Emergent side quests get dull, and that’s the truth. There are only so many times you can chase a quest marker to a randomly selected cave and kill a wolf pack for a sack of virtual coins before you just don’t care. The fifteenth time you stumble across a man on the side of a road hitchhiking in the opposite direction of your next mission, you’re not going to pull over.
Assassin’s Creed: Freedom Cry is different. No matter what I was doing, where I was going, whenever the “liberate slaves” notification popped up, I would instantly abandon my course of action to set things right. Though similar “liberation” mechanics have been used in previous Assassin’s Creed games (of which I have played far too many), this was the first time where I would repeatedly go out of my way to engage with these miniature side quests.
The reasoning for its level of engagement is twofold: first is the way the designers incorporate the mechanic into the story progression. Though growing more common in the industry as a whole, it is a rare thing for Assassin’s Creed games to gate their missions behind the completion of side content, making it a very easy aspect of the games to ignore if you so choose. By locking missions until you have liberated X amount of slaves, Freedom Cry forces you to contend with the emergent system, turning the completion of these miniquests into a habit. The small world map likewise compels you to interact with the side quests; it’s impossible to traverse Saint-Domingue without coming face to face with a liberation opportunity.
Much more important and obvious, of course, is the moral investment instilled in the liberation system. Slavery is the most heinous enterprise ever carried out in human history and is underrepresented almost to the point of nonexistence in gaming; though fantastical depictions of slavery are not uncommon, I can think of only three games that touch on historical slavery, and all three are in the Assassin’s Creed series. Giving players the ability to fight back against this institution in a mechanically satisfying and world affecting fashion is unprecedented, and Freedom Cry’s offerings are all but impossible to ignore.
Of course, the system isn’t perfect. The small size of the game’s world led to a number of occasions where I would run into the same event happening multiple times in the same place at once (usually, a trio of identical runaway slaves being chased by a trio of identical overseers). My moral compulsion got in a head-on collision with my suspension of disbelief and nobody survived. Additionally (to paraphrase Patrick Klepek, formerly of Giant Bomb and G4, now a writer for Kotaku), slave liberation being a method of resource acquisition is really dissonant and kind of super fucked up: the diegesis recognizes the slaves’ humanity, but the actual game mechanics do literally the opposite, transforming the freed slaves into literal numbers. Finally, it’s cheap; throwing a veneer of slavery over a done-to-death game system and calling it a day should not be enough to engage me the way it does; as I’ve said before, I’m not particularly fond of cheap emotional baiting.
But, dammit, it works. The way in which the plot structure and environmental design forces the player to interact with the liberation system, coupled with the historical pariah that it portrays, is emotionally effective as all get out. When I made a mistake and a trio of slaves was killed trying to fight off the overseers I had antagonized, I was utterly horrified and had to stop playing for a few minutes. When I leaped into the middle of an auction, slaughtering the salesman and his guards with a slice of the machete and a blast of the blunderbuss in two seconds flat, neither Adewale nor the slaves receiving so much as a scratch, it was one of the most satisfying, fist-pump-worthy gaming moments I’ve had in ages.
If I’m going to be perfectly honest, though, the moral obligation is only half the story. Violence set in real-world contexts has reached a point in mainstream gaming where (as strange and disgusting as it is to say) it’s getting difficult to enjoy; the interminable focus upon white protagonists shooting the shit out of minorities is tiresome and uncomfortable. Freedom Cry tackles this issue on two fronts, casting a minority protagonist and (ironically, considering its progressive mentality) harkening back to a simpler time in gaming, when World War II titles ruled the sales charts. The villains are clear-cut, the violence is satisfying, brutal and justified, with nary an ethical dilemma to be seen. Frankly, it’s been a long time coming: we’ve had countless games where Nazis get blown to bloody chunks, and it’s high time sadistic overseers get their digital murdering due.