Packaging Black Masculinity in Assassin’s Creed: Freedom Cry

Please Note: The links included in this article are to video game trailers that depict sequences of graphic violence that some may find offensive.

As a kid, did you ever walk out of the theater after seeing a movie so good that you wished it were real? And more importantly, did you pretend to be the hero or heroine who saves the world from evil (or in my case, pretend to be the giant lizard that breathes fire and destroys cities)? I’ll call that imaginative/role playing, but whatever the name is, it was fun to pretend to be someone else as a kid. It still is for me years later and for many others I’m sure.

When I think about it, this is one of the main reasons why I’ve loved playing video games from a very young age. You’re almost always playing as someone or something other than yourself. Part of what I feel makes these games so appealing is that each one asks you to be the center of an imagined world and virtually participate in it. Romantic as it may seem, the incredible thing about a good video game has always been its ability to tap into that imaginative/role playing part of the brain.

Interestingly in today’s gaming world, the imaginative role/playing begins before you even pick up the controller. Video game trailers have become a ubiquitous marketing strategy for the industry’s biggest games. As these trailers become increasingly more like movie trailers or mini-movies themselves, they too begin to create an experience for the viewer that primes them for not just what they can expect from the game, but what they can imagine their role to be in it.

The Assassin’s Creed (AC) video game series is a good example of this. With the release of the original Assassin’s Creed  in 2007, the richly drawn stealth action game with a historical and sci-fi twist has subsequently spawned 8 main games to date, each bigger and more engrossing than the last. And on top of the main games, the makers of AC have put out nearly as many smaller games as downloadable content (DLC) for purchase on consoles and even smart phones.

The DLC that I have in mind today is Assassin’s Creed: Freedom Cry (FC). Consisting of 9 missions (compared to 12 in the most recent release, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag), Freedom Cry received some attention upon its release because it, along with Assassin’s Creed: Liberation, became the first in the series to feature a black protagonist. Both games also threw players head first into issues of enslavement and western colonization with settings in 18th Century Haiti (FC) and Louisiana (Liberation).  There is much to unpack in both of these games, but for now I want to take it back to where I started this post: the potential for video games and game trailers to tap into the individual desire for imaginative/role playing.

If you haven’t it seen it, take a minute to watch the cinematic trailer for FC.

I get chills each time I watch it. I don’t know if it’s the intense concept, that real people act in part of it and literally bring the game to life, or the dramatic music and voices. I do know that when I finish watching, I want nothing more than to play this game. Like the game’s main character Adéwalé, I’m ready to start chopping down and blunderbussing every slave owner and colonizer that I cross paths with in virtual Port-au-Prince.

I’ve started but have yet to finish the game and have watched the trailer several times since I began playing. And yet, I eventually became uncomfortable watching, uncomfortable at how ready I was for the all out action and combat in this game. It didn’t take long to discover why. I was playing an Assassin’s Creed game, a stealthaction game in a series that manages fairly well to be about the stealth and the action. That’s what the assassin’s are supposed to be about, right? People trained as silent, mythical, invisible killers in the name of justice. That mixture is built into the game play as well as the story. Throughout the series, you’ll fail certain missions if enemies become too aware of your presence. On the other hand, there are times when you just need to brawl your way out of a circle of guards. Overall, I appreciate the dual emphasis and its execution in the games.

However, if you didn’t know the series that well and watched this trailer, I doubt you would have been able to say that the game is at all about being stealthy. Watch the initial launch trailer; it’s much of the same. In both trailers, Adéwalé takes out several enemies singlehandedly in a very up front, brutal way— which is fine and something to expect from the game. But that brutal combat is not the only part.

At this point, you might be saying what’s wrong with highlighting some cool action sequences for a short trailer? It would even seem reasonable to think that many cinematic trailers do this. But that’s not entirely true for the AC games. Each of the other game trailers strikes a significantly more equal balance between stealth and straightforward combat compared to FC.

The problem with FC’s trailer is its potential to reinforce the stigma of black hypermasculinity. By this I mean the cultural tendency in America and in various forms elsewhere to (mis)represent and imagine the black male as a particularly aggressive, violent, and entirely physical being. Generally speaking, these imagined traits thus code the black male as lacking the intellectual prowess of their white male counterparts; intellect is the more valuable trait in an American context. You only need to scroll through your social media feed or read the latest news on Ferguson, MO to see that the threat of this kind of misrepresentation is found across all aspects of American life past and present. The problem with black hypermasculinization is the same as many other stereotypes because we can use it to force a false perception of a group into being.

One of the earliest things you see in the Liberation trailer is the main character Aveline sneaking around trees and disguising herself as an enslaved woman. Immediately you get the idea that she uses brain and brawn, which means you’ll have to when you play. At the end of the AC Unity trailer, the assassins use smoke and deception to eliminate the guards in the courtyard in a quintessential Assassin’s Creed manner. Why can’t Adewale get in on something like that? And why does Adéwalé have to be the only main assassin in the series (that I know of) with exposed arm and chest muscles like that? To (rein)force physicality as his defining character trait onto the viewer and or player’s perspective.

Again, I haven’t finished the game. But from what I’ve seen, I know that the stealth components haven’t been dropped from the game play all of a sudden. What’s frustrating is how much this particular game’s setting (pre-revolution Haiti and elsewhere in the Caribbean) lends itself to an incredibly complex juxtaposition of stealth and straightforward combat. The virtual Port-au-Prince you navigate through as Adéwalé has plantations with enslaved people on it, people Adéwalé is driven to free. A recurring side mission in FC requires you to set enslaved people free by killing all of the plantations overseers (!) without getting seen, otherwise the owners will start killing the enslaved (!!). Stealth is a must here and in my early experience requires serious planning and almost no straightforward combat. This complex mixture of tactics, discretion, and violence sits at the foundation of the series.  And yet you wouldn’t know that, and wouldn’t be primed for that, if you watched the actual trailer.

Now imagine a new trailer for Freedom Cry— one where Adéwalé covertly executes his plan to free the enslaved by taking down an entire plantation’s worth of overseers without anyone noticing. That trailer gives me chills too. And it leaves me with a different sense for the game and who I’ll be playing as. Through this new (still action packed) video, Adéwalé becomes a more complicated, calculating character, a character with brawn and brain. He is now portrayed as more thoughtful, someone whose abilities as an assassin are not overshadowed by his desire for revenge. He can be vengeful, but he needs to be smart too, otherwise he won’t last as an assassin. The same goes for you when you turn on the game.

Changing the trailer wouldn’t erase the stigma of black hypermasculinity, to be clear. But in a medium so far behind in terms of the quantity and quality of minority representation, a shift in emphasis in something as small as a two minute video could go a long way.

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