The lights are on
While we often associate gaming with fun, that doesn't mean that our interactive entertainment is constrained to only dealing with lightweight subjects. In a GDC 2014 talk called Beyond Fun: Difficult Topics Inspire Story and Design, two of the creators behind the Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag's Freedom Cry DLC spoke about telling a story centered around the difficult subject of slavery.
Jill Murray, the game's director of narrative design, said that when the team was beginning work on the Freedom Cry DLC, which focuses on Edward Kenway's former quartermaster Adéwalé – a former slave, himself – a familiar question was asked: Isn't the theme of slavery too risky for video games? Murray points to other entertainment, such as films like 12 Years a Slave, Dancer in the Dark, and Schindler's List that we might not consider "fun," but that viewers watch to gain a sense of empathy or a better sense of our complex world. So her answer to that question is not that she's worried that it's too risky, but that the concern should be that people are too afraid to tackle those important subjects in games.
Hugo Giard, director of level design, says that working with such a sensitive subject makes it easier for the team to focus on a common goal of making a good game, since there is a deeper sense of responsibility in play.
Since Freedom Cry was DLC for an existing game, the essential game mechanics were already established. The team made a minor tweak that they say changed the way players empathized with Adéwalé and his mission to free slaves. As Kenway, players could infiltrate plantations and loot warehouses. When he was detected by the AI he would be attacked. As Adéwalé, things took a slightly different tone. The AI would turn both on the player as well as the slave NPCs, the idea being that the plantation owners thought there was an uprising in progress and it was necessary to use deadly force on the slaves. Murray says this change made people care that someone else was being published for their actions, and it reinforced the importance of playing stealthy. Murray says before the DLC she would barge into these scenarios like a She-Hulk, whirlwinding through enemies. Seeing the results of her actions made her feel guilty.
Murray said that research is another critically important aspect of their work. In speaking with people from Haiti and other places represented in the game, she says it was heartbreaking to learn that many never thought that they would see people who looked like them in a game, hear creole spoken, or see places that they're familiar with. She says that the games industry isn't yet the most diverse one out there, but until it's better able to build diversity into the workplace, the next best thing is to look around your cities and communities and put friends and their families into games.
The team wanted to convey that there was no happy ending here. No single person could end slavery, and the DLC was designed to show the futility of trying. Ubisoft didn't want to create an artificial triumph for Adéwalé, so they settled on taking ultimate control from players in the final moments, so they could feel the powerlessness that he was enduring.
Overall, Murray says that strong trumps positive when it comes to games. If you're able to provide moments that are strong and have meaning, they can potentially have more of an impact on players than cheery outcomes.
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