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Assassins Creed 4: Freedom Cry features some of the best writing and performances in the series. It is bravely ambitious as a videogame, and while it may have flaws, it deserves your consideration for playing. I recommend reading Evan Narcisse’s impressions, and listening to Evan & Patrick Klepek discuss it on Giant Bomb.

None of what I’m writing here is meant as criticism, or if it is, it is the worst sort of criticism. That which considers the nonexistent, what could have been – more specifically it’s just my own thoughts as to how I would tackle some of design challenges and tension I felt between the themes, gameplay, and story while I played. It’s also divorced from production thoughts of resources and time, so largely meaningless.

The first noticeable conflict I felt was in the information you’re given before the open-world missions. The narrative requires freeing hundreds of slaves, recruiting some to fight for you, and you unlock rewards as you free more. Before any ancillary mission, freeing slaves from a plantation or capturing and freeing a slave ship, you’re told how many slaves there are to be freed.

Slave ships have about 100 slaves, plantations often have 30-40. From a time perspective, and reaching more powerful unlocks faster, the player is motivated to free slave ships. The caveat is that it is more difficult and the player must powerup their ship but the economy made that not much of a block for me.

While trying to free people, to have this choice, moves you outside the altruistic mental space the narrative tries to put you in. And it seems unnecessary, there partly just by convention. Other side objectives (like total # of treasure chests) are displayed for any location before discovering each individual one, as an incentive for the player to explore.

Do you need more incentive ahead of time to free people from slavery? If anything, hiding the count until in or completing the mission, randomizing it, would add to the emotional weight of success or failure. A difficult battle, followed by small gains, would color the tone of your success in an interesting way. And a random larger slave count to be freed would feel exuberant, as you would think Adewale would feel.

I think it’s interesting too, to use a random reward schedule to complicate the emotional tone here. A gambling mechanism used in free to play games to manipulate “whales” in spending more money, applied in this context rewards the player while not shying away from the complexity of the system and its emotional impact(s). To use our human biases against us, our lack of clarity on how that system works, to focus on our humanity, is powerful to me.

Besides the systems & choices themselves, it’s also crucial that those systems & choices are communicated as being important to the player. What kind of priority are the given in the overall visual/UI design? The count of slaves on a plantation as you try to rescue them, which goes down as overseers kill them when you’re noticed, is relegated to the same visual importance as any other optional mission objective.

Many times I would initially get noticed, think I could kill the one overseer and return to being hidden. I wouldn’t realize slaves were being killed at first because I hadn’t noticed the number tick down yet. These slaves could be 50+ meters away, almost impossible to notice that they were being attacked before they were killed. By not highlighting the importance the game doesn’t give me much opportunity to do that, and always tells me it’s only as important as completing the objective.

Every slave’s life lost deserves to be felt much more deeply than that number ticking down. It should be heard, visible, even potentially given offscreen hints (much like you would get for damage from behind in an FPS). Is it realistic to hear that combat from anywhere on the plantation? No. Is it dramatic? Yes.

Losing the ongoing count completely might even add to the moment-to-moment decision to continue or retry the mission. One slave dies, can you stomach continuing? Add another, and another. How many can you save, how many are there to be saved? You don’t know, you have to gamble, or go back and demand perfection from yourself. That tension builds as deaths happen in a different way than managing the counter. By communicating the importance more than other mission objectives, it reinforces its themes, that those lives are more important.

It’s a difficult production problem too – those animations need to be theatrical, not cinematic. They need to read from 50+ meters away, but if an animator saw motion capture come back like that, seeing it full screen 2 feet from their face, they could easily dismiss it as overacted and cheesy.

At some point after playing, it occurred to me that perhaps this was the goal of the game to begin with. By giving the player a choice in the effectiveness of their time, by communicating the effects equal to any other objective, the player has to commit more to being a part of the system that perpetuates this racism – it is inescapable. You choose to dehumanize the slaves to a number and are therefore guilty of a part of the same crime.

It gives me a lot of pause though, to make that claim – trying to convey the notion that you are taking part in a systemic institution of oppression is one of the most ambitious thematic undertakings in videogames. Besides the final assassination scene, there isn’t much in the story itself to support this. If the goal was to make the player question that, I think the seed would need to be sown much earlier to form that question in their mind.

While the ever-present nature of the procedurally created events of escaping slaves, slave auctions, and imprisoned slaves eventually causes fatigue – representing more work for the player, repetition causing fatigue – might lead you to question the systemic unavoidability of the institution of slavery in that place and time, it doesn’t question your longer-term role, but still plays into the Django-like power fantasy.

Lastly, shanties, one of the most enjoyable reinforcers of the setting of Assassin’s Creed 4, are gone. Which is fitting given their occasionally light-hearted tone, but I couldn’t help wanting  them to be replaced by spirituals the slaves would have sung (as also mentioned here). The music that plays over the credits captures that tone & feeling – there is almost nothing more immediately powerful than a song to transport you to a place and time.

On the flip side, listening to the songs the freed slaves would have sung under their slavery, but now in your charge, puts you in a difficult place. Are these NPCs now in your slavery as the player? Were the theme requiring you to consider your place in that system, though, that could have reinforced that. At the same time, given these other thoughts, it makes sense to steer away from that question in the service of the rest of the themes.