THE HISTORY OF VIOLENT SLAVE REBELLION has sometimes become fodder for videogames. In 1988, a French company based in Bordeaux released an 8-bit computer game called Freedom: Rebels in Darkness, in which the player incarnates one of four playable enslaved characters on the Grand Parnasse plantation. After choosing to play as either Solitude, Makandal, Delia, or Sechou, the player navigates a maze-like layout on the main screen, being careful to avoid the dogs on patrol. At various points, the player may select a location on the map to bring up a further challenge screen, and there work to rally other slaves to the cause, burn down fields and storehouses, or else confront diverse enemies, at which point the game turns into a “street fighter” style game, depicting hand-to-hand combat. I have been unable to make significant progress in this game, but it certainly seems worthy of more investigation, especially given that historical figures like French clergyman, colonist, and slave owner Pere Labat (1663–1738) and one of the most famous rebel slaves of all time, François Makandal (executed 1758), are alluded to in the game.
Despite the outdated technology, Rebels in Darkness can be accessed in an English language version on Dosbox via the Internet Archive. Various restrictions hamper progress, and as such, the vintage game foreshadows some of the tools that more recent games have purposefully employed to safeguard the subject of the historical rebel enslaved person. Rebels in Darkness begins by asking the player for a passcode that was included in the box to eliminate piracy, but the patient player can merely keep guessing from the provided answers until they turn up the right one.
After this, the scene is set with the following description:
Night is falling over the prosperous Grand Parnasse plantation. The slaves, under their supervisor’s thumb, have left the carts of cane and gone back to their huts. Meanwhile, the owner sips his rum on the veranda and the director rubs his hands; the plantation makes a considerable profit. The accountant finishes his records; there are 200 casks of sugar piled up in the buildings. The supervisor is worried. The lashes of his whip are no longer enough to keep the rhythm in the fields. The wind of rebellion is blowing over the negroes’ huts! But who would dare become the leader of a rebellion?
Some of the odd word choice here (“director,” “supervisor”) may be due to translation; doubtless, a native English speaker would say “overseer” in place of “supervisor.” However, Martinican author Patrick Chamoiseau is credited with writing the text of the game, and it seems appropriately subversive: the player can burn down the storehouse, with the two hundred casks of sugar inside, effectively destroying the master’s profits. But without the full instructions, many aspects of the game remain mysterious, from which buttons will have an effect to more complex matters. Most importantly, for our immediate purposes, the game exists as a relic of a bygone era, which limits its accessibility and makes it rather difficult to play. Due to modern expectations for gameplay and quality of graphics, Rebels in Darkness offers little immersion for the 2020 player.
In 2009, a Brazilian company called Donsoft Entertainment produced a game called Capoeira Legends: Paths to Freedom, which depicts the nation’s proud history of slave resistance. The game focuses on the Maroons, fugitive slaves who formed their own communities and purportedly used martial arts to fight the Portuguese colonizers. Set in 1828, near Rio de Janeiro, the game depicts the use of capoeira against “advocates of slavery” by those who would preserve their freedom.1 Gameplay appears to mainly involve combat against the uniformed militia and colonizer civilians who would subdue the playable character, Gunga Za. However, a full treatment of this game would necessitate a nuanced depiction of cultural attitudes about slavery in Brazil, and my rudimentary command of Brazilian Portuguese prohibits me, at this point, from attempting a more in-depth study. Nonetheless, both Rebels in Darkness and Capoeira Legends provide a good introduction to the more detailed discussion of other games that follows here: games where physical violence against slavers, slaveholders, and plantation masters becomes a part of the play. In the next few sections, we will see how passcodes, language barriers, and moments that obstruct player immersion create a pause in which we ought to reflect on commodification and co-option of the identity of the rebel slave in the game.
In recent years, the videogame company Ubisoft has created two games within the Assassin’s Creed series that make freeing the enslaved a major component of the gameplay. A trademark of the franchise is the facilitation of missions within historical time periods of interest, like the American and French Revolutions. The games in the series aspire to historical accuracy, most include multiple languages, and they are all prefaced with this note: “Inspired by historical events and characters, this work of fiction was designed, developed and produced by a multicultural team of various religions, faiths and beliefs.” The historical accuracy of the backdrops is obviously important to Ubisoft, and game scholar Adrienne Shaw has addressed their successes and shortcomings on this score in her address of Assassin’s Creed III, about the American Revolution. Shaw illustrates how the game works against itself (and the critique it works hard to demonstrate itself making) and instead ends up foreclosing any real emancipatory potential.2 This assessment also rings true of the games I’m looking at here, wherein the series’ intervention in the history of slave rebellion is both productive and destructive to our understanding of that resistance and its legacy. In my discussion of Assassin’s Creed, I’ll focus on two games, both part of the Americas series of the universe, the stand-alone game Liberation, and Freedom Cry, downloadable content (DLC) for Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag, about pirates in the Caribbean. These games are not central parts of the hero’s quest, but ancillary narratives—Liberation was first released in 2012 for the handheld gaming device the PS Vita and only made available for the main consoles in 2014, and Freedom Cry was only ever accessible as a supplementary DLC—indicating the lower priority of these characters’ tales as compared to the major releases of the central series titles.
Liberation opens in French New Orleans one hundred years before the American Civil War. In the game, the player incarnates a free woman of color, Aveline de Grandpré, who is the daughter of a slave from Saint Domingue and her white master. Aveline’s mother disappeared when she was just a child, and she was raised by her white father and stepmother, wealthy merchants. The game begins with the playable character reliving a memory of childhood loss, in which the young Aveline sees slaves being auctioned on the block and then traumatically loses her mother in the marketplace. This cut-scene has been a dream and Aveline awakens to find herself in the year 1763, in which she is a young lady, raised in elegant society, but is dividing her time as an Assassin.
Liberation’s gameplay includes a series of missions, some of which are concerned with the treatment of slaves and in which Aveline aids in their escape to the Bayou or investigates their disappearance and displacement to the colony of Chichen Itza in Mexico, but most of which are about battles for control of territory among corrupt colonial governors and intrigue among smugglers in the swamplands. The theme of liberating the slaves is present here, though it seems subsidiary to Aveline’s efforts to uncover the truth about her mother’s involvement with the Assassin syndicate and even her efforts to help her father’s business. In one mission, for example, she buys out a competitor to pay his slaves a living wage, thereby liberating them via capitalism. In short, despite Aveline’s goals, stated at one point when she is speaking to her mentor, Agaté, as being to “free the slaves, defeat our enemies, impose justice,” for most of the game there is an absence of a radical abolitionist message.
I echo here Shaw’s disappointment in her analysis of Assassin’s Creed III, for although Liberation espouses a revolutionary ethic—as when Aveline delivers lines like “Anyone who keeps slaves deserves to lose them”—the game seemingly fails to deliver on these words. Aveline continues managing her father’s shipping routes for trade in commodities like cotton and tobacco, sending ships to Cuba and Veracruz in exchange for money, but she is still working within a society (and therefore affecting supply and demand) that exploits slave labor. In fact, it isn’t made clear until late in the game that Aveline is aware of and frustrated by her relative powerlessness to change society. Ultimately, Liberation fails to live up to its name.
Whereas Haiti and its legacy of slave revolt is a backdrop in Liberation, as Aveline’s mother and her mentor Agaté are both from Saint Domingue, the French colony that would wage a war for its independence to become the first black republic, Saint Domingue is the primary setting of Freedom Cry. In this DLC, the player incarnates a character called Adewalé, a former slave and quartermaster to Edward Kenway, the central playable character in the pirate adventure Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag. In Freedom Cry, the player incarnates Adewalé as he journeys to Saint Domingue, frees slaves, and falls in league with a band of Maroons waging a war against the colonial governor.
The basic plot of the narrative is relatively simple: after taking hold of a package during a battle with a Templar fleet, Adewalé shipwrecks just off the island of Saint Domingue. Adewalé’s first challenge comes when he stumbles upon a white overseer about to attack a female slave. The overseer hisses threats (spoken only in French) that he will cut off her ears if she doesn’t submit. Grabbing hold of the first weapon he sees, a machete, what was historically the tool of the cane-cutting slave, Adewalé chases down the overseer. This is the player’s first objective on the island, which lends us our title: “Kill the Overseer.” After the player, incarnating Adewalé, slays the would-be assailant and receives thanks from the victim, he begins his new role as a liberator of the enslaved.
Because he successfully absconded with the Templar’s parcel, addressed to one Bastienne Josephe in Port-au-Prince, he goes to find her. She is a wealthy and influential madam with connections to both the leader of the Maroon renegades and the colonial governor, which, in addition to her presumed connection to the Templars, causes Adewalé to distrust her, and he withholds the package. The feeling is mutual, and she gives him a series of tasks to prove himself. Through her, Adewalé connects with Augustin Dieufort, the leader of the Maroons, and performs several missions in which he frees slaves, kills white jailors, and unlocks the enchained. He eventually takes on other missions through his alliances with Augustin Dieufort and Bastienne Josephe. Even more pronouncedly than the game called Liberation, this game makes the liberation of slaves the player’s chief labor in the game. Recruiting Maroons along the way, Adewalé liberates plantations and slave ships, ultimately winning a ship for the cause and teaching Augustin to man it for the coming “revolution”—the objective of which is stated as “Maroon independence.” Adewalé also performs tasks for Bastienne, mainly providing intel, for example by spying on the harbormaster and gleaning information about a scientific expedition in which the Gouvernor de Fayet has invested.
If Shaw is concerned with the identity politics involved in making a Native character playable in Assassin’s Creed III, we should also question the playable character of the rebel slave in games like Liberation and Freedom Cry. To fully treat this subject, one would have to undertake a sociological study of the players’ investment in the game and their feelings regarding the stakes of inhabiting Aveline and Adewalé. Taking such an approach would necessitate a transnational perspective with the participation of gamers and game designers from countries like Brazil and Martinique, who might have a different perspective on the appropriateness of making historical slave resistance a playable quest. But to look at it another way, concentrating only on formal construction, we find that such games often highlight the difficulty of representation of this history in an interactive mode. One way that the Assassin’s Creed franchise addresses this issue, what we might think of as “avatar trouble,” is by drawing attention to the playability of the character, effectively metagaming the discomfort of making the historical rebel slave a playable character.3
The world of Assassin’s Creed spans many centuries and is a large playground, but by means of a fantastical frame, the playable characters’ lives are packaged as an entertainment experience for others. Besides the purported realism of the in-game play, and in direct contrast to the aspirational historical fidelity of the series, there’s a whole element to the Assassin’s Creed franchise of secret societies, time travel, and an alien race. Although this is not my primary concern here, suffice it to say that the central intrigue concerns a long-standing war between the Brotherhood of the Assassins and the secretive order of the Templars, who wage their battles throughout history by the means of a device called the Animus, which allows characters to access their ancestors’ memories and, in a virtual sense, be transported back in time. Within most of the Assassin’s Creed games, then, the player is playing at being rather than merely playing as the characters that live in recognizably historical settings. The layered nature of the player’s occupation of the playable character highlights the occupation of others’ bodies as a central problem of the gameplay.
The fictional corporation Abstergo Industries is a front for the Templars, and the Animus device allows the game’s characters to inhabit people who lived in the past. In most of the games in the Assassin’s Creed universe, the player incarnates Desmond Miles, a presumably white male living in the future in a frame narrative. Miles uses the Animus machine to channel the historical figures he animates, like Connor, his Mohawk ancestor in Assassin’s Creed III, set during the American Revolution. The issue of how much these characters’ playability should bother us seems to pivot on the question of audience. If we imagine, as Shaw does, the intended audience to be the same demographic that Miles represents (white men), then the incarnation of bodies of color and their historical struggles may be read as problematic, but it is important to note that scholars are divided on this issue. As Kishonna Grey and Jordan Mazurek note, “gamers of color frequently use and reference [imagery from games such as these] as one of personal empowerment.”4 Regardless, the fictional Abstergo Industries’ motto, “Make history yours,” concedes both the potential payoff and pitfall of these games. As Shaw has noted, in the Assassin’s Creed series, history is commoditized, and this is particularly fraught when the legacy of resistance—whether that of the indigenous or the enslaved—is being offered up for occupation and reclamation, digitally commodified as interactive adventures.
The two Assassin’s Creed games I’m concerned with here, Liberation and Freedom Cry, avoid some of Shaw’s concerns, as they cast off the frame narrative of Desmond Miles, and therefore, the player is not hailed into the position of a white man occupying the lives of people of color. And yet, these games offer a more direct co-option of the histories of black resistance, which we might interpret as even more problematic. Miles standing as an intermediary between the player and the historical character establishes an additional layer of distance between the player and the playable character that is lacking in these games. But both Liberation and Freedom Cry excise the frame narrative of Desmond Miles. I’ve heard two scholars, Amanda Philips and Soraya Murray, note in recent talks that Liberation is the first game of the series in which Abstergo Industries, the fictional company that controls the Animus device, offers its services to the general public, allowing an unnamed subject (most immediately, the player) to experience the memories of a supposedly historical person directly.5 That is, in Liberation’s frame narrative, Aveline is for sale. Her story is not just available to her ancestors (as with the Desmond Miles games) but to anyone who will pay to play. It is indeed notable that the first black protagonist depicted in the franchise, a “freedom fighter” (in Soraya Murray’s words) and a product of slavery herself, is offered up as a commodity. Because of the game’s fictional frame as content produced by Abstergo for consumption, there is a sense that the player is piloting Aveline directly.
Similarly, Miles’s frame is absent in Freedom Cry. In brief, though we are given a bit of the backstory of the former slave turned assassin in the game trailer and in Black Flag (where we are introduced to Adewalé as a non-playable character), in the DLC in which he is the central protagonist, the narrative of his previous life is mostly absent. We know he is a former slave from a sugarcane plantation in Trinidad and that he sailed with Edward Kenway aboard the Jackdaw in Black Flag. In Freedom Cry, however, Adewalé finds new purpose beyond pirating, and the player is dropped directly into his life without the frame of a player incarnating him via the Animus.
In examining Aveline and Adewalé as our playable protagonists, then, there are several strands that must be separated. Without the frame of Desmond Miles acting as a bulwark against the full absorption of the player into the role of the playable character, we might feel that the occupation of the historical subject position of the rebel slave is more immediately offered to the player. However, as with the other games included in this study, I’ll argue here that the games’ elisions productively foreclose complete occupation of the playable characters in other ways. One of the ways this is achieved is by underlining the games as fictions.