are worth pursuing, but I take issue with the idea that Freedom Cry is a successful attempt to deal with something as nuanced, tragic and appalling as slavery.

As Phil Owen explained in his opinion piece, “Freedom Cry’s Worst Sin is Turning Slaves into Loot,” Ubisoft Montreal’s use of freeing slaves as a game mechanic actually amounts to turning human characters into currency. In a very literal sense, players are driven to free slaves in the game not out of a sense of moral duty or because those slaves are characterized as human beings worthy of better treatment; instead, it drives players to free slaves in order to unlock a better machete.

That’s a really big distinction. Slavery is literally the turning of people into property, dehumanizing them; though Ubisoft Montreal might have approached Freedom Cry as a way to attack a hard subject and to try to make slavery a part of its game, by making freeing slaves about increasing a number and achieving a reward, it continues to dehumanize those people.

When a plantation overseer murders a slave in the game, as in the example above, because you were detected sneaking through to free those slaves, the game isn’t penalizing you by leveraging your emotions. You’re not stricken by your failure because of the inherent horror of the overseer murdering these people (after all, you murder hundreds of people in Freedom Cry yourself).

Instead, the AI killing those slaves just serves to lessen your reward for clearing that plantation.

It seems as though Ubisoft Montreal approached Freedom Cry with the best of intentions — an idea to try to put something serious into a video game, and in so doing, to engage players in a different, more emotionally affecting way than what they’re used to — but the very premise that Freedom Cry was successful in doing so, I think, is wrong.

Video games absolutely need people who are willing to approach these tough subjects and to try to use the medium to engender empathy in players, to tell deeper and more realistic stories, and to bring the experiences of more people than just Grizzled Action Hero With Stubble to the forefront. But Freedom Cry’s approach, to simplify human experiences down to numbers and rewards, is definitely not the way to do it.

I encourage readers to check out Owen’s take on Freedom Cry, found here, and to let us know what you think in the comments.


Phil Hornshaw is senior editor at GameFront. Find more of his work here, and follow him and Game Front on Twitter: @philhornshaw and @gamefrontcom.

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9 Comments on Freedom Cry Tried to Take On a Tough Subject — and Failed

Bob

On March 18, 2014 at 4:17 pm

“The developers of Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed franchise pride themselves on taking on real events and ideas from history and bringing them accurately into a video game setting”

Yeah in what reality do you live in ?

maybe locations, architecture to an extent and costuming but that is all.

the series is one of the most hypocritical franchises in video game history.

each game brings in new and the same contraindications. but none worse than the first or the third in the series, especially the third oh god the third is bad. (story wise)

Blindman

On March 18, 2014 at 6:06 pm

Well how would you have done it? If it had not been for the “loot” the slaves offered, or the gating, i would have skipped freeing them entirely unless they would help me in an assassination, which just returns to your original problem of them being loot.

Blails

On March 19, 2014 at 5:13 am

VIdeogame developers are so often criticised, on this very site no less, for not tackling tough topics or for Westernising their games beyond parody (also known as ‘white washing’ by racists and Phil Owen). A videogame actively attempts to rectify this, and it’s criticised for not doing it well enough. Is it any wonder most don’t even try when this is the sort of reception they get for it?

Assassin’s Creed is, first and foremost, a videogame. Its aim is to have fun gameplay and give players a reason to play the game. For the sake of substance and originality it has the premise of being able to go back to historical periods, and for the sake of something resembling realism it throws in a bunch of real historical figures. But these are incidental to the experience, not central to it. That’s why they can change times every game or every other game and still sell a bunch of copies. It’s the idea of being an assassin hundreds of years ago that appeals to people, not the idea of playing an entirely historically accurate slave trade simulator. Ultimately the goal of the game is to let you be a pirate. Anything beyond that, especially anything that tries to challenge or at least give another side to the anglocised account of slavery, should be praised for doing so.

Besides which, I’m getting a little tired of the inference that it’s only the West that needs to be honest about its bloody past. Go far enough back and you’ll find blood on the hands of just about every nation on the planet. Slavery, after all, existed for decades if not centuries in Africa among warring tribes before Europeans started doing it, and Great Britain was one of the first (if not THE first) countries to end slavery on moral and political principle despite it still being incredibly lucrative. Colonialism was going on world-over and most of the south Americans and central Americans that are considered to be victimised indigenous peoples today are, in fact, the product of colonialism by Spanish and Portuguese explorers in the 1400s to 1600s – and the people they replaced ranged from mild-mannered tribes to savage sacrificial maniacs, so again it’s not black and white (no pun intended). Go even further back than that and the racial, religious and ethnic make-up of Europe and Asia were both heavily influenced by huge warring empires like the Mongols etc. And this doesn’t even account for the Romans, Greeks, Persians, Byzentines, Ottomans, and all the many Chinese dynasties.

None of this excuses what our forefathers did. But if we cannot be honest about the nature of the human condition in the first few thousand years of civilisation – hell, the condition that still exists and is still present all over the planet as we speak – then how can we ever condemn a commercial entertainment medium for the same thing, even when they’re trying to redress the balance? We can’t. And so long as these lopsided wish fulfilments of truth exist – whether they’re overly patriotic accounts that wash a nation’s hands of their past crimes or, in this case, overcompensating and overplaying said crimes while not acknowledging the complexities of circumstances or examples of similar events from other societies – then game developers (and artists/writers in general) will continue to feel hindered and having to adjust their works towards their predicted reaction of the audience instead of what they’re really going for. So again, it’s no wonder that nobody else wants to touch these subjects when those that do are slammed for not treating them the way you want them to. You really can’t have it both ways.

Plus, Blindman is correct – you offer no solutions of your own. I’d be interested to know, practically, how you would have done this differently considering it’s a videogame and not a film or book. Same goes for Phil Owen complaining about the monetising of slaves as in-game loot even though this has been happening for decades with war assets which aren’t exactly a small deal. “More sensitivity” won’t cut it, provide an enforceable alternative that fits the Assassin’s Creed gameplay style any better than what we received or treat more carefully. Because this reeks of “look how offended I am” and doesn’t appear to be giving anything back.

Your intentions are well-meaning, your application is flawed and actually quite offensive in some aspects.

Phil Hornshaw

On March 19, 2014 at 7:31 am

@Blails

Okay, let’s address your points:

1. It IS good that Freedom Cry took on what it did, but Assassin’s Creed doesn’t get a trophy (nor does any other kind of fiction) just for the attempt, especially for then failing in the attempt. Assassin’s Creed 3 was about a Native American and bailed on all of the deeper implications of that premise; Liberation did the same with being a woman. I’m all for games doing more and being challenging, but these are surface-level attempts. Just showing up isn’t enough.

2. The “it’s just a video game” excuse is just that — an excuse. You’re taking the game off the hook because it’s supposed to be fun, and if you do that, then nothing matters and we can’t hold games accountable for anything they do. That’s no way to advance the medium, it’s no way to create art, and it’s just plain false. If AC just wants to make you a pirate, it can easily do so without diving into tough territory like slavery at all. The fact that it does so means we should scrutinize the way it does so, but criticism leads to better games and better stories.

3. I’m not sure when I implied that this is merely a Western problem. It isn’t. This feels like another deflection of the discussion. No one is criticizing The Entire Western World in this discussion — we’re talking about a subject that has very real implications for people, both historically and in contemporary society, and which is handled clumsily in a video game. Everything I’ve heard the devs say on that panel about what they were trying to accomplish — an emotional connection to the world of slavery, a desire to dismantle it, a feeling of powerlessness in the face of the institution, empathy for the tragedy it creates — they failed entirely to do. And the problem is endemic of the system of the game; the very way the game is played undermines the goals of the narrative.

4. “You can’t have it both ways.” I really think we can, and should, have it both ways. Dealing with heavy subjects is important and difficult, and really the means of dealing with those things is very important. This is what criticism is about. And as I mentioned, it’s nice and admirable that the AC devs are hoping to accomplish something deeper with their game. But they’re also failing to accomplish what they set out to do, and that’s worth mentioning as well. It’s (always) possible to do a better job, and when the handling of something is problematic, as Freedom Cry is — even when the people making it have good intentions — it’s important to talk about it.

5. Okay, how to do it better? Start by making actual CHARACTERS out of the game’s slaves, rather than just loot. There aren’t any slaves in Freedom Cry that are actually characters. You free them, they thank you, they disappear, you achieve a new goal of hitting a number. How can you identify with the slaves if they’re not even treated as characters? How can it matter to you when they’re killed if the game makes numbers out of them rather than people? If the only way to get players to care about slaves in a game about slavery is to reward them for doing so, doesn’t that represent a massive failure of the storytelling? Or perhaps that’s an entirely different issue to address in the player.

My point is that there are other fictional stories, and especially video games, in which I do stuff because I care about the characters, not because I get to carry more darts in my pouch after I do that thing. Freedom Cry is a story about how appalling slavery is but it doesn’t actually make human or three-dimensional any of those slaves. So that’s where you start to change it — through actual storytelling, through creating human characters, and through actually engendering emotion in players rather than just giving them another goal to tick off a list.

The other things you mention, like war assets, are fundamentally different because of the angle and focus of those games as opposed to this one.

But all of this should be self-evident. A game about freeing slaves from a historical representation of actual slavery that then turns those slaves into a number for a gameplay reward just continues to portray those people as less than human. It undermines what the fiction is attempting to do. Whether you think this is about being offended for the sake of it or not is up to you — my point is that, if this medium is going to improve, it’s going to need to get serious about these attempts. I disagree with the very premise of a convention panel that talks about Freedom Cry as if it gets something as tough as “handling slavery in a video game” right. It doesn’t. And frankly, patting games and their makers on the head for even trying is ridiculous, and treats the entire medium as if it’s not worthy of the kind of scrutiny we’d apply to film or literature. “Nice try, gotta start somewhere” continue to be excuses for bad games. Why are we still making excuses for bad games?

T. Jetfuel

On March 22, 2014 at 8:05 am

Well… I’m not so sure about all this business of games having to “tackle serious subjects” in order to be Dignified Cultural Objects, meaning “something that proper grown-ups can be into” without having to get all embarrassed “cuz gaemz is 4 kidz!!” Obviously there’s a general cultural tendency to shame perceived “immaturity”, and a lot of people in the gaming scene are really feeling threatened by the force of that tendency. But this is likely to just lead to exactly this kind of half-assed gesturing at easily condemned atrocities like slavery. (I mean, who’s going to disagree with the thesis that slavery is bad these days?)

Based on what I have read and seen of this game (haven’t played 4 yet, familiar with the previous entries in the series), it does indeed fail to “get it right” by eclipsing the story and the motivation of the protagonist by the crass reward mechanics. But I fear that even “getting it right” would in some sense conflict with the primary USES of the cultural product in question. People play this kind of a game because the fantasy is enjoyable. Driving home the horrors of the period would mean making it less enjoyable. There would be a massive dissonance between having “fun” gameplay and an authentically harrowing story. So the “fun” would have to go in order not to undermine the Serious Message. And now you’re left with a game that is neither fun to play, nor saying anything particularly instructive. A virtual tour of historical misery. I for one don’t go to games for that. There are other media that can deliver that kind of message more efficiently.

There’s a whole another discussion about the aspirations to “Art” in the medium, but let’s leave that for now. Just pointing out that seeing art as just a species of moral shock therapy (“needs moar disturbitude to qualify!”) is not only crassly reductive, but ignorant of the actual history of the practice. So maybe there are more ways to claim cultural relevance and general big personhood for the medium than the obvious one of commodifying atrocities.

Saint Tymez

On March 22, 2014 at 9:46 am

yea, it would be much better to complete objectives, only to be rewarded with the feeling that you “did the right thing.” NOT.

Phil Hornshaw

On March 22, 2014 at 10:30 am

@T. Jetfuel

I don’t mean to suggest that the only worthwhile endeavor for games as a medium is to try to deal with subjects that are challenging, like slavery. My standpoint is more of one of inclusivity — I’d like to see games run the gamut, because I think the medium has the capability of producing art across the spectrum, from pure enjoyment for the sake of it, to challenging players emotionally in games that are not traditionally “fun.” So I have to disagree with your assertion that “People play this kind of a game because the fantasy is enjoyable,” or maybe more broadly the idea that “games are supposed to be fun.” To me, “fun” is the thing that holds back games right now. We can stretch beyond ONLY fun to encompass more potential uses of games, and to say, “Well, it’s not worth it because most people just want a period stabbing fantasy,” I think, is really limiting. Same as saying “The use of the medium is enjoyment and since you can’t escape enjoyment, you’ll fail at approaching hard subjects.” That to me closes the door when the trick is to find better ways to open it.

I do think that games have the capability to be a lot of things, and that as a medium they have a unique power to engender empathy, help players assume viewpoints that are not their own, and to tell stories and convey experiences in ways that other media can’t ever quite achieve. So while I don’t want to be part of the problem you mention — pushing the idea that without having more emotional depth, games are just some kind of kids’ toy and therefore without artistic merit — I do want more diversity in what games and game creators attempt to do with the medium. I think it’s possible to have both a lot more than we do.

Okay, so to all that — I don’t think that games need to “commodify atrocities” in order to be art, and I don’t think that shock value is the only way for the game to be art, and I agree with you that being enjoyable is another way for games to be powerful and affecting. But I do think games CAN be more diverse and CAN tackle subjects that are more challenging, and that that, too, is a worthwhile endeavor on the same level as “being fun.” I think we can have games that do both, or games that do either, and that it’s healthy for the medium to expand beyond what it currently is and to stretch the limits of what it can achieve.

But I ALSO think that it’s important for a game that attempts to do those things to do so well, or perhaps with care and attention. Freedom Cry’s creators seem either blinded by the current conventions of the medium, or ignorant of what they’re conveying through that medium. So I take issue with the method, not the ability, and for me, it’s reductive and dismissive to think that games CAN’T be challenging — but that’s not to say that it’s they have no worth if they’re not.

@Saint Tymez

Hahaha, did you seriously just use “NOT” in 2014.

T. Jetfuel

On March 22, 2014 at 12:44 pm

Thanks for the reply, Mr. Hornshaw.

I think some severe German dudes once put it in this manner: “Fun is a medicinal bath. The pleasure industry never fails to prescribe it.” Maybe so, but I do want my medicine baths. And I fear these grand visions for the Improvement of Our Art will indeed succeed in rendering the notion of “fun” into an embarrassing anachronism, without delivering much in the way of genuine “art”. You may argue that there are all kinds of opportunities for games of different kinds, but there’s a great power to an established paradigm.

Regarding the notion of “Art”, the problem with that is the nature of game development. Sure, a tiny indie is relatively free to pursue its creative vision. However, low-cost indie games are pretty constrained in their powers of representation, meaning these kinds of games typically come with lots of baggage, like for example adapting a consciously “retro” look. It is hard to play these games in any immersed way, since their presentation practically demands a knowing, and therefore distancing, appreciation of the history of the medium. A low-pixel platformer made in 2014 is not the same as a virtually similar game made in 1987. It requires some Edumacation.

Meanwhile, the mode of production in the AAA side of the industry is way too resource-intensive to allow for the kind of development of vision that makes for “art” in the sense that made the concept prestigious in the first place. Art may not have to be the product of a solitary genius figure, as opposed to a collaborative effort. But just take a look at how any given AAA project gets whittled down and altered by “market realities” such as monetization schemes (cut content as DLC), stockholder pressure etc. It would have been hilarious how hysterical the game industry got about BioWare “setting a terrible precedent by compromising their art” with the (still horrible) Extended Cut for ME3 when cutting their “visions” into all kinds of crazy ribbons “because mah MONEYS” is everyday practice… but it wasn’t, since it was taken so seriously. This is not how you make “art”. It’s Old (Frankfurt, that is) Skool Culture Industrialism.

Dunno, maybe I’m just cynical and pessimistic. That’s why I want fun games to play.

T. Jetfuel

On March 22, 2014 at 12:55 pm

Sorry, accidentally deleted the part where I was going with this thing. Wish I could edit the previous post.

What I meant to say is, since game development doesn’t really support the creation of actual Art, with some kind of coherent vision to it, what I fear is that the industry will settle for the mere appearance of art. And according to the currently fashionable idea of art, that will probably just mean more Grim and Angsty.