Monday, July 11, 2011

Into the West?

A few months ago I was casting about for suggestions on what game I should try next, and several folks suggested Enslaved: Odyssey to the West.  It showed up for just over $15 on Amazon not long afterward so I grabbed it.  We decided it was an "us" game (one that my husband and I play together -- we regularly have an us game running, as well as each having our own) and last weekend we finished playing it.

The rest is behind the jump, for plot spoilers and strong, lengthy opinions from Your Critic.

The game and I got off to a rough start right from the opening chapter, where early on I found my jaw set with displeasure.  We were playing a large, simian, raging maniac escaping from a slaver airship.  Other than his character design, everything about it felt generic: been there, done that.  We were chasing a frightened-looking curvaceous late-teenage girl, who in all honesty seemed to have every reason on Earth to run away from a maniac like us.  

Monkey, the maniac in question, stomping that mech but good.

I kept feeling annoyed with the seemingly derivative nature of everything on the slave ship.  I was tuning out and starting to wonder if I could check Twitter while my husband did the actual game controlling.  The ship was on fire, ho hum.  There's a platforming tutorial between here and the escape pods, yawn.  And then, during the dramatic crash, we plowed straight into the Statue of Liberty.  Wait, what?

Me: "I wasn't expecting a post-apocalyptic Manhattan here."  Husband: "Oh, they just pop up everywhere."

Finding our characters in the ruined future of the United States provided some creative fodder and immediately improved my outlook in the game.  Suddenly, I was genuinely looking forward to finding out what happened next.  The ruins of midtown were a lush, verdant jungle, as much the opposite of Fallout 3's Capital Wasteland as a post-apocalyptic America can be.  I was eager to learn more about this world, to find out what had happened here and who the current era's players were.  I wanted to know about the societies, governments, and systems that had collapsed and arisen.  I waited eagerly to see how the mysteries of this world would unfold.

And ten play-hours later, long after finishing the game, I'm still waiting.

Enslaved is not a disaster, as far as game building goes.  The dialogue recording is crisp, the music (when timed properly; it's not always) is engaging and dramatic, and the combat, though repetitive, is good old-fashioned robot-punching fun.  The landscapes and art design are remarkable, and the dev team deserves all the praise in the world for not leaving us with another sepia-toned civilization.  This game world lures you in with candy colors and makes you want to explore every inch of it.

As in the original myth, our characters' first goal is to head west -- into a village that, although geographically more-or-less in Pennsylvania, evokes nothing so strongly as Tibet, India, or Nepal.  During your pilgrimage through this abandoned urban wasteland, the signs of civilization you do find are bursting with color: rust is a vivid orange tone, old paint retains its cherry-red luster, and these ruins are framed beautifully against a perfect blue sky and teeming green ruins.

The Appalachians' own little Tibet?

Unfortunately, the game is not designed for you to explore.  Most narrative games are on rails to a greater or lesser extent, but (to torture a metaphor) in Enslaved you don't even get to wander around the train.  In terms of design, the flow of playable areas and of the story is probably equally linear to a game like Uncharted, but the way the characters and their story are written make the game feel more confined than similar titles do.

From a tactical perspective: I appreciate camera guidance through platforming missions as much as the next player, but this is a little over the top.  Beyond simple visual tracking or slight light effects, this game pretty much makes your entire path glow bright white.  There's no feeling of accomplishment or cleverness to be gained by figuring out a path, no sense of a challenge well met by achieving your ends.  Everything you need to do is explicitly handed to you, and you just push the "jump" button every so often.  Enslaved is deliberately written in the "there's a single path here, so I'll follow it" school of design, and that doesn't just apply to the physical level design -- it applies to the writing, too.

Monkey is presented as a short-term thinker: he's a man without a background, without a history, and with no plan for the future.  And unfortunately, the game does a superb job of putting the player exactly into his position.  We don't know why we were captured, where we're running to, or what was happening before the airship crash in the first chapter.  We don't know what Monkey wants, and the only motivation he has for any action in the first 7-8 chapters of the game is "because Trip said so."  The game, in Trip's voice, explicitly signals every immediate goal: open this door, kill those mechs, climb that pipe.  The oh-so-helpful voice of Trip even cues the necessary tactics for a handful of boss fights.

Beyond the immediacy of survival, Monkey's goals and desires are minimal at best.  He has exactly one short-term goal: help Tripitaka in whatever she wants to do, because she literally holds the power of life and death over him.  And excepting the exact moment of their parting (for a long period of time, envisioned by Monkey as his snapping her neck), there is no "after Trip" ever stated or implied.

Monkey's hollowness can't even serve as a cipher character to the player, because the world remains obtuse.  It's art for art's sake, without a coherent underlying philosophy, history, or structure.  I kept getting the feeling that the developers wanted the game to look great and feel badass, but that they didn't connect the dots quite right to make that happen. It even has the dramatic chase scene where the player is forced to run directly into the camera, because those scenes have cinematic fidelity -- but at the expense of gameplay capability.  Like the scenery for a play, this world cannot stand on its own.

Up to and including the end of the story, the lingering impression is that this game simply could not decide what story it wanted to tell; it's a world without a thesis statement.  The game knows that the world exists, but is disinclined to make the how, why, or whom meaningful to the narrative.  We're handed a mystery that we're apparently not meant to want to solve.  There is no coherent world-view present, either positive or negative.  The best games bring their settings into the folds of their narratives (think Rapture); this game gives you, "wow, Manhattan looks lovely destroyed" but fails to provide a meaning.

Until the epilogue, we know basically the following:
  • This is in the future of "our" world
  • There was some kind of war somewhere (how big, where, when, why, and who: unknown)
  • There don't seem to be people anywhere, but...
  • ...there are mechs everywhere (manufactured by persons unknown; placed where they are for reasons unknown)...
  • ...who will kill Trip and Monkey if given the chance (for reasons unknown)
  • Before the start of the game, Trip lived with some people in a Himalayan community within 300 miles of New York City
Good character creation requires something that invests the player in the story.  There are a number of levels on which a writer can do this, myriad ways in which the audience can be manipulated into certain emotions.  Giving the protagonist a recognizable role in some kind of functional world is a good start.  But thanks to the incomplete world creation in Enslaved we're not given enough to align ourselves with Monkey, and Trip -- aside from not being the player character -- is kind of a terrible person.

"Monkey" is taken literally here, and for roughly 80% of the story he is made bestial and stripped of humanity and agency.  Tripitaka is a person, if a selfish one.  The later-introduced Pigsy (the only other real character in the game) is a person, if a repulsive one.  But Monkey comes complete with knuckle-dragging posture and a silken tail.  Absent a character arc or a motivation, he hulks cartoonishly as nothing but a caricature or a trope: he will be our violent brute, so that the slender, young, attractive, and physically weak Trip can wield power over him.

The threat of his violent potential is always visually implied, due to their size discrepancy.

Though physically weak, Trip does indeed have her own kind of strength.  She can't fight mechs or climb ruined skyscrapers, but she has exceptional tech and hacking skills and is clearly begins as the brains of the operation, intuitively understanding problems and their solutions, then telling Monkey how to put those plans in action.

In the earlier levels, I enjoyed the way that the player actually makes the characters act together, as a team.  Even though I'm not generally one who enjoys controlling a party, I liked the partnership aspect.  The two-pronged approach made Trip feel like an actual character, rather than simply an AI guide.  Alas, she is a hugely problematic character.  She's introduced as a tough, in-charge, no-nonsense badass.  The game strongly implies that she is (intentionally) the root cause of the airship disaster, and as she makes her way to the last escape pod, she deftly avoids all perils and pursuers, including Monkey.  This Tripitaka is a force of nature, a woman not to be taken lightly or trifled with.

But once she's captured a man to do her bidding, she makes a steep decline, and "totally in charge" becomes supplanted with "frightened and incapable damsel in distress."  As Monkey becomes gradually more successful, more reliable, more proactive, and more trustworthy, Trip becomes less prominent in gameplay and less capable in cut-scenes.  From her "I can do all these cool things, you just be my legs" original attitude, she sinks to a point where she's frightened of nearly everything and where her primary participation becomes as cargo.  Every time that narrative tension requires her to become half as intelligent or twice as vulnerable as she was in the introduction, she does.

I cut her slack for being upset with her home being destroyed - but not for being so stupid on the way there.

Naturally, since he's a big mammalian mook and since she's progressively girlified, Monkey and Trip find their feelings and attitudes toward each other changing.  But since I found him hollow and her horrible, I had some trouble buying into the change of tone in their relationship.  That, of course, and it's totally dysfunctional in a major way.  By the time Pigsy arises in the story as an explicit sexual threat to Trip, Monkey's intervening simultaneously as a father figure and as a potential rival.

Ultimately, I still could have been convinced that these two emotionally unhealthy survivors found genuine love and respect for each other while traveling a harsh road together -- but the game doesn't give that time to grow.  Chapter 4 ends with the hint of future romantic tension, and then in chapters 7 - 9, Monkey grows genuinely emotionally desperate that he's been separated from Trip.  This is not the raw, angry Monkey who she left behind on the slaver ship, nor is it the Monkey who fears for his own well-being while hers is in jeopardy.  It's a new Monkey, the product of meaningful character growth... almost all of which seems to have been elided or to have taken place in off-screen space.  The change is fast and under-developed, as if a montage of a week's transit time went missing in the final cut.

Of course, the budding Trip / Monkey relationship is immediately accelerated when Pigsy comes on scene.  I'll admit, I like Monkey a lot more when he's paired with Pigsy -- because clearly Monkey hates Pigsy, too, and it gives him space to be intelligent and sardonic.

I have no problem with Pigsy's weight or sweat. His tattoos and explicitly lascivious and chauvinist dialogue, on the other hand...

Trip's needed rescuing from a fair number of perilous situations by the time Pigsy enters the story, but here Monkey must take on an entirely new function: defender of Tripitaka's virtue.  The balance of power shifts as a partnership becomes a trio and suddenly Trip's femininity becomes an explicit weakness.  She's developed a brand new narrative liability that has nothing to do with her size or strength and everything to do with her gender and appearance.

Pigsy changes the entire story.  His taunting, his idle threats, his casual attempts to murder Monkey, and his incessant lusting after Trip create an entirely new set of problems.  He does serve as a foil to make Monkey a sympathetic and justifiable character in comparison, but that's about the only positive function of his addition to the story.  He's a foul old lech who's obsessed with Trip's sexual availability and who therefore increases her vulnerability.  Monkey, of course, will defend Trip as needed...  because of the tangled logic of the story, though, Monkey is now a slave required to perform the white-knight role in defense of his master's virginity.  I, personally, find that pretty distasteful.  So as a plot device I understand the Pigsy's presence and this change in dynamics, but that doesn't make the writers' choice to devise that particular plot any less icky.

In the end, of course, the "three's a crowd" issue resolves with a heroic sacrifice and Our Heroes complete the ultimate boss fight with much fire and fanfare.  (It is, to be fair, a pretty epic giant robot deathmatch, fantastic in scale and lengthy in duration.)  Monkey and Tripitaka finally reach their destination... in the epilogue.  The resolution to this story didn't even merit a chapter number or any playable content, but rather is a cut-scene glued on after the fight.

The big secret, the villain they've been after all this time?  It's Andy Serkis (who also voices Monkey!), and he's playing Mr. House while running the Matrix.  He thinks it's the nice thing to do.  No, really.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is where Your Critic mumbled her last "aaaaaaaargh" and buried her head in a throw pillow.  It was the last chance for redemption of the narrative -- the last chance for this world, these graphics, and this production quality to live up to its potential -- and the game fell flat on its incoherent, incurious face, as dead as the mech we'd conquered to get here.

I wish the game had either avoided raising questions or could have been bothered to answer some of the ones it left.  Sometimes stories are deliberately mysterious and ambiguous, but there's a difference between not knowing if the top falls over at the end of Inception, and not watching the last 5 minutes of the movie.  This game has missing reels, and it shows.


  1. I agree pretty much 100%. When I wrote about the game myself, I touched on a lot of the same points. 

    I did, however, kind of enjoy the ending - just not as an ending, if you know what I mean. I would have liked to have seen that revelation appear a bit earlier, or perhaps have something playable after it. I can't say it displayed a tremendous amount of logic (like you said, he thinks it's a nice thing to do? Okkkkkk) but it was, at the very least, something. After playing through the entire game without a real antagonist (something I complained about myself) when we finally got to meet the mysterious guy behind all the drama, I wanted to know a bit more. It's a shame we didn't get that chance, but in all honesty I was pretty sick of everyone and everything by that point, so maybe it's for the best.

    Anyway, this was a great read. Consider yourself bookmarked, as this is the first time I've stumbled upon these pages.


  2. Thanks. :)

    I know what you mean about the ending.  I would have liked it as, say, an Act II revelation.  So here's what's going on -- then what?  The way the game suddenly stops -- with tens of thousands of souls suddenly standing in the desert (with no food, water, electricity, transportation, useful shelter, plans, or destination) is so far beyond short-sighted as to be laughable.  It's where I gave up on feeling that perhaps Enslaved was deliberately lampshading and questioning its weaknesses, and became assured that no, really, it just can't handle long-term thinking.

  3. Can't say it isn't a fair assessment, it's a flawed game that I found myself liking in spite of itself, and to some degree, out of affection for the source material (I liked the bo staff, I loved the underused cloud), loosely interpreted as it is. Because of that familiarity, lecherous Pigsy actually never read as a threat, (also because of my personal gaze, but past portrayals influenced me in this case) because he's always doomed to fail. But the game was meant as an introduction to the story, so that it didn't fail for me is me bringing in my own baggage/rationalization. I have to wonder sketchy as it is, if some small scenes were just changed to read differently--if Trip weren't introduced to Monkey after the crash clutching her legs and had a properly wary but competent posture, for example, it couldn't have been vastly improved. I think it's a fair guess by their design that the game creators cared more/had more fun with Monkey and Pigsy than Trip.

    I think I said elsewhere that I read more (maybe decided to take more) from the body language of the characters, but also, I likened it to the genre of small sci-fi stories, where the world is interesting but not revealed, and the folks is more intimate so that the lesson isn't much more than you can't protect people from danger (It's been a while, but if anything, it wasn't much more than that) but more of the whys and wherefores wasn't revealed didn't bother me. It's supposed to be too distant to figure out. Alas, Enslaved's weak central couple, admittedly,
    snuffs everything else out. But Farenheit 451 is a pretty small story, too, with a barely sketched world and stiff people, and Dark City doesn't use but broad strokes for its reasons of why. Inception was a great ride, but you'd be hard pressed to convince me the women in it as written are characters at all, and that world can be unconvincing as well, if you take Nolan at his world. Beyond the visual palette, and the motion acting, Enslaved had small gestures at a different sort of game rhythm (like the butterfly sequence), that just add up to the little platformer that tried for me.