By no stretch of the imagination is Assassin’s Creed: Freedom’s Cry an easy game to play. From the actual mission to the various side missions, between delivering packages to killing slaveowners and liberating plantations, the journey upon which the reader embarks at the onset of the game is long, winding, and difficult. For those who study enslavement, and the institution of American Slavery in particular, certain parts of Freedom’s Cry are quite haunting. For example, the game is set in an open world where Adewalé, the main character and featured Assassin, is partially tasked with freeing certain numbers of enslaved people at various parts of the game. This means that while in the town center, he can suddenly rob a jailer and free captives, or kill a slaveowner chasing down one of his slaves. He can also prevent the sale of enslaved people at the auction block by killing the auctioneers and setting the enslaved free.
It is one thing to read about enslaved people being chained together, publicly inspected, and sold to the highest bidder as though they were cattle, and another thing entirely to see it represented in a mainstream, blockbuster movie. To embody a character as he casually walks past in the world of a game, however, knowing that you as the player have the option to stop and free those on the auction block or keep walking and digitally resign them to their fate–to replicate history–is a terrible feeling. For what it is worth, every time I walked past the auction block I killed the auctioneers and freed the enslaved people, but I easily could have kept walking every time. Having agency in a world where agency and subjectivity are legally denied the enslaved, a disenfranchisement and dehumanization ideologically reinforced by the (digital) slaveowning system, and where in “real life” I (as Adewalé and separately as myself) would not have that access is troubling, to say the least. What is even more troubling, through, is the extent to which this agency is simply a part of game play, which I return to later in this essay. To initially foreground this question, there is a rather uncomfortable way in which the game floats between being the historically fictional representation wherein Adewale frees the enslaved and thus bolsters a maroon community and being an interlocking combination of missions one must complete in order to successfully win the game. To put it differently, what does it mean for slave revolt to be a “game” that one can play and “win”?
Despite this deliberate blurring between gameplay and historical representation, which I will get back to in a moment, Freedom’s Cry feels visually accurate. The development team at Ubisoft consulted with a number of archival texts and historians of Caribbean enslavement, and to the knowledge of the otherwise uneducated viewer/player the team has created an accurate picture of what Port-au-Prince would have looked like in the 1700’s. It is also clear that the team has done their homework as it relates to major historical events. I am thinking in particular about the story of the slave ship Zong, a Dutch ship captured by the British and converted into a slave ship in 1781. With 442 enslaved people in the cargo hold, the ship sailed for Jamaica but accidentally ended up near what is now Haiti (the location of Freedom’s Cry). Running short on the supplies necessary to sustain the crew and cargo to Jamaica, the crew of the Zong decided it was necessary to lighten the load of the ship and salvage the cargo that they could. Thus, around 130 of the enslaved were thrown overboard, still alive, so that the remaining 200 or so would survive to be sold (“The Zong Case Study”). While this massacre is the most famous, there are undoubtedly other examples of the crew of a slave ship deciding to take the financial loss and get rid of some of the enslaved, whether to save others, ration food, etc. In the game, Adewalé and his crew attack a fleet of ships, a slave ship and its escorts, near the coast of Haiti. After the escort ships are sunk and the slave ship is badly damaged, the crew of the slave ship decide to sink it and escape, with all of the enslaved still chained together and to the ship in the cargo hold. Adewalé must then enter the sinking ship, free (or “rescue”, rather) as many enslaved people as he can, and escape before the ship goes under.
The following video of gameplay footage from this mission shows Adewale entering the cargo hold attempting to save the lives of the enslaved, and I have included annotations within the video expounded upon in my analysis below.
From the moment Adewalé enters the cargo hold of the ship, the troubling, haunting feeling I mentioned earlier grows exponentially. This section of the game is intended to directly reference historical events like the massacre aboard the slave ship Zong, but from the perspective of the enslaved person left to die. Adewalé has some agency, but his choices are dependent solely on the choices of the player–thus in real ways, it is us in the cargo hold of the ship, trying to figure out how to break the chains amidst the screams of drowning slaves and the faint strands of music. The music is an important part of the haunting feeling of this mission. This song, titled “The Root,” is literally the root of Adewalé’s journey. It plays at every important landmark in the game, notably when he escapes to freedom as a child in the promotional video for the game. In this particular scene, however, the song has been slowed down, stripped of much of its background music, and sounds like a single male voice singing as opposed to a digitized cover as it is in the rest of the game. As opposed to a song of triumph, its function at other points in the game, the song appears here as a lamentation as the player witnesses a cargo hold full of people being drowned and burned alive (given that the game dictates that Adewale cannot save every single body in the hold). In effect, we are being haunted by his past triumphs as we try to free others and escape, saving some and dooming others.
This section of the game is also incredibly disorienting, from a historical perspective and from a gaming perspective. I am the one playing the game in the footage I have just shown, and as we can see it takes me multiple tries to accomplish each task I must fulfill, each desynchronization point a reminder that had this been real life, and I had to free enslaved people chained to a ship and then escape myself, I wouldn’t have been able to do so. This adds to the historical accuracy of the section, in a sense. Not only is it drawn directly from historical events, but we can imagine that the road blocks in the ship are ones that would be present in real life. Even in the world in which we accept that there could be a black formerly enslaved man returning to the site of his enslavement to exact revenge by killing slaveowners and liberating plantations (as opposed to running as fast and as far as he can to freedom without ever looking back), how could we expect to escape this ship? Dying men are flailing and screaming, parts of the ship burst and increase the incoming flow of water, boxes and non-human cargo move around and block passageways, and the swelling and bleeding bodies of the already drowned float everywhere, blocking paths but also reminding us of the material reality–the human reality–of this mission. This is why I find the ending scene so haunting–after Adewalé has escaped, we see that the sea underneath him is filled with dead bodies–pieces of code in the world of the game, but real people with real bodies, lives, and memories in the real world of the Zong, or of any similar instance.
Lastly, my failures in this section and thus the constant need to restart this freedom mission highlights the distinction between dying and desynchronizing which occurs throughout all of the Assassin’s Creed games. In the game, whenever a player fails to complete a mission, the character “desynchronizes” where in a different game they would die and use up a life. Instead, the game resets back at the beginning of the mission where the interruption occurred, and the player must begin again. It is a reminder that the entire game is a simulation of past memories through which the present day player is moving, through the body of a present day character in the game animating the past Assassin. Thus on multiple levels, the enslaved people aboard the ship really are just pieces of code, and so is Adewalé. We as players are far removed from understanding Freedom’s Cry as “real”, and can easily resort to that comfort.
This raises an important question about the target audience of a game like Freedom’s Cry, however, and what is at stake in making the liberation of the enslaved into a game: is the audience supposed to know about the history behind deaths aboard slave ships and see that history represented in this section of the game, or just look at it as one more series of missions? As I point out multiple times in the video, Adewale’s duty to liberate the enslaved is framed as an “objective,” achieved by the player following directions and pressing buttons. There is an uncomfortable disconnect between the seriousness of the mission and the actual effort the player must put into its success that I find can either allow the player to skip past the historical importance of the mission in favor of quickly achieving the desired objective or cause a much more extreme mix of emotional reactions. In my case, I was both stunned by the horrifying scene I was watching unfold and trying to escape myself, yet also increasingly frustrated by my inability to complete otherwise simple tasks (holding down a combination of buttons and exiting a maze under time constraints) which meant spending more time in the hold of the burning and sinking ship watching digital bodies die and being forced to keep going until I was successful in getting Adewale to escape. This slip and subsequent uncomfortable mix of emotions is, I think, what is at stake in turning traumatizing history into a game. To be fair, this mission is arguably no different than a rescue mission in Call Of Duty, the floating dead bodies replaced by dead bodies strewn across a battlefield. In the minds of the development team at Ubisoft, is the history of slavery (or war) just a framework for the game mission or is the experience of playing through the mission actually the memory of history? Is the human player supposed to comprehend and process the real life seriousness of the mission being completed, and what happens if this recognition does not occur?
Returning to the dying/desynchronizing problem, the memory of this history transforms from simply haunting to traumatic because the player is forced to repeat the mission over and over and over again until they perform it correctly. There is no breaking out of the historical account, because that historical account is the path of the game–actually dying and being free from the repetition, even if only momentarily as the character returns to the previous save point, would break the simulation narrative of the game. Yet as traumatic experiences are primarily characterized by the repetition of symptoms, uncontrolled by the subject, it is as though playing and desynchronizing instead of dying transforms this from just a mission in a game or even a section of a simulation into a re-enactment of historical trauma, in which both Adewalé and I are trapped. Agency in this moment succumbs to the repetition. Though I may think that I (through Adewalé) am making choices, in reality I can do nothing but experience a traumatic event to which I did not bear witness, and continue to digitally live the event until I “do it right” and finally live. Maybe I’m lucky and I get it right on the first try, but if this requires ignoring the historical stakes of the mission and playing it like a game, easily completing the mission might ultimately be worse.
“The Zong Case Study.” The Zong Case Study. Understanding Slavery Initiative, 2011. Web. 10 Oct. 2014