A Game That Showed Me My Own Black History

The newest chapter of the Assassin's Creed series gives me some of the things I've always wanted in a video game: a heroic fantasy that lets me control a warrior fighting against slavery. Part of it happens in Haiti, where my parents were born. Characters talk in Antillean Kreyol, the mosaic tongue made of French and West African words that I heard while growing up. But, mostly, it reminds me of going to church with my mother. It makes me happy and sad at the same time.

Whether it was a first communion, wedding or funeral, someone nestled in the crowd at these church functions would start singing the Haitian national anthem. For no reason other than a deep longing for the home they'd left behind. Freedom Cry calls up the same combination of mournfulness and pride that I'd hear in those moments of song. I'm seriously thinking about having my dad over to play it.

Warning: Spoilers follow for Assassin's Creed IV's Freedom Cry DLC

The add-on takes place 15 years after the events of ACIV's main campaign. Freedom Cry focuses on Adéwalé, the character who was the first mate on the Jackdaw, the ship captained by Edward Kenway. In the time after that followed ACIV's resolution, Ade has joined the Assassins order and commands a ship of his own The Victoire. That craft wrecks in the opening moments and Adéwalé finds himself on Saint-Domingue, the 18th Century colony that became the country we now call Haiti.

Once there, the Trinidadian-born Adéwalé falls in with a Maroon society, one of the small communities of escaped black people who fought the oppressive slave structures all over the Caribbean. After getting his own ship, he fights to liberate slaves on land and sea.

Freedom Cry's best successes come from finding story and gameplay in the historical moment where the game is set. That's true of most Assassin's Creed games but it's a trickier proposition here since this chapter happens during the era of slavery. The time when humans with one skin color traded humans with another skin color like animals or property is an ugly period in history that many people would rather forget or ignore, even when presented with the ways that slavery's legacy of prejudice, disenfranchisement and disempowerment lives on.

Despite the potential for uncomfortableness, you get the sense that the developers at Ubisoft's Quebec studio knew what they were doing from the very first moments in the game. The first shot zooms in across the deck of Adéwalé's ship, crewed by men who look like him, and stops at his stoic face above the captain's wheel. It's a tacit acknowledgement that this—a black character in the lead role—is a rare thing. And players who read the Animus Database entries in Freedom Cry might be learning, for the first time, about the unsupported morality of the Code Noir, which put forth a guideline for 'humane treatment' of slaves that was rarely followed.

For someone like me—who's wanted deeper, cooler and just plain more visions of black people in video games—the invented drama here is too delicious, mostly for how the metaphors and parallels to struggles against slavery abound: using the element of surprise, needing to flee a naval battle because Adéwalé's ship is outmanned and outgunned, getting slammed by rogue waves and waterspouts while trying to escape.

Go into the upgrade menu and you'll see descriptions like this one for a steel machete:

Steel-forged machete.

0/300 liberated slaves needed.

'Not just for cutting sugar cane, this fine weapon was honed for a different task.'

That task is what you spend your time on in Adéwalé's story . On a plantation I raided, a stack of sugar cane sat next to one of the familiar gold chests full of loot that players find in the Assassin's Creed games. The latter was a treasure Adéwalé could line his pockets with, the former sat there inaccessible. It was an accidental metaphor, probably, but no less powerful for being unscripted.

Speaking of scripting, I'm really glad the creatives on Freedom Cry stayed away from vodou. That's not because it's not a legitimate and valuable religious practice. It is. Indeed, vodun exemplifies the kind of syncretism—where elements of Roman Catholicism and West African faith practices got mashed together—that's come out of the Middle Passage. But I'm glad Ubi Quebec didn't go there because it's become a tired cliché to have some sort of voodoo/hoodoo mumbo jumbo in period-piece entertainments dealing with Haiti, New Orleans or slavery. And such usage often reinforces the institutionalized otherness of black people. "Look at that crazy mojo, they do," it says. "They ain't nothing like regular folks."

Freedom Cry puts you in an early pivotal moment in that aforementioned othering of black people. You'll pass auctions in Port-au-Prince where barkers talk about the slaves as merchandise. One of the game's final levels forces Adéwalé to escape a sinking slave ship that he's unable to save, surrounded by the screaming, burning bodies of people he's called brothers. You'll overhear street chatter where people talk about how it's illegal to teach slaves how to read or that they're animalistic in nature.

A Game That Showed Me My Own Black History

These attitudes evolved into legal and economic policies designed to make people of African descent less free. While I played, I kept asking myself if Freedom Cry cheapens the historical horrors of the Triangle Trade to use them in an entertainment like this. For me, it doesn't. The chattel slavery of millions of black people from the 16th to 19th Century is one of the most heinous things in human history. But that doesn't mean that it should be out-of-bounds as source material for pop culture creations.

Nevertheless, the repetition of all the chasing and killing drained some of the appeal from this slave revenge fantasy. And I can't shake the dissonance Freedom Cry carries with it. It's only going to be able to encapsulate but so much of what the real lived experiences of what black bodies went through in this time period. And modern, polite sensibilities are shot through the whole experience. Adéwalé is superhumanly noble and the people he liberates suffer with a similarly superhuman patience that stretches belief to its breaking point. And the lines that Adéwalé delivers to the people he's freed—"Trust yourself," "You deserve a choice"—do come across as trite, especially after you hear them dozens of times.

Flaws aside, Freedom Cry draws significant power from the place where it's set, like Assassin's Creed III: Liberation before it. It hits on some real feelings that swirl around in the Haitian diasporan soul. Maybe it's mostly my own experience talking here but I've always found there to be a mix of resilience and fatalism to the Haitian personality. The history of my ancestors is mythic but the reality of their descendants has been brutal.

That singing I mentioned atop this essay always felt a little haunted to me and as I grew up, it occurred to me, it was part of Haiti's history that hung in the air around me that never got talked about. My mom used a machete in the garden. She could've used a hoe or a hand shovel but a machete was what she grew up with. Later, when my siblings and I all left home and the suburban neighborhood started going to seed, I seem to remember her keeping one in her bedroom. And while she could've just knelt and prayed to her dead mother and left it at that, she also set out two cups of strong black coffee on a serving tray in the living room. Without ever explicitly talking about it, I knew these things—the machete as tool and protection, that particular form of ancestor veneration—were vestiges from when Haiti was a slave colony filled with African people. Call me cynical but I never thought that the history that spawned where those things I saw at home would ever matter enough to the people making video games in 2013.

Never in a million years did I ever think I'd hear Haitian Kreyol in a video game. And yet, there it was in Freedom Cry, as lilting and percussive as when my mom spoke it. For the few hours I steered Adéwalé through his saga, I didn't feel horribly under-represented or taken for granted in the medium I write about. It's a feeling I could use more of.