Backstory blues
The bedtime game



Every once in a while a game comes along that deepens your appreciation for skillful craftsmanship in design. Expressive and nuanced character animations. A fluid camera that rarely calls attention to itself. Dynamic lighting that feels naturally suited to every environment. Responsive controls that make the player feel one with his avatar. 

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is just such a game. Playing Enslaved has renewed my admiration for the extraordinary craftsmanship...of Uncharted 2.

Perhaps I should treat Enslaved more charitably. A game should be evaluated on it's own merits, and Enslaved is a big ambitious game with virtues to consider. Its voice acting (directed by Andy Serkis) is mostly high-caliber work; its post-apocalyptic environments adroitly side-step the over-familiar 'wasteland' look; and its last ten minutes deliver a narrative coda unmatched by any recent game I've played. If only those ten minutes had been worth the wait.

It's impossible to evaluate Enslaved as a stand-alone game because every element of its construction derives from antecedents. Its narrative structure, cinematic style, motion-captured character performances, gameplay mechanics, and environmental puzzles all draw from previous games (the Uncharted and Prince of Persia series most notably). Sadly Enslaved never manages to equal any of its inspirations.

Journey Speaking of antecedents, the game's story is loosely based on the 16th-century epic Journey to the West, one of the great works of Chinese literature. Again, it's easy to discern the influence of this source material on Enslaved, but none of the novel's thematic audaciousness or philosophical underpinnings find their way into the game.

I suppose we might credit developer Ninja Theory for being such a choosy borrower. I only wish these inspirations felt, well, more inspired. Sadly, they mostly come off as inferior knock-offs.

The differences first appear on a technical level. Enslaved's Unreal Engine 3 visuals simply cannot match those generated by Naughty Dog's proprietary engine for Uncharted and, especially, Uncharted 2. I rarely perform such comparisons, but after playing Enslaved for a few hours, I decided to load up Uncharted 2 and take a look. The technical gap between the two games was surprisingly wide.

In particular, U2's lighting and dynamic real-time shadowing are markedly superior, especially in canopied areas and locations with mottled light. U2's water effects, fabric details, and facial/body animations all stood out too. Enslaved's textures are muddier than U2's, and its camera is jumpy and less responsive.

Canned animation queues are a reality in video games (for now), but Enslaved exposes them far more nakedly than U2. For example, watching Monkey open a heavy door for Trip - an animation repeated ad nauseum in Enslaved - is a purely cut-and-paste event. The game appears to rely on a single animation sequence for nearly every repeated action.

So, why do these technical and, arguably, cosmetic differences matter?

When we're doing Enslaved and the story and the character and everything we're not looking at other games, we're looking at movies and achieving that level of cinematic performance.(Ninja Theory co-founder Tameem Antoniades)[1]

I'm perfectly happy to play cinematic games, and I agree with Sparky Clarkson's assertion that such games are no less viable storytelling vehicles than non-linear sandbox, or emergent-narrative games. But if a developer aspires to "that level of cinematic performance," it must take its medicine when we hold it accountable for falling short of that avowed ideal. 

Of course, no game has completely succeeded in this regard, but it's possible to look at a game like Uncharted 2 and appreciate the many important ways it does succeed. A while back, I wrote about how Uncharted: Drake's Fortune makes a virtue of its reliance on film genre conventions. I won't reiterate that argument here, but suffice it to say Enslaved feels less inspired by style or genre than adrift in a sea of precursors. 

Pigsy Enslaved's problems aren't merely technical. It stumbles with poor pacing and struggles to logically marry its storytelling and gameplay elements. The wheels come off when Monkey and Trip reach Pigsy's place and spend the next two chapters climbing everything in creation to track down spare parts. 

Pigsy's off-color quips and inexplicably sudden infatuation with Trip can't conceal the fact that the game and its story have lost their way. By the final chapters, Trip has devolved into an order-barking IT manager; Monkey is, yeah, basically a monkey who climbs, kills mechs, and mostly does what he's told; and Pigsy just keeps bringing the bluster.

Follow a gripping, surprise-filled journey as two dissimilar characters form an uneasy partnership in order to survive through a perilous, post-apocalyptic America.[2]

Enslaved's perilous travelogue story with "dissimilar characters" make further U2 comparisons inevitable, and here again Enslaved suffers. U2's wit, sure-footed pacing, and actor chemistry make Enslaved's feel forced and calculated by comparison. 

More significantly, U2's characters - especially its women - separate it from the gender stereotyped pablum of Enslaved. I might have happily ridden out the storm with Enslaved, overlooking its tedious fetch-quests, content-filler puzzles, and repetitive combat (heck, Uncharted 2 fell down there too); but ugh, those characters.

Trip2 Enslaved gives us a distressed damsel in a tube-top, a hulking silent-type hero who lets his elephant-sized biceps do the talking, and a repugnant, misogynist pig (literally a swine-like man named "Pigsy") who delivers the comic relief.  Of course, Enslaved's storytellers don't want to paint by numbers, so they toss in a few cursory twists. Trip is a smart techie who's handy with gadgets. Monkey has a soft side. And Pigsy ultimately plays the role of martyr.

But these bits of 'fleshing out' do little to diminish the fact that Enslaved wears its standard-issue male power fantasies on its sleeve. Lest there be any doubt, roughly halfway through the game - long before a believable love relationship has formed between Hero and Heroine - Monkey rolls up on his bad-ass Mad Max motorcycle and motions for Trip to hop on. 

She eagerly obliges, and the camera cuts to her face as she wraps her arms around Monkey, leans her head lovingly against his shirtless back, and closes her eyes with a smile. The big strong hero whisks the helpless princess away on his trusty steed. Their destination? Trip's daddy whom, she's certain, will know what to do.

In the end, I did share one empathetic sentiment with Enslaved's post-apocalypse survivors: there must be some kind of way out of here.