Ubisoft’s Jill Murray thinks that games shouldn’t limit themselves by trying to tell stories that are overtly fun for the player.
Speaking during a panel at GDC 2014, Murray noted that films like Schindler’s List and 12 Years a Slave don’t rely on the concept of fun to deliver a worthwhile experience to viewers and explained that the team behind Assassin’s Creed IV‘s Freedom Cry DLC wanted to take a similar approach when exploring the story of black Assassin Adéwalé in the slavery-riddled world of 18th century Haiti.
“Freedom Cry relies on the fact that players will play for other reasons and that games can bring us something extra,” Murray said. “For example, they’ll play for a sense of empathy or justice. They’ll play because strong emotions can be more motivating, even, than positive emotions. They’ll play because sometimes the most complex relationships between people and their world can actually be explored more effectively through gameplay than a more traditional narrative element like a cinematic or a piece of gameplay dialogue.”
Murray noted that players were struck by one subtle change to the game’s mechanics in particular. In the main game, when Edward is spotted while attempting a raid on a plantation, the guards attack him. In Freedom Cry, the guards will instead attack the helpless slaves, which had a profound effect on how players responded to these segments.
“They really cared that someone else other than themselves was being punished for actions, particularly a character that they had been sent to help out,” she said. “And what it meant was that the next time players approached a plantation, they tended to choose a stealth approach, which was amazing. We’re always trying to find a way to encourage players to play in a stealth way. In this case, players were motivated by this emotional drive to change their behavior, not because we asked them to. That’s true of much of the game. We never tell them that no single person ever fixed slavery alone, but the force of trying so hard so many times to help so many people and never being able to get to all of them got that across in a way that speaking it would have.”
Murray also discussed the difficulty in writing about characters who were so different from herself, and mentioned that research for the project required more than just factual research, since one of the primary goals is developing an empathetic, fleshed out view of these people without reducing them to victims.
“Obviously, we can’t go back in time, but we can talk to Haitian Canadians and Haitian Americans today. And when we do, they tell us things like they don’t ever expect to see themselves as the protagonist of a videogame, that they don’t expect to see Haiti as a setting, that they certainly never in a million years expect to see Creole coming back at them out of an Assassin’s Creed game. It’s heartbreaking to hear that expectation. What we really did was just set out to try and make a game that would make people feel seen, which gives us direction. We’re not going to pursue a simplistic revenge fantasy or a morality tale. We’re really going to focus on what does they people want to be seen, what do they see in themselves, what would they like us to communicate of their spirit, of their community, of their history.”
Assassin’s Creed: Freedom Cry is currently available both as DLC for Assassin’s Creed IV and as a standalone downloadable game. For more info, you can read Ray’s review.