Can Downloads Help Gaming Find Creative Freedom?
Published Feb 24, 2014My name is Adéwalé and I'm in the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, machete drawn. Having helplessly encountered a slave auction soon after getting shipwrecked here in Saint-Domingue — the future Haiti and current biggest, most brutal slave colony in the Caribbean — I'm now liberating plantations and supporting the Maroon rebellion.
But I get spotted, and rather than going after me, the Overseers start slaughtering slaves to prevent them from being saved. What fresh digital hell is this?
Freedom Cry, set in 1735, 15 years after Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag and 60 before the actual Haitian uprising, is an ambitious piece of DLC, or downloadable content, starring ACIV's slave-turned-pirate-turned-revolutionary.
Playing as a black man during slavery is not only a unique gaming experience — albeit one Ubisoft Montreal test-drove in the recently HD-updated PS Vita game Assassin's Creed: Liberation, with a biracial lead who could pass as white or black depending on her outfit — but being treated with suspicion because of your skin colour is a clever gameplay mechanic that may actually make players more empathetic in the real world.
The five-hour game can be tough because, even in a videogame, watching humans being bought, sold, trapped and killed like animals is hard to take and there's only so much you can do to stop it no matter how many slave ships you seize, cages you unlock and rebels you recruit. Needless to say, this would've been a tough-sell as a full-scale, big-budget game, which is what makes it so perfect as DLC.
One of the past gaming generation's most controversial evolutions has been the arrival of content that can be bought after one had already bought the game. Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion made it clear at the outset that it could be either callous cash-grab or creative add-on when it released both the reviled horse armour pack and the beloved Shivering Isles expansion. The former charged for virtual horse clothes while the latter offered 30 hours of new gameplay set in an entirely new continent.
Fast forward to 2014, and while there's still plenty of dodgy DLC that probably should have been included in already pricey games, recently developers have made real advancements in using the hard work that went into building the source game to craft all-new narratives.
Bioshock Infinite's two-part DLC Burial at Sea, for instance, takes that game's alternate-reality conceit exactly where fans were hoping it would go — back to the original game's underwater city, Rapture.
Starring Infinite protagonist Booker DeWitt (or at least a version of him) and damsel-in-distress-turned-femme fatale Elizabeth, it's set in a paradisiacal Rapture prior to its descent into an Objectivist dystopia. The mashing up of the two games is undeniably thrilling, especially the initial foreshowing-filled exploration and inclusion of depraved "artist" Sander Cohen.
Though it disappointingly ditches the film noir set-up and doesn't allow nearly enough time to just wander Rapture before the fall, in the upcoming second episode we'll control Elizabeth and the game will reportedly trade its much-maligned murder-everyone mechanic for a subtler, survival horror approach.
Borderlands 2 and Dishonored similarly used DLC in innovative ways, with the former's Tiny Tina's Assault on Dragon Keep transforming the game into Dungeons & Dragons spoof called "Bunkers and Badasses," while the latter's Knife of Dunwall gave antagonist-turned-protagonist Daud his own self-contained story in the same steampunk-inspired setting.
Yes, DLC micro-transactions or additional chapters, like Dead Space 3's epilogue Awakening, can feel like content that should've been included all along rather than downloaded at additional cost. But when used respectfully, DLC can allow gaming to get more daring.
With money already invested in the source code, game engine and assets, these smaller self-contained spinoffs with no distribution or manufacturing costs allow developers to experiment in ways they simply can't in the main games that have to play safe because there are so many millions riding on them.
DLC also encourages people to hold onto their games without preventing anyone from reselling to the secondary market. But Ubisoft also proved that DLC could work as standalone with Far Cry: Blood Dragon, which took the tech of Far Cry 3 and transformed it into a neon-soaked, '80s action movie spoof that didn't require the original game's disc but couldn't have existed without piggybacking off it.
Once seen as an example of pure corporate greed, by splitting the difference between the production values of triple-A games and the wild innovation of the indie scene, DLC could wind up giving gaming its creative freedom back.