Assassin’s Creed Liberation: Slavery as New Focus for a Video Game


Chris Suellentrop reviews Assassin’s Creed: Liberation for The New York Times.

In what sounds like a joke by a stand-up comic — Chris Rock? Dave Chappelle? — with a fondness for PlayStation, the greatest black heroine in the history of video games was forced to live for more than a year in the ghetto of Sony’s faltering hand-held console, the Vita.

This month, however, Aveline de Grandpré, a Creole who is the daughter of a Frenchman and an African woman, has been granted the wider audience she deserves. The game she stars in, Assassin’s Creed: Liberation, has been given a high-definition makeover as a downloadable title for far more popular platforms: the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and personal computers.

In a further twist to the cruel joke that has been played on Aveline, Assassin’s Creed: Liberation is not very good, even in its new form. Its setting — 18th-century New Orleans and the surrounding bayou — is not as fully realized or as beautiful as the historical backdrops (Renaissance Italy, the Golden Age of Caribbean piracy) for other Assassin’s Creed games with larger development teams and bigger budgets. Its story is convoluted in ways that are typical for the series (a Dan Brown approach to history that involves secret societies that feud and murder across centuries) and atypical (the plot and characters are inscrutable, even for an Assassin’s Creed game). The acting is poor. Many of the missions that Aveline is asked to carry out are dull.


And yet the unblinking focus on slavery in the Americas makes the game remarkable, nonetheless. In particular, it deftly uses the mechanics of play to interpret Aveline’s relationship to the culture of colonial New Orleans under French and Spanish rule.

“Blackness can be a sort of performance,” wrote the Kotaku writer Evan Narcisse, who has championed Assassin’s Creed: Liberation, as well as advocated more sophisticated portrayals of African-Americans in video games in general. Liberation makes that metaphor literal, by letting Aveline adopt personas that give her varying abilities and constraints. The “lady,” who dresses and acts like the wealthy free woman that Aveline is, can fool men by charming them and is less likely to be noticed by the guards in the game — but she can’t climb buildings and is weak in a fight. The slave — Aveline disguises herself as one, while she and her white stepmother work to free others — can infiltrate areas under cover of labor. And the assassin persona is, well, less concerned with the historical basis of double consciousness.

In the opening sequence, Aveline, as a young girl, stumbles onto a slave market and mistakes a white woman for her mother. Later, she infiltrates plantations to gather intelligence from enslaved people. She incites slave riots. She fights an overseer, disarms him of his whip and then uses it against other would-be masters. No game I’ve played deals this directly with the history and imagery of slavery in the New World, much less does it with sensitivity and intelligence.

By contrast, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, last year’s big-budget adventure in the series, virtually ignores the vital role that chattel slavery played in the economy of Caribbean piracy. As a fascinating traveling exhibition from National Geographic called “Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah From Slave Ship to Pirate Ship”makes clear, the slave trade was at the heart of the pirate experience. Slave ships were ideal vessels for pirates, because they could hold many people and were well armed. And pirates were a surprisingly multiracial lot, as escaped slaves and free blacks alike were drawn to the relative freedom and democracy they were afforded. (“Real Pirates” is currently at the Milwaukee Public Museum; I saw it during its run in Kansas City, Mo.)

Black Flag does give its white protagonist a black first mate, Adéwalé, who stars in an expansion to the game, called Freedom Cry, that involves liberating slaves in Haiti. But the developers of the core game also acknowledge their soft-pedaling of the issue in a small joke, a parenthetical footnote to a description of a plantation in Kingston, Jamaica. “Do we have to mention slave trading?” the note reads, part of a fictional conversation between two of the game’s developers. “It’s such a downer.”

As historical fiction, Assassin’s Creed: Liberation is closer to a movie like Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” than it is to Steve McQueen’s Oscar-nominated drama, “12 Years a Slave,” or to James McBride’s National Book Award-winning novel, “The Good Lord Bird.” Even so, the game is not nearly as rewarding as those works, which shed new light on American slavery and its treatment in film, fiction and history. But the shameful dearth of black characters in video games makes Assassin’s Creed: Liberation feel nearly as subversive and important as the films by Mr. Tarantino or Mr. McQueen and the book by Mr. McBride.

“I’ve never played as a black video game character who’s made me feel like he was cool,” Mr. Narcisse, whose parents were born in Haiti, wrote almost two years ago in a Kotaku post headlined “Come On, Video Games, Let’s See Some Black People I’m Not Embarrassed By.”

More recently, Jamin Warren, of the website Kill Screen, republished on Martin Luther King’s Birthday an essay that he first wrote for Barack Obama’s second inauguration. “When the time comes for a child to ask, ‘Who am I?,’ games, like all great art forms, should have an answer,” wrote Mr. Warren, who describes himself as mixed-race. “The worry is that the response, more often than not, is nothing at all.”

Assassin’s Creed: Liberation is not the only, or even the best, game with a nonwhite protagonist. For that, you would probably have to look at one of the Grand Theft Auto games or Minority Media’s Papo & Yo. But that a game as mediocre as Liberation feels like a revelation should serve as a rebuke for an industry that styles itself as the art form of the 21st century, even as its labor force and its characters too often look like a parody of the 20th, or the 19th.

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