History often seems lightyears away, doesn't it? Even game franchises like Civilization-where you zip from ancient Rome to space flight in the span of hours-put a layer of abstraction over the experience that make it feel distant. The Assassin's Creed games use history exceedingly well, but none of them have felt as personal as Assassin's Creed III: Liberation does. As a black man and parent of a bi-racial daughter, this game hits home for me. But what really surprised me is how this portable Assassin's Creed game comments on racial dynamics in a specific moment in time. You can feel history moving through the game.
Liberation proves that game design inspiration can be found in the ugliest moments of history. But American history doesn't just inspire the mechanics and rules of Liberation's gameplay. The game's story and characters feel more alive thanks to a smart infusion of tropes drawn from the history of black people in the United States. I'm going to point out few examples, some of which contain spoilers. If you want a fresh experience with Liberation's plot, stop reading now.
Liberation's main character is a subversion of the tragic mulatto trope, which uses the circumstance of mixed heritage to fuel melodrama and social commentary. Aveline's character arc is much more empowered than the ones in the books and movies where the tragic mulatto concept was created but Liberation's story nevertheless owes a lot to the idea.
Aveline's father talks to the heroine about not being able to marry her mom. Her father once owned and later freed Aveline's mother, but they couldn't be married. Similarly, Aveline's sidekick Gerald can't woo her even though he cares for her. His love stays mostly unrequited. While the laws of the day would probably make any nuptials illegal, the player is also left to wonder if the social impropriety is also what's stopping Gerald.
Along with the conceit of biracial people as tragic, exotic or favored entities, ACL also invokes the idea that slaves could return to Africa. Throughout the centuries, the suggestion that black people could reverse the Middle Passage and repatriate to their ancestral continent has been thrown out as both an exclusionary insult and a hoped-for dream. One character Aveline rescues has no use for her offers of assistance and rebukes them by saying, essentially, he's just going to go back home. He's not African-American, just African.
A variant of the back-to-Africa trope recognizes that those descended from the diaspora couldn't just up and re-integrate back into West African cultures and holds out instead for a new homeland that they could call their own. Part of Liberation happens in just such a place and it's a utopia for some. The freedom to live as they please is enough to wash away the pain of how these laborers got to the place they work.
One of the game's biggest surprises is that there's even a character who could be construed as an Uncle Tom.
Pages from the diary of Aveline's mother Jeanne are some of the collectibles that players can chase down in Liberation. The very first page of those writings talks about how Jeanne must hide her incipient literacy, as slaves weren't allowed to learn to read or write. The more pages you find, the more maturity and humanity you can hear in Jeanne's writing voice. This little slice of subplot creates a disproportionately large sense of heartbreak.
And if all of the above wasn't enough, at one point in Liberation, you kill an overseer and then use his whip to kill the other guards. It's slave revenge fantasy of the highest order, right up there with the kind of stuff being promised in Quentin Tarantino's upcoming Django Unchained.
When other Assassin's Creed games recreate time-lost versions of cities like Renaissance-era Venice and resurrect iconic personages like Ben Franklin, they use the locales as playgrounds and the people as quest-givers. Liberation does those things but goes deeper to really feel like an examination of the times as they might have felt. All the glitches in the world don't diminish that.