I told myself I wouldn’t let this unfinished game make me cry. But it did, because it made me put a crying baby on cold, wet ground and run away from it. All in the name of freedom.
The game in the video is called Thralled. It’s still in very early stages of development—I played a developer-sent build on my iPad—but nevertheless manages to create a chilling playable experience that communicates something about just how horrible slavery was. While the sound design is promising, the game's interface is clunky and the collision detection needs work. Still, within two minutes of playing it, my chest got tight and my head started to throb. I knew I was being emotionally manipulated and hated myself for not being able to resist.
The mechanics in Thralled are dead simple. You run forward, manipulate obstacles in the environment and jump over gaps towards a life that main character Isaura can steer on her own. But to do any of that, the player needs to place her squalling infant on the ground so her hands can be free to perform certain actions. The minute you put Isaura’s baby down, a darker ghostly version of the main character starts closing in on the child. You have to stop whatever you’re doing and run back to the baby or lose it forever.
It’s hard to imagine what it might have felt like for someone held in bondage to muster up enough courage to run away from slavery. As cruel as forced labor in the transatlantic slave trade was, there was familiar routine in its drudgery, complete with shelter, food and companionship. When runaway slaves launched out into the night, they were rushing headlong into the unknown. And that must’ve been extremely terrifying. Rough as it is, Thralled made me feel the tiniest portion of that terror.
But its historical allusions aren’t the reason Thralled made weepy. Playing the first few levels made me think about my daughter and how far I’d go to give her a better life. Would I put her in danger if the end result were an ultimately more fulfilling existence? But what if something happened? There’s no way I’d be able to live with myself. I don’t know what the silhouetted Isaura doppelganger represents in Thralled but it might stand in for the fear, guilt, shame or conflicted feelings that came with making a flight to freedom.
Thralled began life as a student project at the University of Southern California’s Interactive Media & Games Division and the folks making it still need help to make their vision of reality. If you want to support their efforts, you can go to the game’s site. Me, I won’t be able to stop hearing that dreadful thudding in my ears. I need to see how Thralled ends, if only to exorcise the demons it’s called up.