For its short life, this blog has focused on how the experienced play of a game does more to create a meaningful player narrative than a fictional narrative used to frame otherwise meaningless play. Papers Please succeeds only because the experience of playing the game accurately reflects the experience of the player’s avatar in game. The Stanley Parable made the paradox of player choice and agency its sole mechanic to better serve its thematic exploration of player choice and agency. Dark Souls leads players on a Joseph Campbell style hero’s journey, but it’s the gruelling gameplay that players must overcome that powers its feeling of heroic accomplishment.
These are all examples of games where the Ludological elements (gameplay mechanics) and narrative elements are in sync. That makes sense. But what about when these two elements conflict?
Ubisoft’s Assassins Creed: Freedom Cry is set in the 18th century Caribbean, full of pirates and slave plantations. The game involves the player freeing slaves. The narrative explanation for what happens to them afterward is that they go to live in settlements with other escaped slaves; however, the player is rewarded in mechanical terms for freeing slaves. Slaves to be freed can be found only in a set amount in predetermined locations. This mirrors any number of other optional collectables left for players to gather around the game-world. In gameplay terms, these slaves are just another collectable trinket, a commodity that nets rewards when diligently collected.
In terms of narrative, players are liberating people from being commodities, but in terms of gameplay, they’re just participating in a meta-commodity economy. So what do we make of that?