Enslaved: Odyssey to the West: Freedom in a Cage

[I’m about to utterly spoil Enslaved (particularly the ending). If you ever intend to play (and I encourage you to), DO NOT READ ON… ]

IMAGE: Enslaved (Ninja Theory)

‘Slaves lose everything in their chains, even the desire of escaping from them: they love their servitude’

– Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract

So…  ummm…  How come no one told me about Enslaved?

You know, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West?  Created by developers Ninja Theory and released two years ago for the Playstation and Xbox consoles?

I mean, sure, I had heard about it…  From the makers of Heavenly Sword (who have also just this month released their take on the reboot of the Devil May Cry series); staring, and partially directed by, the incomparable Andy Serkis; a retelling of the Chinese classic Journey to the West…  But no one told me it was sublime.  No one said it would fire my every gaming endorphin in a blaze of immersive bliss.  No one said it was a mystifyingly underappreciated gem in this age of redundant sequels and reiteration.

So how come?!  Why did no one bother to tell me I would fall in love with this game?!  Why was it kept from me?  Were you all just hiding Enslaved for yourselves?!  Secreting it away?!


…Ahem.  Excuse me.

What I meant to say was: I am something of a fan of this game.  It was the good.

In truth, I had known little about Enslaved before trying it out.  Continuing my now well-established tradition of being embarrassingly behind contemporary pop culture, I decided to pick up (on sale) a game that, since its release over two years ago, has seemingly fallen into relative obscurity (although to be fair, it seems to have made very little splash when it was released; is mystifyingly not heralded as an underperforming classic like Beyond Good and Evil or Psychonauts; and from what I can tell no sequels are in the works).  So when I payed for my copy, I was buying it on something of a whim.

Indeed, I only bothered giving the experience a chance for two reasons.  Firstly, because it was loosely based on the ancient Chinese text Journey to the West, and by extension the television series Monkey, a show that I admit I was slightly obsessed with in my youth (yes, I have faint recollections of playing with a toothpick behind my ear to pretend is was Monkey’s elongating bo staff, and doing the whistle he used to call his cloud*).  And secondly, because it stars the extraordinary Andy Serkis (Smegol from Lord of the Rings; Caesar from The Rise of the Planet of the Apes; and the giant ape-monkey-thing in King Kong …you know, whatever his name was) – and simply put: if you don’t like Andy Serkis, then you may have less humanity and soul than the  sequences of ones and zeros that he so effortlessly dance to life in his pioneering of live-action computer animated acting.

Beyond that I knew nothing.  Beyond it being just another game with a nonspecific but intriguing cover, and the pronouncement of its ‘Captivating story’ declaring itself on the game’s own list of attributes, I had no idea what to expect.  (…But, again, I knew that Andy Serkis could make the narrative coma that is Twilight suddenly compelling if he was given the chance.)

So despite my ignorance, and perhaps helpfully with my expectations lowered, I slid the disk in, loaded up the game, and played through the first levels, immediately finding myself overwhelmed by a kind of stupefied awe…

For those who have played the game no doubt you already know what I am about to say, but I was delighted to find Enslaved utterly enchanting.  And I mean that on every level.  It’s a game that throws everything at you.  The whole toy box.  Mêlée combat; ranged weapons; sneaking; Prince of Persia style acrobatic platforming; stirring cinematics; exploration; hover surfing; increasingly gargantuan boss battles.  It’s colourful without being garish; heartfelt without being saccharine; rousing without being witlessly bombastic; the game walks a delicate line of storytelling, gameplay and emotion, all, somehow, without ever tumbling into excess.

The aesthetic too is exquisite.  Set in the overly familiar videogame territory of a post-apocalyptic landscape, Enslaved eschews the predictable sepia wash of bombed out dust and ash, and instead shimmers with a backdrop of verdant green scissored with rusted scrap metal.  A dishevelled, abandoned New York is overrun with lush vegetation.  Broken streets and railway stations lay eviscerated, the natural world sighing in relief as the urban sprawl is reclaimed by grass lands and trees.  Your character clambers though shattered office buildings, cracked open, overgrown with vines, and spilled through with the warmth of the midday sun.

Legitimately: how is it that no one seems to talk about this game as a high watermark for videogames?  From its sumptuous art direction to its generous gameplay; from its absorbing story to its charming characters; from the tweaking and upgrading of skills to the genuinely heart wrenching performance of these actors.  This game is like a jewel, polished and deep and gleaming.  It has charmed me utterly, left me enraptured, ensnared – which, of course, is wholly fitting given the subject matter the game presents.

Because over and above all of its other achievements, the game’s most extraordinary magic trick is the way that it reinvigorates and legitimises one of the most tedious and infuriating of gaming conventions: the escort mission.

At the centre of Enslaved, melded into the mechanics of every aspect of the experience, is the obligation to care for a persistent NPC, and as anyone who has ever had to suffer at the hands of a wonky AI will attest, this is quite an ominous task.  Personally, I despise escort missions.  Give me some chump to shepherd about in Skyrim, or a car to shield in GTA, and it takes about thirty seconds before I am squirming with fury in my seat, desperate to abandon this burden in a misty wilderness with the sounds of comically exaggerated wolves howling from the fathomless reached of the night as I sprint away.

These kinds of obligations are tedious, frequently just a cheap means of prolonging game play as you watch the baggage you are meant to be protecting get sidetracked walking mindlessly into a wall as zombies overwhelm them, a ‘Mission Fail’ screen flashing up for the twelfth time in a row.

But again – and I cannot say this enough – I love this game; an experience built entirely around this premise of babysitting another figure.

Perhaps it’s because of how deeply the metaphor runs; how this deceptively linear game ingeniously uses this entrapment to speak to the nature of gaming itself…

One of the first actions depicted in the narrative moments after a dynamic escape from a slave ship that is plummeting from the sky is the manacling of the central character.**  Monkey, the loner protagonist, awakes to find that he has been shackled to Trip, a desperate girl who needs his help to cross a dangerous wasteland of violent mechs to return to her village; and that’s precisely what the game mechanics are doing to you the player.

Trip imprisons Monkey, just as the mechanics funnel the player.  You (through Monkey) are then compelled to follow her every command – to do her (and by extension the game’s) bidding in order to progress through a streamlined, straightforward path.  There is room for deviation in how you confront enemies, or clear a stage, but the journey is already programmed in, and you are bound to your obligation.  Move too far out of her general proximity (which coincidentally runs the span of each level’s playing area), and Monkey suffers seizures and eventually dies; fail to climb where she tells you to, or to fight through the creatures she tasks you with, and the game erupts in a searing warning that you have strayed too far.

The onscreen gaming hud is even incorporated into this fiction: the headband Monkey is wearing  taps into his vision and allows him to see his shield strength, enemy health, and marks points of interest with cursors.  You look, effectively, through Monkey’s eyes (although not in a first person perspective); you too are trapped.   Here are your tools, here is the pathway, and here is the assignment you are tasked with fulfilling.

And yet, just as Monkey will come to realise, it is a happy kind of enslavement.  You come to want those parameters.  You want to keep Trip safe.  She’s not merely some helpless tissue paper target.  She’s smart enough to hide from danger, to run, to get out of the line of fire.  She takes heed of Monkey’s orders; can offer a needed distraction; and if backed into a corner can protect herself, disabling enemies with a defensive pulse.  The relationship between Trip and Monkey grows fluid, symbiotic.  They dance together, each informing the other’s progress.  It is through Trip that Monkey upgrades his skills; through Monkey that she can be propelled to higher platforms; and only together that they can proceed through the lush detritus of this wasteland.

When Monkey, at the moment he is freed from his obligation, tells Trip to switch his collar back on, the scene crackles with a happy frisson.  Player and character are united in the same embrace of bound agency.  For me, this was another ‘Would you kindly…’ moment, only this time, the shackled player is committed to action by love, not pre-scripted mechanical obligation.  Unlike the original Bioshock, Enslaved is not making a statement about the minor gradation of choice in a deterministic framework, but rather the potential unity of duty and pleasure.  By pledging oneself to the goal, serving another willingly at the behest of the game’s structure, the narrative opens up to celebrate selflessness in a medium that can frequently reward individualistic indulgence.

And so, the journey continues to its revelatory endpoint, through cyberpunk revisions of Pigsy, the ‘spirits’ and ‘monsters’ that impede their progress, and the ‘West’ to which they travel, through nods to Monkey’s bo staff, cloud, and being ‘born’ from an egg, through Trip’s heartbreak at losing her home and history, to watching Monkey commit to a purpose greater than merely self-preservation…  Monkey and Trip finally reach the pyramid that has marked their journey’s end – they confront the source of all this slave technology, exposing the reason for all this horror – and the game climaxes in a sublime, ambiguous conclusion.  (Ambiguous in the best way: morally complex and ripe with potential; not weighed under with infuriating unanswered questions, and faux-philosophical pretention – I’m looking at you, Mass Effect…)

Monkey and Trip confront the leader of the slavers, and in an effort to understand his idiosyncratic motives, Monkey is invited to peer into a mask that will reveal the purpose of this self-perpetuating system of forced captivity.  Monkey slides the mask over his face, but what he sees, ironically, is us – we humanity, before the devastation of our world.  Monkey stares into a miasma of colour and light – a panoply of activity and sensation that we do not see (save perhaps in the snapshots of the real Andy Serkis that pepper the game as mask Easter Eggs), but that we are invited to intuit from the look of wonder in his expression.

In this moment he is – if you enjoyed the experience of the game as I did – effectively mirroring back at you your own delight playing the game.  In its concluding beats the text reveals its perspective on you, how it has watched you sitting enraptured in your seat, stirred by the journey you have just undertaken on this excursion through its multiplicity of scenic and game mechanic splendour.

And it is at this moment that Trip, after a game of being rescued by Monkey, returns the favour.  She makes her decision, exacts the vengeance that she sought, and in the ensuing destruction a system of oppression is ceased in a feeble, gasping collapse.  But her final line, the last piece of dialogue spoken in the game – ‘Did I do the right thing?’ – hangs in the air, a question mark with no simple resolution.

The ending proves itself to be genuinely bittersweet: hopeful yet ominous, filled with the trepidation of sated revenge, with Trip finally visiting vengeance upon the creature that decimated all she cared for, but weighed against the ambiguous future that awaits those now free to reclaim a broken, but rejuvenating world.

You played the game, you were enslaved.  You had a task that was Monkey; Monkey had a task that was Trip; and as your time with the controller in your hand abates – the player in control while being controlled by the game – the beauty of that imagery that dances across your eyes starts to fade, but reminds you of the role you played in their quest.  Monkey’s headband flickers out; the lights sputter to darkness; and you are left to ponder your own place in the mechanics of this journey – your own bond to these characters, and your joyful servitude to their purpose.

A wind howls past the pyramid that stands defiantly beneath a golden sunset – another symbol of imposed slavery – nonetheless majestic in spite of, or perhaps in service to, the constraint that brought it into being.

IMAGE: Enslaved (Ninja Theory)

* All of which will no doubt sound like gibberish to anyone not familiar with the program.

** This is apparently the demo of the game, if anyone is interested.

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