The newest chapter of the Assassin’s Creed series gives me some of the things I’ve always wanted in a video game: a heroic fantasy that lets me control a warrior fighting against slavery. Part of it happens in Haiti, where my parents were born. Characters talk in Antillean Kreyol, the mosaic tongue made of French and West African words that I heard while growing up. But, mostly, it reminds me of going to church with my mother. It makes me happy and sad at the same time.
Whether it was a first communion, wedding or funeral, someone nestled in the crowd would start singing the Haitian national anthem. For no reason other than a deep longing for the home they’d left behind. Freedom Cry calls up the same combination of mournfulness and pride that I’d hear in those moments of song. I’m seriously thinking about having my dad over to play it.
Warning: Spoilers follow for Assassin’s Creed IV’s Freedom Cry DLC
The add-on takes place 15 years after the events of ACIV‘s main campaign. Freedom Cry focuses on Adéwalé, the character who was the first mate on the Jackdaw, the boat captained by Edward Kenway. In the time after that followed ACIV’s resolution, Ade has joined the Assassins order and commands a ship of his own The Victoire. That craft wrecks in the opening moments and Adéwalé finds himself on Saint-Domingue, the 18th Century colony that became the country we now call Haiti.
Once there, the Trinidadian-born Adéwalé falls in with a Maroon society, one of the small communities of escaped black people who fought the oppressive slave structures all over the Caribbean. After getting his own ship, he fights to liberate slaves on land and sea.
Freedom CryAssassin’s Creed
Freedom Crythe Code Noir
For someone like me — who’s wanted deeper, cooler and just plain more visions of black people in video games — the invented drama here is too delicious, mostly for how the metaphors and parallels to struggles against slavery abound: using the element of surprise, needing to flee a naval battle because Adéwalé’s ship is outmanned and outgunned, getting slammed by rogue waves and waterspouts while trying to escape.
Go into the upgrade menu and you’ll see descriptions like this one for a steel machete:
0/300 liberated slaves needed.
‘Not just for cutting sugar cane, this fine weapon was honed for a different task.’
That task is what you spend your time on in Adéwalé’s story . On a plantation I raided, a stack of sugar cane sat next to one of the familiar gold chests full of loot that players find in the Assassin’s Creed games. The latter was a treasure Adéwalé could line his pockets with, the former sat there inaccessible. It was an accidental metaphor, probably, but no less powerful for being unscripted.
These attitudes evolved into legal and economic policies designed to make people of African descent less free. While I played, I kept asking myself if Freedom Cry cheapens the historical horrors of the Triangle Trade to use them in an entertainment like this. For me, it doesn’t. The chattel slavery of millions of black people from the 16th to 19th Century is one of the most heinous things in human history. But that doesn’t mean that it should be out-of-bounds as source material for pop culture creations.
Nevertheless, the repetition of all the chasing and killing drained some of the appeal from this slave revenge fantasy. And I can’t shake the dissonance Freedom Cry carries with it. It’s only going to be able to encapsulate but so much of what the real lived experiences of what black bodies went through in this time period. And modern, polite sensibilities are shot through the whole experience. Adéwalé is superhumanly noble and the people he liberates suffer with a similarly superhuman patience that stretches belief to its breaking point. And the lines that Adéwalé delivers to the people he’s freed — “Trust yourself,” “You deserve a choice” — do come across as trite, especially after you hear them dozens of times.
Freedom CryAssassin’sCreed III: Liberation
Never in a million years did I ever think I’d hear Haitian Kreyol in a video game. And yet, there it was in Freedom Cry, as lilting and percussive as when my mum spoke it. For the few hours I steered Adéwalé though his saga, I didn’t feel horribly under-represented or taken for granted in the medium I write about. It’s a feeling I could use more of.