Before and after its release, slave plantation liberations in Assassin’s Creed: Freedom Cry stood out as one of the more intriguing and thematically complex mission types in the Assassin’s Creed series. Plantations first appear in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. However, in this main game, interactions with them were comparatively limited; as the main character Edward Kenway, you primarily raided the overseers’ land for supplies and money. With the former slave turned assassin Adéwalé in Freedom Cry, your task is much more serious. Ultimately, it is your job to liberate the plantation by killing its overseers and freeing the enslaved inhabitants. Doing so enables Adéwalé to recruit liberated workers into the resistance army he builds throughout the game. These resistance fighters represent the Haitian revolution, the framing historical event in the background of the game’s narrative and setting (Eighteenth Century Port-au-Prince).
At various moments in the game, you are required to liberate an increasing number of slaves across the Caribbean in order to go further in the story. Aside from plantation raids, you can add to your recruits by taking over slave ships, interrupting slave auctions, and other means. Oddly enough, the slaves you free become a kind of currency within the game’s storyline; the more recruits you acquire, the better off you are in terms of mission progress and supplies.
The plantation liberation missions include the historical narrative of plantation owners in the Caribbean and U.S. who killed their own slaves because of suspected or actual slave uprisings. The game brings this narrative to life by structuring the missions so that if Adéwalé’s efforts become known by overseers, they start attacking the enslaved workers in order to protect the plantation. As a result of this mission structure, you enter a binding contract the moment you step within range of any of the active plantations. The lives of the enslaved are in Adéwalé’s (your) hands. Without proper skill and strategy, innocent people will die. It goes without saying that you fail the mission once every slave dies before you are able to kill all the overseers. The moral dilemma places great emphasis on the player’s ability to execute their mission intelligently. In my experience playing these missions, losing even one life after being discovered felt like I had failed, even though the game does not consider it so.
Adéwalé is an assassin from within the Assassin’s Creed universe. This means that stealth tactics and hand-to-hand combat skills are his defining methods of engagement with enemies. Given the conditions of the plantation liberation missions previously described, it is entirely clear which method the game wants you to employ in order to succeed. It follows that the only way to successfully play these missions is to stealthily take out all of your enemies. Hand-to-hand combat is much more conspicuous by comparison and more quickly alerts other enemies to your presence. In this case, detection means certain loss of life as the overseers consider you evidence of an uprising and react by attacking the enslaved. At this point, the game makers seem to have created the perfect marriage. There does not seem to be a more compelling combination of historical narrative and the series’ signature stealth gameplay in any other versions of Assassin’s Creed.
These were my initial impressions at least. From what I first read, from what I first saw when playing, I took the plantation mission experience at face value. Upon closer inspection, however, my interest and awe gave way to something much more discomforting, something best captured by a question I first encountered in my twitter feed during the peak of Baltimore’s recent protests: “So Exactly What Kind Of Violence Don’t You Like?” The more plantation missions I completed and failed, the more I found myself asking this same question. To whom did I address this question? Soon enough I realized that it was more accurate to instead ask To what did I address this question.
Via Twitter, the actor Jesse Williams originally posed the question that kept popping up in my mind like an annoying in-game notification. The tweet referred to individual and media perceptions of the protests in Baltimore, Maryland, in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death. At the expense of simplifying the issue, the city was turned on its head following the announcement that Baltimore police officers would not be charged for wrong-doing in the death of Gray, an African American, who died while in police custody. The decision brought to boil the long simmering tensions between the predominantly African American Baltimore community and its police force and elected officials.
The nature of the subsequent protests over police brutality, systemic racism, and economic disenfranchisement quickly polarized the rest of the country. As was the case in Ferguson, Missouri last fall, when the media chose to highlight black people looting and vandalizing businesses, media coverage of the unrest in Baltimore tended to focus on the more aggressive forms of protest. This enabled many people watching to condemn the violent affairs as senseless and counterproductive. The thought among some seemingly sympathetic onlookers was that blacks certainly have reason to be upset with the systems working against them. But there was a right way to express that frustration, a peaceful way (à la Martin Luther King, Jr.). From this perspective, blacks committing these violent acts were only hurting their own cause and their own communities. These “concerns” came down swiftly in broader conversations and often overshadowed the original acts of violence committed against black people.
And so the force behind Williams’ question (part of a series of tweets on the issue) comes from its ability to state the implicit predisposition in American society to accept or come to terms with certain forms of violence while other forms remain incomprehensible and unacceptable. Specifically implied in his remark is the belief that the white majority and the American system was built on and is sustained by finding ways to justify violence against minorities, particularly against blacks. Conversely, the minority of blacks in Baltimore, Ferguson, and elsewhere before who chose to riot in response to outside pressures were seen by many as committing acts of senseless violence against themselves and the (local or national) community whose rules they had no cause to break.
Past a certain point in my time playing Freedom Cry, I came to the conclusion that these particular plantation missions were more problematic than insightful or creative. From my perspective, the truth is that these missions, and by extension the game as a whole, is programmed to accept only certain types of violence. Further, it does so in much the same that Williams suggests American society accepts certain kinds of violence but not others. In both the video game and Williams’ interpretation of American society, the rejected forms of violence most always negatively impact the black population.
In the context of the game, the plantations are built to reward stealth tactics while punishing (rejecting) both hand-to-hand combat and group attacks of playable and non-playable black characters. The game’s promise of letting you foment a rebellion comes with a deleterious qualification. As Adéwalé, you can use violence to challenge the oppressive forces at work in the Eighteenth Century Caribbean, but that violence should be discrete and, perhaps more importantly, remain the violence of an individual. Ironically, the superficiality of stealth within these missions convinces me of the game’s problematic double standard.
A few details to set the scene: there are two variations of the plantation mission. During the day, slaves work in the fields while overseers patrol the grounds and keep watch. The objective is to enter the plantation and kill 20 or more overseers without being detected. The reward is liberating up to 30 slaves and up to 10 recruits. At night, slaves on the plantations are locked in pens as overseers stand guard outside. The objective is to find the enemy that has the key to the pens and take it. Then you must go to each of three pens with slaves and unlock them without being seen. The rewards are the same.
Each plantation shares certain features that you can use to your advantage when trying to execute your stealth attack. There are bushes, tall grass, fields, and carts of hay to hide in as well as buildings, huts, and trees to sneak behind or climb. Each feature scattered across the plantation property can be used to avoid detection and, if used strategically, to perform stealth assassinations.
In addition to these spots and a range of unlockable weapons, there is something else available for use in plantation raids: resistance fighters. Certain numbers of the slaves that Adéwalé frees along his journey decide to join him in his fight to free the rest of their people. These allies become foot soldiers, shipmates, and engineers. All of them work to help Adéwalé achieve his goals.
Despite their ubiquity, it took me a number of plantation missions to realize that they were with me on the plantation, and even longer to realize how I could theoretically use them. In a way, it made sense to not notice them because the resistance fighters always hid in grass on the edge of the properties. A group of liberated allies were literally waiting in the wings. Interacting with them caused them to follow me wherever I went. Pressing another button caused them to attack overseers. At once perplexing and understandable, these resistance fighters did not use stealth weapons or tactics when engaging with their targets. They had swords and knives and rifles, all of which they used quite conspicuously.
Whenever I used resistance fighters in the daytime, the overseers were instantly alerted and rang bells (unless I stealthily sabotaged them), signaling an attempted uprising. At which point, I viewed the mission largely as a failure then because it became a race against time to kill the remaining overseers before they killed all of the slaves. On top of that, once the fighters entered open combat with overseers, they became liabilities rather than assets. Even though a handful of fighters would take down a few enemies, the fighters seemed to die at a much faster rate than the overseers. These fighters are part of my growing rebel force of former slaves. Former slaves that I previously saved. Former slaves who were either dying because of my mistakes or were indirectly responsible for killing other slaves and potential recruits.
In my experience doing daytime raids, there was never a good reason or opportunity to use resistance fighters. Successfully completing these missions required doing it on my own, despite having the option to attack with a group. Black group violence against predominantly white overseers was possible, but it was just too impractical to justify. Put simply, group attacks were programmed to fail.
Resistance fighters were also available for nighttime plantation raids. They were used in the same fashion to a similar, but less devastating outcome compared to daytime raids. At night, overseers still patrolled, but the slaves were locked up in pens. In this scenario, when resistance fighters were called on to attack someone, other enemies were still alerted and swarmed. The difference was that because the slaves were inside, the overseers had no slaves to kill. (The thought that because the slaves were inside meant that overseers could not reach them to quell a possible rebellion is not lost on me and will be addressed shortly.)
At night, the allies were less of a liability because their conspicuous combat did not lead to the deaths of other slaves. However, they still died at a rapid clip when engaged with enemies. There were even times when I was fighting hand-to-hand with overseers and the allies appeared even though I did not call on them. It seemed like once Adéwalé engaged outright with overseers and his cover was blown, resistance fighters automatically entered the fray. Admirable and realistic as it may be, it is hard to justify their involvement. I still felt badly about losing allies, even though the game never failed me because they died. Practically speaking, calling on them or having them automatically join the fight in this way always resulted in losses. The resistance fighters’ inclusion in the mission despite their overall ineffectiveness demonstrates how the game’s structure rejected the notion of group black violence as an acceptable form of rebellion. Instead the game tried to only leave space for individual stealth kills.
Other aspects of nighttime raids complicated the perception of what the plantation missions represent and what the game mechanics and structures accepted and rejected as forms of violent rebellion. In short, I discovered that, by and large, stealth was not necessary for the completion of nighttime raids. This was because the slaves were locked up in pens and therefore (somehow) out of reach of the fearful overseers should they begin to sense an uprising. The objective at night is to locate pen keys and unlock pens holding back the slaves. There is no requirement to kill 20 overseers, even though they are outside in similar numbers. Therefore it is entirely possible to succeed using either stealth or hand-to-hand combat skills.
Because the day and night missions used the same plantations, the environment at night still catered to stealth approaches. The irony is that stealth did not help me complete my different objectives, but the game still found ways to punish or reject more overt tactics. As previously mentioned, resistance fighters sometimes automatically joined Adéwalé when he came under sustained attack from enemies. The fighters did help and overall were more useful at night, but unless they stayed in close proximity to one another and remained out of range of additional overseers, they kept fighting and as a result, most still wound up dead. Again, this meant less people available to help Adéwalé and it also left me feeling uneasy about being responsible for their deaths. I could have used stealth.
When it came to unlocking pens and actually freeing slaves, the interaction (pressing a button near the pen doors) required a certain amount of stealth or at least some discretion. I could not unlock pens if I was being watched or had been detected by an overseer. On the one hand, this made sense. If an overseer was nearby, I would not want to release people I was trying to free into harm’s way. Still, this specific interaction bares a complicated message. Stealth and anonymity were required because overseers cannot see the actual act of liberation. The scenario was programmed so that it was impossible for them to bare witness to the act. It either had to happen under their noses, or they had to be killed. They could not be aware of the slaves becoming free as it happened. The act and gameplay mechanism of liberation in this moment became an unacceptable form of violent resistance in the face of the oppressor. The game forced this unacceptable form into an acceptable one by requiring me to “become anonymous to interact” and unlock the pens. The final irony written into a game about black resistance reveals itself on the smallest scale of gameplay where interactions effectively reject certain forms of black resistance.
Complicating the perception of a major aspect of a game like Freedom Cry as I have tried to do here carries with it certain benefits. Readers may walk away with a newer take on this small slice of the game and why it is important to understand its underlying problems on a larger scale. But for this exercise in thought to be replicable and sustainable for others, I believe that something else must occur. Rather than simply break down this part of the game into its messier components, I feel it is worthwhile to consider creating new thoughts and possibilities out of what I have deconstructed. What would reimagined plantation missions look and play like? What problems mentioned here could be addressed and what new tensions emerge?
To use the resistance fighters as an example, imagine the following possibilities. If stealth takes precedence over hand-to-hand combat, resistance fighters could be more useful by scaling back their functionality.
In saying this, I have in mind the functionality of the assassin recruits from Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. In this earlier game in the series, the main assassin you play as recruits apprentices who gain experience and eventually get used in combat in a myriad of interesting and effective ways. Instead of allies rushing in to battle overseers and jeopardizing the whole mission, imagine resistance fighters being called on individually or in pairs to trap and take out overseers. Teamwork, strategy, and stealth. Granted, developing a more robust way to interact with these non-playable characters might be asking a lot of a piece of downloadable content. Still, simply finding a way to not make allies such a clear liability might go a long way in making their presence both meaningful and useful.
Conversely, what could possibly be done to make hand-to-hand and group attacks a successful strategy? If the condition that detection by overseers leads to killing slaves remains, maybe there could be a way to get slaves off the plantation and into a safe zone first before engaging the enemy. This could present an opportunity to destroy the operation from within, i.e. burning crops and buildings, so plantations could not be so easily repopulated by a new owner. There could also be a tactic where allies create diversions to draw overseers away from slaves so that Adéwalé and his resistance fighters can take them on without the risk of innocent slaves being harmed.
These re-imaginations have the potential to better reflect what rebellion and revolution signify and what is at stake in using such methods for enacting change. Coming to terms with multiple expressions of black resistance (in addition to the ways double standards are coded at all levels) requires a serious investment in the imaginative. For a game like Assassin’s Creed: Freedom Cry to more fully explore the themes it latches onto, a certain double vision is required. One sight should be trained on the past and its intricate realities. The other should look ahead into the creative space of the unknown in order to imagine what tools are needed to reckon with the past being represented.