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.