How the upcoming Thralled could help us better understand the atrocity of slavery

I first heard about Thralled, a game exploring slavery in 18th-century Brazil, while trying to grapple with the country’s brutal past myself. There’s an unavoidable discomfort in simultaneously being the daughter of a European plantation owner as well as a Brazilian-born social activist. My father (a Swiss emigrant) operates our coffee farm under the same principles that lead me to become an activist. But that in no way exempts me from the role I play in a class system that bears unsettling resemblance to the colonialism that originated it.

In an attempt to understand these origins, I started writing autobiographical historical fiction. I weaved elements of my childhood spent on our family’s coffee plantation with the ethos of Afro-Brazilian heritage. I quickly realized that the narrative required things of me that just weren’t mine to give. It unraveled into something so dismally fragmented that, in the end, my piece was almost unreadable.

So when I saw the first teaser trailer for Thralled, it was with a mixture of gratitude, relief, and heaviness. Thralled’s story centers around Isaura, a mother uprooted from her home in the Kongo and held captive on a sugarcane plantation in Brazil. After escaping, she undergoes a surreal journey as a runaway, tormented by the pain of her past. The few moments of gameplay I saw carried with it a quiet sort of intimacy: Isaura soothing her sobbing baby as rain fell over the untamable beauty of a Brazilian rainforest.

What compelled me most was just how much Thralled managed to say through the simple act of silence. “We don’t have any dialogue because I don’t feel like I could give this person a voice,” Miguel Oliveira, the creator of Thralled, told me. “I couldn’t put words in this person’s mouth.” This wordlessness results in an immersion that somehow avoids slipping into invasiveness. Through a single omission, Thralled addressed what hundreds of textbooks, novels, and my own writerly attempts could not. How do you respectfully give voice to those whom history has kept categorically and purposefully silent? You don’t.

But fleshing out a character who suffered through something as inconceivable as slavery was still a struggle Oliveira could speak to. His approach centered around environments. By researching the Kongo extensively, he formed Isaura’s character out of the common customs, practices and beliefs of her people at that time. “History is the story of people,” he reminded me, expanding on his method. “People who went through things that we could have gone through.” There were, Oliveira insisted, fundamental aspects of human life shared across all countries, races, and time periods. So family became the core of Thralled’s narrative. “She’s a mother, you know. She has a son. That’s a relationship I’ve been through and most people have been through. Connecting that relationship with the research along with some limited knowledge of suffering—I tried to piece everything together into this experience that I’ve never had.”

An absence of family is how many historians account for the unparalleled brutality of Brazil’s colonization. Unlike other explorers, most of the Portuguese settlers left their wives and families at home. The lack of social restraint, coupled with a bloodthirsty pressure for monetary compensation, resulted in a sadism that even the Spaniards found excessive. But Oliveira is wary of including such violence in Thralled. “I can’t understand it,” he admitted to me, “I was never whipped a hundred times. I can’t show that because I can’t understand it. So the way we’re trying to portray that horror is by relating it to love, and taking the object of your love away.”

It sought to foster a more common, emotional language for discussing one of human history’s most inhumane events. 

Replacing violence with love may seem counterintuitive at first, but Miguel wants to understand a different side of captivity. “Love and empathy is what makes us human,” he said. “Specifically [we wanted to explore] how that love relationship is affected by the extreme conditions of slavery.” In order to progress through Thralled’s world, players are required to place their baby outside the safety of a mother’s arms. Whenever this happens, an omnipresent and foreboding shadow enters from the other side of the screen, threatening your only source of comfort. At first, endearing playtesters to the baby wasn’t easy. But Miguel said they were getting closer. Simple actions like “having the baby yawning and burping and reaching his little hand for his mother’s face” were some addition that are already helping. As Miguel explained, it became clear that Thralled’s focus on love instead of violence wasn’t a retreat from the savagery of enslavement. Rather, it sought to foster a more common, emotional language for discussing one of human history’s most inhumane events. “My utmost motivation was to talk about the topic in a way that is intimate and caring.”

As a Portuguese native, Oliveira grew up baffled by his country’s unwillingness to discuss their involvement in that monstrous history—the country. Portugal is responsible for by far the largest contribution to colonial slavery. Brazil alone accounts for thirty-five percent of the Africans who survived the transatlantic journey—a number which excludes all the more minor colonies. “It’s unfathomable to me that all we talked about in history class was how great we were,” Miguel said, agitated. “I have a love-hate relationship with my country.” Because to Miguel, modern concepts of racism persist from an othering that slavery necessitated. “And if

Thralled inspires one person to look beyond that, then I’m happy.”

“I feel responsible to tell this story because I’m a person.” 

When I asked Miguel whether a sense of ancestral guilt motivated or weighed on him at all, he said no. “I’m not developing Thralled as a Portuguese man,” he corrected politely, speaking to a context much larger than any one individual culture. “I feel responsible to tell this story because I’m a person, and every person should know and should retell this story, and keep retelling it until we learn.”

Trying to comprehend the insurmountable effects of an atrocity like colonial slavery might seem like an impossible task. But I’m starting to think maybe it should feel that way. In the midst of all his research, steeped in humanity’s deepest capacities for evil, Miguel often found it difficult to stay hopeful. But an awareness of that evil only made him more steadfast in his beliefs.  “I read the news every day and this stuff still happens,” he said, sounding defeated. “I just hope people will see that there’s a potential for us to be better—to learn from our mistakes.”

You can keep up to date with Thralled’s progress by subscribing to the mailing list on their website. Demoed at GDC this past week, the interactive experience is scheduled for exclusive release on the OUYA in fall of 2014.