Ubisoft's Hugo Giard and Jill Murray opened the GDC 2014 Narrative Summit with a frank talk about how games can -- and should -- tackle complicated topics like slavery.
Giard and Murray have worked on a few Assassin's Creed games between them, most notably Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag and its standalone expansion pack, Freedom Cry. To hear them tell it, working on Freedom Cry -- Giard as mission director, Murray as director of narrative design -- helped them better understand what drives people to play games.
Giard explained that changing the player’s perspective from pirate to freedom fighter fundamentally shifts the narrative motivation for Assassin's Creed IV players the game is no longer about taking, but giving. According to Murray, Freedom Cry gambles on the belief that players will play for something besides 'fun' — that strong emotions can be just as powerful, if not more powerful, than positive ones.
"Much the way that something like 'fun' would be irrelevant to a movie like 12 Years A Slave, Freedom Cry relies on the fact that players will play for other reasons, and that games can bring us something extra," said Murray. "Players will play for empathy, or justice; they'll play because strong emotions can be more motivating than positive emotions. And they'll play because sometimes the most complex relationships between people and their worlds can be more effectively explored through gameplay than a more traditional narrative vehicle."
Risky businessMurray said there was one question she had received over and over since the release of Liberation: did you ever worry that the theme of slavery was too risky?
Murray claims she did worry, though not necessarily about the risk involved — she was more worried about the notion that games might shy away from exploring meaningful subjects like slavery.
"I'd be a lot more worried if we were not making games about important topics, because that's simply the kind of work that I'd like to do with my time, and with my life," said Murray.
She also pointed out that a controversial theme can inspire developers to work together and do their best work, because the risks are so clear. It can also open up new and potentially meaningful reasons for playing -- Giard pointed out that the Freedom Cry team found new ways to reward players thanks to the shift in narrative context between Black Flag and Freedom Cry — as Edward Kenway, Black Flag players run the risk of being killed while plundering plantations; Freedom Cry players have different reasons for raiding plantations as Adewale, and run different risks.
"If the plantation guards spot [Adewale], they'll turn on the slaves," said Giard. "A misstep for him means slaves are being punished for the player's actions," and that potentially risky decision to tie gameplay mechanics -- stealth systems -- to narrative events -- executing slaves -- motivated players in a way that Black Flag did not.
How to tackle risky topics in your own workThe first step of making a narratively risky game, according to Giard and Murray, is to be bold.
“Don’t panic,” said Giard. “If we didn’t make games about other people, we’d have no diversity in our industry — players would get bored.”
Murray suggests that game creators do thorough historical and sociological research before tackling a difficult subject. When working on Freedom Cry, for example, Murray claims the team was lucky enough to have a historian on staff who took the time to research, among other sources, the Code Noir -- the royal decree which governed slavery in 17th century France -- and the classified ads published by French colonial slave owners seeking to recapture escaped slaves.
Giard acknowledged that interpersonal research is critical when crafting a potentially controversial game. He claimed that Ubisoft Quebec spent time gauging the prevailing attitude of its fans via community websites, while Murray reminded attendees to get out and talk to people about their game — especially the people who might empathize with the subjects being explored.
“It’s a natural human instinct to want to see yourself, and your history, in stories,” said Murray. “We currently don’t have the most diverse industry, so it’s easy to see why we have the same kinds of protagonists in games,
“We should look around our cities, our communities, and put those people — our friends, our families — into our games,” said Murray.
Giard pointed out that it’s important to narrowly focus on what your game is about — for Freedom Cry, the focus was slavery, and predominantly slavery. Other related subjects — social, economic, and legal complexities of the era — had to be put aside.
Finally, Murray, reminded attendees that difficult topics can and should inspire strong emotions, rather than just positive ones. She and Giard played a brief clip of Adewale killing a pair of Haitian plantation guards, a historically accurate sequence that deeply upset many players.
“Playtesters didn’t like being sent to engage in combat against black people in a game about fighting slavery,” said Murray. “It would have been easy to make all the slave owners white, but that would have been to deny the truth of the era.”
“Using strong emotions, rather than positive ones, gives us a tool to subvert player expectations,” said Giard. “It allows us to surprise them.”
“A difficult topic can be a way of asking a player to deal with a different kind of challenge,” echoed Murray. “It’s an opportunity to provide the player with new and unexpected experiences.”
“This connection between narrative and play gives us an added dimension, one that people working in other mediums don’t have access to,” said Murray. “The soul of our game is in the hard stuff.”
“Games are up to anything. As long as you respect your research, you respect your players and you respect your team….it can turn out great.”