Enslaved: Odyssey to the West’s Thematic Failure

*Spoilers for Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, Heavenly Sword, Bioshock and Braid*

Ninja Theory is a studio I really want to like. I really do. They hold a philosophy towards creating games, AAA games at that, I would love to see more of. They create a work and let it stand for itself. There is no extra tie in, no comic book spin offs, and more notably, no sequels. Before modern Hollywood took over (thanks in part to Star Wars and Jaws) nothing needed a sequel. A work stood or failed on its own merits and not as a part of a whole. Because of this a movie was sold more on the talent associated with it or an interesting premise rather than a title that ultimately doesn’t mean anything by itself.

Ninja Theory has taken great risks in creating original IPs and then moving on once they were done with the work. Heavenly Sword didn’t receive a sequel and really there was no opening for one. Nariko dies at the end and forever is to relive the few days where she commanded the titular weapon. The same goes for Enslaved. The journey is over and while the world may still exist, it might as well be a new IP because with what was set up there is nothing you can really do with it.

Ninja Theory is a studio takes one step forward and two steps back with regards to their games. Heavenly Sword was a game that faltered on hit detection and reasonable fodder enemies, but was otherwise filled with interesting ideas, good boss battles and an interesting story that managed to connect different elements into a compelling and more important, a reasonable narrative. Enslaved fixed the hit detection, but simplified the combat and removed the varied, interesting set pieces with tired ones that don’t seem necessary. Heavenly Sword used a second player character to introduce variety into the game. Enslaved has you stick with one character and tried to introduce variety by arbitrarily allowing a new style of play in certain sections. Heavenly Sword was trying to let the player be the main character in a wushu movie. In the game, all the over the top action, colorful boss battles and deified final battle contributed to this goal. Enslaved, however, is an adaptation of a philosophical text on not the nature of subjugation, though it would appear to be that on the surface to a western audience, but is a story about learning self-control and personal responsibility. Tripitaka, the monk in the original story, isn’t the one who places Monkey in bondage and removes that can of worms from the equation right from the start. The gods did that to teach Monkey a lesson, quite literally. The lesson would come organically from the journey. This isn’t so much an adaptation as it is taking the character names and the first half of the inside flap summery and working from there.

[Edit- Upon editing and double checking the post I found Xuanzang was the name of the monk, Tripitaka is translated word for the cannon of Buddhist scriptures. Later the Chinese form of the word came to be used as an honorary title given to monks who had mastered these scriptures. It has since been erroneously translated as the monk's name, perpetuated by the 1979 TV series that aired in the UK that the developers were more than aware of.]

I liked Heavenly Sword. I did not like Enslaved. I really wanted to, if nothing more than see the potential Heavenly Sword showed Ninja Theory capable of fulfilled and wanting them to reach those creative heights. Most of my dislike for the new game comes from how utterly stupid it becomes. The story’s arc has no real connection to the character arcs. The characters and characterization were the best things about the game. The combat was lazy, the platforming could have not been there and I doubt anyone would have noticed, etc. etc.

The biggest misstep, however, was the ending. Sparky Clarkson, in his post about it, noted the problems that I couldn’t point to at the time, I knew there were  problems, but I couldn’t voice the nature of it. He articulates it perfectly so I won’t dwell on his points, but I want to tie them in to the structural problems they are stemmed from.

The title is “Enslaved” and the game in no way deal with the theme of enslavement. This is a white, middle class person’s, who has never had to deal with the reality of servitude as something as other than working in an office, vision of slavery. Monkey acts like a wage slave rather than the canary in the coal mine he actual is. This is barely servitude, forget enslavement. The demo, which was the first chapter, presented an interesting introduction into the post apocalyptic world of barbarism and slavers. It forged interesting possibilities in my mind of where it could go and what it could say about the subject. It doesn’t run away from the themes it promised, instead it hurls them towards the window in an attempt to make them a nice set of curtains and end up tossing them through it. The whole enslavement thing is nothing more than clever window dressing to give a narrative explanation for the usual escort mission trope of mission failure should your ward die. Why? Because it doesn’t build to anything or use it in any other way.

The world is devoid of anyone other than Trip and Monkey so the entire game has to rest on their shoulders. Even when Pigsy shows up the spotlight is still firmly centered our two “heroes.” The thing is, the direction the developers chose to take them in is not what their premise, nor their title promised. Every work has at the beginning what is called the “implicit promise.” This is where the work sets itself up, introduces the reader to the work’s elements and creates the foundation to which it will build on, specifically referring to the themes and tone of the work. You don’t set up a dark gritty noir drama in the first few pages and then halfway through turn it into a song and dance musical. I can almost hear someone saying, but what about story twists? Something that changes your entire understanding of the work? This is actually where most twists fall into trouble. (I’m really starting to hate that most of these essays are turning into lectures of basic story, plot and narrative structure and terminology.) When a twist betrays everything you knew about a work, then it is a bad twist and shouldn’t have been in there in the first place. It’s when a creator wants the surprise and shock value that they try to do this, thinking it will be cool. It isn’t cool; it’s just stupid. You want to know a good twist that doesn’t betray a work’s implicit promise. Look no further than Bioshock and Braid. Bioshock has one of the biggest twists in gaming where you find out you were being controlled all along, but the very beginning of the game gives you a lecture about self-autonomy. A lecture given by the very man you are forced to kill. Not only does that not betray the implicit promise, it enhances it. Braid has a major twist where you are not the hero, but the villain. You are not the savior, but a stalker. This is the biggest type of twist you can have in a work, but all the writing is centered on setting up a relationship that on reflection looks unhealthy and rather disturbing. The game mechanics are far more analytical and intellectual than they are emotional, which contrasts nicely with emotional nature of the relationship described, so it is shocking, but not a betrayal that the relationship is fake, broken or unhealthy. It makes perfect sense.

Now we come to Enslaved’s twist. The more I think about it the more I think the title refers to those in the VR suits and not the servitude Monkey is forced under. Once again this is a more technical way of arguing what Sparky Clarkson argued in his own post. The end result of the analysis is the same however: it’s plain stupid. The game isn’t stupid in its logical progression of events (i.e. plot); instead it’s stupid because that’s not what we were promised.

I finished the game about a month ago and the more I think on it the more I realized there was more to it than story problems. The bigger thing that irked me was how utterly bad the mechanics were in relation to the whole. They were light and weak in their own right, but entered a whole other dimension of bad when regarded in relation to the whole. The combat, for the most part, was very one note and rather repetitive. That itself is not an issue, but then the game became more focused on the combat that it had any right to. The combat had next to nothing to do with the themes other than basic survival. As something among many different things to do it was fine and it supported the barbaric and uncivilized nature of Monkey, but in focusing on it he becomes less slave than a warrior. It also highlights Trip’s weakness even further. She doesn’t take charge in the fight by ordering him around. It is the other way around. In the combat he is far more deterministic of his destiny than the title ‘slave’ should ever grant him.

What the game is saying is ‘a powerful, forward thinking, crafty individual is best enslaved, because such an individual would never think of escaping slavery.’ Read that sentence again, this time out loud. How does it sound? It sounds stupid, right? And it isn’t because of my poor writing skills. That is what Ninja Theory is saying with their game. The thematic message they are conveying for about two thirds of the game is that convoluted mess. Even Call of Duty, as stupid as the story of those games are, at least are consistent. We’re the good guys, they’re the evil dudes, shoot the evil dudes. The details don’t matter at this level, because the core at least is consistent. It’s hard not to be with such a simple sentiment. Then you have the overly convoluted stories that are bad, see Bayonetta. While that game fall apart in all the minute details of its overly complicated plot (forget story or narrative, the plot alone trips me up), the game can be respected at least in its adherence to its themes despite the convoluted details, because while as a whole they make little sense each individual detail supports the satire in its over the top insanity of action and sexual politics. Enslaved is neither simple nor consistent.

On the matter of Ninja Theory’s other game, Heavenly Sword, a game had a lot of combat where the only real gripe I had was poor hit detection in range stance. Here we have a game almost entirely based around these mechanics supporting the themes of revenge, war and genocide. You can see the easy connection between the game mechanics and the play style promoted by them and implicit promise in the game’s set up. The beginning drops you in the middle of a charging army before setting up a frame narrative to explain how we got to that point. It is perfect set up for a story about violence and revenge. The heavy emphasis on combat mechanics makes sense. In Enslaved they make sense less so, especially because the concept is about survival and they introduce the stealth elements. But even those are poorly handled. You can only sneak past at certain points; it’s not easy to do and often not worth the effort to even try. Especially when you get experience orbs for fighting and you need them for the upgrades in the later mandatory fights.

Plus as much as I like him, Pigsy’s presence in the story makes less and less sense the more I think about him, as he is the only other living human to show up in the story. There are robot antagonists, but they play more like marionettes or security bots. They are a threat, but there is nothing threatening about them. Even the Dog seems more like it’s playing with a new toy that doesn’t know its limits than a truly malevolent creature. Either there is a lack of personalities to fill in the void that the game’s conflict needs or just one too many people that it shifts the focus away from the conflict between the two protagonists. Either would have made a more compelling story than what we got. The fact I was most entertained when Pigsy was on the scene to act as comedic relief and felt the game lacking everywhere else shows that the middle road they chose only worked at the expense of every other character and narrative element.

Another theme that the game abandons is the dichotomy and conflict between barbarism and civilization that is standard in frontier literature. What is the apocalypse but another frontier? With Monkey as the obvious allegory to the untamed wild of man’s nature and an expression of pure freedom, if his name, physic or attitude weren’t enough, a third of the way through we get an Easy Rider homage. Trip is the intelligent one, the civilized one and the enlightened one of the two. We know this because she lives in a village and knows how computers work. (That was sarcasm. Slavery is neither civilized nor enlightened.) It all disappears as soon as you are introduced to the ‘order Trip about’ mechanic, because there is no conflict left between the two.

A related side note on the apparent uncouth versus civilized nature of the two is their accents. Both are native to New York with Monkey’s originating from the Brooklyn and Trip sounding more like the Upper West Side. It helps the player subconsciously feel this dichotomy because of the accents’ tonalities, but if you live in the area it seems like rather potent jab at the two boroughs.

I’m rather disappointed in Enslaved for all of this. They had a perfect opportunity to explore well-worn themes we’ve seen in a post apocalyptic setting (and westerns for that matter) in a new, vibrant setting in contrast to the usual brown, gray wasteland. Instead of the gritty by the skin of your teeth survival of the Fallout mythos, there is a genuine opportunity to rebuild a civilization in the same manner the original ones came about. It transplants the type of conflict that existed, at least in fiction, from the mythical prehistoric era to a new setting, at least in terms of the existence of modern/slightly futuristic technology and our monuments of a bygone civilization that will have a greater effect on the audience. Again another missed opportunity.

A quick note on the platforming, my biggest gripe with it was not with the inability to fail at it, but far more with it being rather sticky. There was no flow to the movement, even where it seemed like there should have been and/or there was a particular urgency to it.

I feel like I have to bring up Christopher G. Williams piece over at PopMatters having just read it. He brings up a valid and much more positive interpretation of Enslaved than I have. He compares its acquiescence to authority in terms of how other games have commented on it and sees it as a commentary on co-operation, the end result of what control really means and if “enslaved” is really as negative as the term made us think it is. He points out that both characters submit to one another in a shared goal of survival. He does a pretty good reading off many of the textual elements to come up with an interesting theory of mutual submission as a reflection of the gamer/game relationship.

I don’t wish to hate on Mr. Williams, but I cannot abide by this reading. Yes all the supporting evidence is there for his arguments, but much of what I have described above inhibits such themes from coming across. The supporting evidence is there, but such evidence ignores the stumbling of the game along those same lines. Much of which is detailed, again, in Sparky Clarkson’s piece.

In writing this I feel that I have less unique things to say in regards to the game other than to textualize two differing arguments with regards to the structural failings of the game’s story with itself and in relation to the game’s mechanics. I’d call it ludonarrative dissonance, but really it isn’t. There isn’t any dissonance. That would mean that there was some sort of connection between the two elements in game at all, when really it seems the story they wished to tell is at odds with every element of the game and the mechanics act more as a way to move things forward. They are practically independent to anything else in the game. I think single player games can tell a story best through a synthesis of all the elements at their disposal, but Enslaved doesn’t seem to know what it wants to do with each individual element. Its cutscenes are a human drama with a dash of romance thrown in, the mechanics are a survivalist drama, the themes are a master and slave and the setting is a frontier mythos. Pigsy’s presence and home add a completely different and unrelated comedy dimension to the game.

In conclusion, Enslaved is the game that finally made me think about abandoning single player games and their strictly authored narratives. I saw the light of Simon Ferrari, Richard Terrell and other ludologists. Enslaved you are a thorn in the side of what I’ve been advocating for two plus years now. Congratulations Ninja Theory for forcing me to the other side.

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