Haunted by Historical Memory

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 American Slavery or enslavement in general, particular parts of Freedom’s Cry are haunting. The game is set in an open world where Adewalé, our main character/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. One of the most haunting parts of this world is the auction block. It is one thing to read about enslaved people being chained together, publicly inspected, and sold to the highest bidder like cattle, and another thing to see it in a movie, but to casually walk past in the world of a game knowing that you have the option to stop and free those on the auction block or keep walking and virtually resign them to their fate 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 slaves and ideologically reinforced by the slaveowning system, and where in “real life” I (as Adewalé and as myself) would not have that access is troubling, to say the least.

Despite this slip, 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 my knowledge have captured 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.

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. In effect, we are being haunted by his triumphs as we try to free others and escape.

Screen Shot 2014-10-10 at 7.20.35 AMThis 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 fill it faster with 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, this section of the game highlights the distinction between dying and desynchronizing which occurs throughout all of the Assassin’s Creed games. This distinction will undoubtedly come up in another blog post, but it is worth mentioning here as well. On the one hand, it is a reminder that this is all a simulation–the enslaved people aboard the ship really are just pieces of code, and so is Adewalé. We are one more step removed from understanding Freedom’s Cry as “real”, and can easily resort to that comfort. This also raises a tangential question about the target audience of a game like Freedom’s Cry: 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 mission? In some ways, this mission is no different than a rescue mission in Call Of Duty, the floating dead bodies replaced by dead bodies strewn across a battlefield. In the eyes of the development team at Ubisoft, is the history just a framework for the mission or is the experience really the memory of history? Returning to the dying/desynchronizing problem, the memory of this history transforms from simply haunting to traumatic because, on the other hand, 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, for though I may think that I (through Adewalé) am making choices I ultimately have no choice but to experience a traumatic event to which I did not bear witness, and repeat this event until I “do it right” and live. Maybe I’m lucky and I get it right on the first try, but that would mean ignoring this historical basis of the mission and just playing it like a game, and that seems even worse. This isn’t the last time I will be blogging about this particular section of the game, because I find it fascinating and horrifying, and perhaps in my next blog these problems will be my starting point.


Works Cited

“The Zong Case Study.” The Zong Case Study. Understanding Slavery Initiative, 2011. Web. 10 Oct. 2014.

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