I have a new piece up on Play the Past concerning Valiant Hearts, a narrative-driven puzzle game about World War I. I’ve been exploring the use of historical settings and events in video games over the last few years and this piece continues that trend. I look at how Valiant Hearts focuses on the human cost of war and the individual experience. You can find it here.
In order to make better use of my blog, I’m going to write some smaller posts that cover something I’ve noticed in many modern games. Through several fantasy, science fiction, and post-apocalyptic settings, slavery is featured as part of the in-game society. Games like FTL: Faster Than Light, Fallout 3, and the Mass Effect series all direct the player to interact with slaves and slave traders. The Assassin’s Creed series, including Assassin’s Creed 3, Assassin’s Creed: Liberation, and the upcoming Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, address slavery as part of their respective historical settings. Within these games, the developers have established economies less constrained by morality or law, allowing for individuals to profit from slavery without retribution.
In FTL: Faster Than Light, the player can randomly encounter slavers as they attempt to fulfill their mission for the Federation. When they meet a slaver: they are given three options: (1) Buy one slave and free them to join your crew, (2) Attack the slavery scum, or (3) Ignore the slaver and continue on your way.
In describing the slave trader as scum and placing “laborers” in quotations, the developers make it clear that your crew believes slavery to be immoral and that you can deal with the slavers accordingly.
If you select the first option, a new crew member appears on your ship after presumably being manumitted. If you choose the third possibility, the encounter ends and you move on to the next waypoint. Attacking the slaver allows you to enter into open combat and eventually triggers more decisions. If you continue to attack and eventually destroy the ship, FTL informs you: “The slave ship is destroyed. They won’t continue their evil trade, but many lives were probably lost on that ship.” By drawing attention to the innocent slaves who lost their lives, FTL suggests that saving the slaves is more important than ending the slave trade itself.
On repeated playthroughs, this pushes the player to attack the slave trader but select the alternative option. The slavers surrender and state, “Take one of our slaves as tribute; if you destroy us they’ll all die anyway!” If you accept the offer, a slave comes on board your ship and you can travel to your next waypoint.
While you’ve preserved the lives of innocent slaves, this option raises several moral questions. First, are the slavers simply allowed to continue trading throughout the galaxy? By accepting the offer, you’ve allowed the slave trade to continue in exchange for the life of a single slave. Second, what is the legal status of the slave you’ve taken on board? According to the dialogue presented to the player, the slave given as tribute is never freed. Instead, they simply appear on your ship where you can use them in any role you choose. In addition, the slave cannot leave your ship for the rest of the game. Rather than freeing a slave and dealing a blow to the slave trade, you’ve accepted human (or alien) chattel as a bribe.
Your relationship with the slave traders is further complicated by a fourth and final option. If you have installed a teleporter on your ship (something I don’t often do), you can send a rescue party to free the slaves. In most of these instances, you are able to free one or all of the slaves and bring one of them aboard your ship. In this context, the game implies that you’ve freed all of the slaves and additional crew member joined your party of their own volition.
Eventually, your boarding party, with or without the freed slave, will have to fight the slavers in hand to hand combat. If you kill the entire crew, your party may find the slaves in the ship’s cargo hold. According to the dialogue presented to you, “They look at you questioningly and one asks if they’re to be released. You could use more crew but you don’t want to force them all to work for you instead…” Face to face with a cargo hold of slaves, your crew is incapable of passing up the opportunity to bring a slave on board their ship. While they feel that claiming all of the slaves would be immoral, they justify owning one slave for the good of the mission.
In a decision tree that uncomfortably mirrors historical slave auctions, you then choose between these three species based on innate characteristics that grant them unique abilities in combat and support roles. If the player is familiar with each species, they will likely choose the one whose labor will best improve the ship’s operation. The three slaves also come to terms with their continued enslavement in different ways. One “seems fine with the orders,” the second “remains silent and you worry there might be trouble,” and the third believes their enslavement to be “acceptable” as long as the primary objective is galactic peace. The remaining slaves are freed on a nearby space station, but the one you’ve chosen remains a slave in your service. Presumably, the three agreed to accept a lifetime of slavery if it meant the freedom for their compatriots.
While the game never addresses it explicitly, FTL presents a universe in which slavery is simultaneously morally reprehensible and strategically significant. When you first encounter the slave trader, your crew views the slavers, and by extension the slave trade, as scum. As the exchange progresses, however, your crew grows increasingly comfortable with the idea of using slaves to complete their mission. By either accepting a slave as tribute or keeping a slave as payment for rescue, FTL’s crew abandons their previous ethical objections and uses slave labor on their ship. This is especially tragic in a game where death and defeat is almost always your final outcome. Unable to leave your ship, the slaves that you could have freed are instead doomed to die in bondage.
Editor’s Note: Since a revised and expanded version of this post will be appearing on another site in a couple of weeks, I thought it best to take the original down. When it goes up, I will update this post to direct you to the new version.