Friday, 15 October 2010

Enslaved... review?

As an affictionado of Cosmopolitan's "What kind of girlfriend are you?" quizzes, I was thrilled to discover this female character stereotype flowchart, as tweeted by Tomb Raider walkthrough guru Stella yesterday.

Naturally, I tried it for myself before I checked to see whether any video game women made the grade. Turns out I am a Cat Lady.

I reckon Lara Croft is a "Strong" Female Character as opposed to a Strong Female Character. The difference (I think) is that a Strong Female Character is a complex individual whereas a "Strong" Female Character tends to exhibit all the superficial markers of someone with a strong personality without much to back it up. Her default mode will be sassy/pouty/ass-kicking, and she won't have any obvious flaws or shortcomings beyond her complete disinterest in sexual advances of any kind.

In fact, I was unsurprised to discover that most of the female video game characters I could think of turned out to be "Strong" Female Characters. This didn't trouble me too much because a male equivalent of the chart would probably result in most male video game characters you might think of would turn out to be "Strong" Male Characters. That's just the way the video game cookie crumbles, because games should be, first and foremost, games, and given the choice between a well-developed character and excellent gameplay, most designers (and players) would probably choose the latter because otherwise you may as well just watch a film.

That said, it's always really nice to find a game which really does try hard to create interesting characters alongside good gameplay, and they're definitely the games that I end up writing about. This week, it's the turn of Enslaved, Ninja Theory's technicolour opus which recently showed me the best weekend I've had since... erm, well never mind about that.

Enslaved, everyone!

Enslaved is an example of one of my favourite types of game, the much-maligned action-adventure platformer. Plot-heavy and linear, these games can attract unwarranted ire for not allowing the player any choice as to what they accomplish in-game and how they go about doing so. It's a fair criticism, because (I'll say it again), a game is a game, and the whole point of a game is the combination of interactivity and control that a player has over the action.

But the gaming industry is nothing if not innnovative, and so it's no surprise that some recent games have been exploring cinematic techniques in order to tell stories.

Enslaved (based on the Chinese novel Journey to the West) tells the story of Monkey, a hulking yet graceful misanthrope whose only concern is survival. His life become irreversably entwined with that of Trip, a cute dreadlocked technophile who is so concerned with her own survival that she hijacks Monkey's brain.

Yes, the premise of the game rests upon Trip's use of a slave headband to "enslave" Monkey. Knocked unconscious after the slave ship he was trying to escape from crashes, Monkey awakes to find himself wired into a (rather snazzy-looking) metal headband. When he tries to attack Trip in anger, he finds he is unable to. She has not only wired the band to respond to her voice commands, but she's also made sure that if her heart stops beating for any reason, the headband will terminate Monkey immediately.

"If you die," she says to him, "I die."

I won't tell you what happens, and I'm not going to review the game (although, if you're interested, it got extremely good reviews). I am going to talk about the relationship between the two central characters and how successful the game is at telling their story. Don't worry, there aren't any spoilers (nothing that you wouldn't read in any mainstream review).

The premise is extremely interesting. There are plenty of recent games whose central mechanic hinges around necessary co-operation with another character. Prince of Persia is the obvious one, Ico is a prime example and Beyond Good and Evil relies heavily upon it. In these games the practical level of control you have over the second character sits somewhere on the scale between absolutely none at all and a tiny little bit. Enslaved gives Monkey about the same level of control over Trip as Jade has over either Pey'j or Double H.

Specifically, Monkey can tell Trip to set off a decoy to attract the attention of enemies or stun them whilt he attacks from behind, just as Jade can instruct one or other of her companions to launch enemies into the air. In turn, he can also tell her to make a run for it has he distracts enemies. Sometimes she needs him to throw her up onto high ledges which she cannot reach herself. It's a solid mechanic, but nothing we haven't seen before.

What's interesting about the relationship in Enslaved is the fact that Monkey's adherence to Trip is not borne out of mutual convenience or compassion. Monkey's initial instinct is to leave Trip to fend for herself, and he would have done this were it not for the fact that she has shackled him to her.

Trip's decision is more than just morally dubious, it's completely exploitative. By enslaving Monkey, she's condemning him to the same fate from which they both narrowly escaped aboard the crashing slave ship. Her end is simply her own survival, and she's willing to compromise someone else's in order to ensure it.

The interesting thing about Enslaved as opposed to many other "companion" games is that Monkey has no use for Trip himself. Were it not for the fact that he has to protect her, he could have gone off by himself, found his way back to his bike and continued his life of roaming or trading that he presumably survived on before being picked up by slavers.

Being a fairly practical sort, Monkey quickly realises that the quickest way to win his freedom is to assist Trip in her journey back to her home villiage, and he grumbles about this less and less as the journey progresses. Trip's a fairly capable companion, and far more likely to make pro-active decisions than sit around helplessly. (This also makes her less annoying for players who grow weary of companions' frequent deaths in similar games)

As the game wears on, Monkey becomes less resentful of his enslavement, mostly due to his growing respect and affection for Trip, which is reciprocated.

I support it helps that they're both pretty attractive (what do you mean you don't like men with make-up and peculiar scars?).

An interview with Alex Garland (who wrote the script) in last month's Edge saw him make reference to the fact that gaming's meteoric technological rise in recent years has far outstripped its level of narrative sophistication. He mentions a point during the early stages of Enslaved's development where one of the designers suggested that Monkey kick a fellow slave off a precipice to show the player that Monkey is a "badass". "But that's not really good storytelling," points out Garland. "That doesn't make Monkey a badass, that makes him a c***".

The gaming world could do with a few more Alex Garlands.

As the journey continues throughout exciting mech battles and breathtaking scenery, Monkey's headband begins to affect him in different ways. He experiences bizarre hallucinations (interestingly rendered from films and photographs rather than computer-generated graphics), all of which suggest that the slaver headband which Trip appropriated is part of something much, much larger.

Aside from the incredible colours, something which sets Enslaved's apocalypse apart from those we've seen recently in Fallout 3 and Gears of War is the fact that its cause is never an issue. The characters don't care, and the technicolour America the inhabit is all they have ever known. What's important to Trip and Monkey is not how the world got to be the way it is, but how they navigate it now that they are there.

It's a really interesting approach, one that is shared (in a rather more monochrome form) with Cormac McCarthy's wonderful novel The Road. Although (unlike Enslaved) the novel visits a time before the impending apocalypse and the characters remember life before it, what went wrong in the past is not the point, even though it defines what follows. All that matters is the journey forward.

As for the gameplay, the jumping and climbing aren't especially challenging, but they are fun. The sheer beauty of the environments you navigate and the cinematic way in which climbing sequences are staged make it them a pleasure, even if they do lack some of the exhileration which comes with Prince of Persia's peril.

The fighting is also satisfying, although perhaps more so when you have to figure out a strategic way of approaching enemies, thus utilising Monkey and Trip's various skills. Boss levels are just difficult enough to be exciting, rather than frustrating, and there's enough variety in them so that they do not become monotonous.

It's perhaps true that the game's story, characterisation and level design are far more impressive than the gameplay, which despite being above average doesn't quite scale the innovative heights of the narrative.

And because of this, my only slight regret is the game's ending (no spoilers, don't worry).

It takes place in an environment quite unlike any that Monkey and Trip have come across before. Although plot-wise, it's not really a Deus Ex Machina, the fact that so much of Enslaved's identity comes from its environments means that having an entirely different one in the final moments becomes quite jarring. I would have liked one more level exploring this new environment as a crecendo to the final cut scene (which otherwise gave me a good sense of closure).

But, like I said, it's the journey. I've had a wonderful weekend with Monkey and Trip, and if they herald a more adventurous age in video game storytelling, I'm happy.

And I'm not just saying that's because I'm in the credits.

 Have a good weekend everyone, and good luck if you decide to take Monkey and Trip west!


  1. I'm not normally an action/adventure game player but from what I've seen of this game so far it looks like it might well be my first purchase of a game in this genre for quite some time.

    The story sounds quite interesting, particularly with the somewhat unusual role of a female rather than the male being the one posing the question of whether she is morally likeable or not, I'm assuming that playing the game sheds a bit more light on this and allows the characters to develop a lot more.

  2. Thanks Sean, that's nice to hear!

    I think it's really interesting that although Trip is quite a likeable character, her behaviour is extremely dubious. Conversely, Monkey is rather less appealing at first, but his pragmatic acceptance of the situation and the way he reacts to it takes his character off in a different direction.

    And yes, I too was encouraged by having a morally ambiguous female character. I think having her behave in an overtly selfish manner from the start (whatever her motives) is far more interesting than the James Bond approach whereby the good girl goes bad (and dies) and the bad girl goes good (and survives) by the end of the film.

  3. I just re-read my last comment and it made it look as though I was taking credit for Enslaved being a good game.

    Actually, that was a complete misuse of the word "thanks" on my part.

    What I mean is, good to hear that you're considering playing the kind of game you wouldn't usually play.

    I remember first deciding to play Call Of Duty 4 even though I don't really play a) straight FPSs or b) realistic war games.

    Although the experience did not convert me to either straight FPSs or realistic war games, both COD4 and its sequel were wonderful experiences and I'm thoroughly glad I toddled out of my comfort zone for them.

  4. Don't worry, I was fairly sure you weren't having delusions of grandeur!

    I always find it interesting to games that don't just focus on black and white scenarios and have more morally dubious characters or situations. Modern Warfare 2 with the airport scene or the torture that is very strongly hinted at if not actually seen is a decent example, Halo Reach also has a cutscene just before the last level that hints at it as well.

    Presumably part of the appeal is that for an action to be seen as morally dubious it probably means that there has been some character development and storyline in the game rather than a sequence of black and white levels. It's more difficult to get this in FPS games because the character is less important than in adventure games but with a sufficiently good storyline it if possible.