A Closer Look At How Three Assassin’s Creed Games Have Handled Slavery

A Closer Look At How Three Assassin’s Creed Games Have Handled Slavery

Slavery in the Transatlantic of the 1700s was a complex, interconnected network of financial systems, social engineering and psychological repercussions. The Assassin’s Creed video games that have dealt with it head-on made good use of that subject matter but also stumbled in particularly clumsy ways. “Collecting freed slaves like they’re coins in Mario,” for example. Oops.

Over on Errant Signal‘s YouTube, Chris Franklin shares a video essay that looks at how slavery and the construction of racial personas has played out in Assassin’s Creed: Freedom Cry, Assassin’s Creed IV and Assassin’s Creed: Liberation. While these games are still pretty singular for talking about historical practices of white hegemony — which still has effects on how we live our lives today — some of the game design undercuts the emotional impact that Freedom Cry is trying to deliver.

Some of Chris Franklin’s comments touch on Freedom Cry‘s biggest problem, namely the way the game’s mechanics essentially has the player treating freed slaves like a resource to purchase stuff. That mechanic is uncomfortably close to the way that slaves were used in the bondage that players are supposed to be freeing them from.

I liked Freedom Cry a lot , both for choosing to tap into the Transatlantic Slave Trade as fodder for its storytelling and for how it resonated with my own personal ancestry. And I’ve studied and read about black history almost my entire life, so it’s possible that I filled in a lot of the blanks (like the lives of those freed slaves) that Franklin calls out on my own. I talked about that resonance and the game’s ethical construction with Giant Bomb‘s Patrick Klepek. Still, it’s helpful to recognise that the people you’re fighting for — whether they’re slaves, victims of war or senseless violence — should be closer to the center of the story and rendered as more than just plot devices. That’s the promise that games like Thralled and This War of Mine hold. Hopefully, the next game that takes on race learns from these missteps and moves things forward even more.


  • Seriously though why are you posting about this? is it really necessary to think that ‘bringing awareness’ to political topics in games is important? you’re drawing a parallel between a fantastical world and the real one, it doesn’t diminish any real-life experiences or history but you are doing that and by doing that, also creating the assumption and climate that the audience is fucking stupid. This agenda has been a leftist one for a long, long time – there is zero proof that the cognitive links between complete fantasy and real life even translate in any way, any intelligent person will know the difference.

    Do you think your audience is stupid ‘Evan’ ? …perhaps “Narcisse” is the perfect fit for you.

    Go do something else with that Liberal Arts degree mate.

    • First of all, Assassin’s Creed games incorporate real history, real people, and real events. So saying that the author has drawn parallels between real life and “complete fantasy” is absurd. Secondly, yes intelligent people know the difference between fantasy and reality but story telling as a learning device has been around since time immemorial, especially when it comes to the teaching of morals. I don’t think the author thinks the audience is stupid, but I do think that you have taken this article far more seriously than was needed. Leftist agenda?!? Seriously?? It seems to me that there are folks on the right that will talk about ‘typical leftists and their agendas’ if certain topics are mentioned in any form, one of those topics being race. What exactly is the supposed agenda here anyway? And how would it help the left? If you want to cry about ‘lefties’ and the liberal arts then go to infowars or move to America… mate. Life ain’t actually all that bad, stop finding people to blame, your life circumstances aren’t the fault of the lefties.

  • Pretty complicated subject, very interesting. I think you’d find that even in real life people who are in the business of saving lives as their day-job do a little professional disassociation for the sake of their sanity… and because who can keep up?

    I think it’d be interesting but a little extreme for every slave to have their own bio. But quickly overwhelming. Can you imagine if every pirate on your ship in the original base game of AC4 had their own bio? It’d certain have an impact when you lost your first couple, but if you’ve 100%’d the game, could you honestly keep track of how many men you’d lost and gained? In the end, you’d stop reading the bios and they’d all essentially become to you what they already are in the game right now – a blur of faces, much of a muchness.

    Not a new problem, either. Penny Arcade pretty famously and insightfully hit the nail on the head in their strip, ‘The Sixth Slave’ (which a bunch of hypersensitive reactionaries completely missed the point of). These people you rescue in WoW as tickboxes on a list, and everyone else past that checklist is screwed. It’s interesting that one of the early quests in the same game’s later expansion – Pandaria – makes use of a phasing mechanic, such that after you rescue the requisite number of pandas, the rest of them disappear, leaving your conscience clear that you’re leaving no man/bear behind.

    And you can think of any game that gives you companions – Half-Life 2’s resistance fighters. Freedom Fighters’ uh… freedom fighters. Squad-mates in the earlier Call of Duty and Medal of Honour games (before they started giving them personalities and made them invincible so that those personalities weren’t wasted).

    Games like the recent XCOM break the mould a little by assigning SOME uniqueness to your troops, but depending on how bad a commander/unlucky you are, you can pretty easily burn through enough of them that you stop caring about any differences in your rookies until they actually distinguish themselves with usefulness. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the heartbreak of losing valued soldiers was one of the critical successes of the title.

    I think the core problem is one tied inextricably to how we relate to the ‘extra’s in the movie of life, which will never change. But the closer we can get – as permitted by technology – to forcing the issue into our minds, maybe the better?

    • I dunno – it worked pretty well for XCOM. I got attached to quite a few of my guys, and they didn’t have much more than a name and a nationality.

      • Yeah… and I think the reason it worked is because it was entirely user projected.

        The game doesn’t generate a character called ‘the Colonel’ as a sniper who routinely pulls her squaddies’ asses out of the fire with the most reliable overwatch headshots you’ve ever seen, consistently avoiding injury out of luck and pulling some of the most daring hail-mary passes in the game, who falls foul of discovery a muton six-way orgy behind the construction-site porta-potties and gets pack-slammed by grenades because in the most fucked-up game logic to date, apparently surprising someone gives them a free move against you. RIP Colonel.

        That’s a player construct, rather than the game. But the game DOES give us the tools to have that story emerge, and does it pretty well, which is why that kind of player-story was all the rage on the XCOM reviews. ‘Emergent’ is the buzz-word these days. Player-constructed story.

        Maybe that’s the key to the slavery question. Actually USING these people instead of ticking them off a ‘to be saved’ checklist.

    • Way back when, Cannon Fodder did a pretty decent job of making you care about your squad, not only because they levelled up but every time you started a mission you were reminded of their deaths via the gravestones on the hill.

      It got quite a bit of controversy at the time for having those anti-war undertones.

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