In Enslaved, Ninja Theory Saw the Future

In Enslaved, Ninja Theory Saw the Future

Some Bà Ngoại are experts in cooking. Some, child-rearing. Mine was Sun Wukong, specifically Liu Xiao Ling Tong’s rendition. For plenty of years in her total of 99, she would pop in a VHS of the Chinese fantasy Journey to the West whenever she was free, at times casually pointing out who’s who and what’s what ahead of time to whoever was watching it with her. Of course, she had all 41 episodes, or the complete two seasons. There were many nights I bunked in Bà Ngoại’s room instead of my own just to see whether the quartet of Wukong, Zhu Bajie, Sha Wujing, and monk Tang Seng could overcome a trial or a beast to finally obtain sacred sutras. 

You could say I conditioned myself to be interested in Ninja Theory’s 2010 title Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. The scene is 150 years past the apocalypse and there are lethal “mechs,” but there in the game’s spirit is Bà Ngoại’s favourite—the epic from Wu Cheng’en. Neither Tameem Antoniades or Alex Garland, who was more involved with the production than his co-writing credit could show, kept the game’s inspiration a mystery anyway; Enslaved follows a prisoner nicknamed Monkey (Andy Serkis) who is forcibly tasked by tech-savvy Tripitikas (Lindsey Shaw) to be her personal guardian as she makes her westward journey home. Monkey’s headache-inducing golden circlet is now a headache-inducing slave headband. The duo eventually recruit the portly-but-skillful mechanic Pigsy (Richard Ridings). Monkey’s main mech-smasher is also a retractable staff. A Cloud can be summoned to speedily cover distances. The sash around Monkey’s waist recalls the character’s shenmo-simian origins during platforming sections. In short: while the translation is loose, the fantastical and fantastically fun vision stays intact.

But not all of the fun in the concept was there in the button presses across Enslaved’s 14 chapters. I was confused at how Unreal Engine 3—the same spine behind Batman: Arkham Asylum, Mass Effect, and Mirror’s Edge—could invite so many awkward graphical pauses, twitches, and clippings. Monkey, despite the Dwayne Johnson-esque mass, was underweight and slippery in motion and in combat. The same developers of Heavenly Sword, and yet the fighting required minimal thought and much repetition. Nine hours went by, and exams were near so they were split into two days, and enough mechs were pummeled to make it to the west. To the Pyramid. To the fade to black. That was it. I put down the controller, smile unseen. Like Heavenly Sword, Enslaved became another loss for Ninja Theory. Considering the production values, it was a flashy loss. As Antoniades reflected in 2018, “To this day I’m not sure if the fantasy elements were a turn off, the gameplay mix or the lack of visibility. It was probably a mix of all three.”
I did not spread word of the game to friends. It was a mistake with the ability to haunt. 

It still does, to be honest, but thankfully without the unpleasantness akin to seeing why the Hundred-Eyed Demon Lord is so named for the first time. As I travel across and marvel at the acclaimed landscapes of the new United States in The Last of Us, Horizon: Zero Dawn, and Death Stranding years after, the one in Enslaved would flash into view, in the style of those within the staticky Mask collectibles as well. These apocalypses are different, and so they are all fresher gaming experiences. They challenged my understanding of building the world’s end, that desolation can be dreamy instead of dreadful, drenching in jazzy vegetation rather than (again) jaundiced radiation. There’s no escaping the strict linearity in many of Enslaved’s levels, but they, especially the new New York and the junkyard with the third megamech part, are places you could lose yourself in. The sun’s constantly up, birds sing their hearts out, there are waterfalls and flora aplenty, and abandoned structures notably become trellises. The world still feels alive despite having gone through a mech-driven annihilation. It’s a triumph of environmental design, though factoring in the power of today’s tech this claim might fall on deaf ears.

There is merit in the thought that game developers at the time were listening to Enslaved, however, particularly in its tackling of the now-essential notion of “being cinematic.” The game marked the first time I noticed developers going the distance to contextualize its mechanics, making a “game thing” less game-like in as organic a manner as possible. The displays of Monkey’s health, ammo, new items, and secondary commands are framed as interfaces of the slave headband, which Trip reprogrammed. The dragonfly revealing a level’s challenges doubles as a fashion accessory for Trip. A complex bridge puzzle has its own story about a guy named Mark to validate its inclusion and difficulty (“Because it takes human intelligence to figure out—but we think he just likes bridges,” Trip said). Ninja Theory had attempted to blur boundaries before; in Heavenly Sword, the main menu appears at the end of Nariko’s laments, effectively concluding a one-take sequence—but in Enslaved it was much more sophisticated.

With each subsequent Ninja Theory game, that sophistication would grow, with the current peak being Hellblade, where the protagonist’s journey unfolds exclusively in-world and with zero cuts. Antoniades credited the 28 Days Later writer for introducing him to this idea in Endgadget, one that he implied in the same interview to have caused in-house friction in the vein of, “So are we making a game or a movie?” Yet, as you can tell after seeing the caliber of recent top-sellers, it was ahead of the curve. Not without fumbles, and in the end it didn’t catch fire, but it was ahead.

Even on the most surface of levels, Enslaved had more to inspect than other story-driven cinematic games. An emphasis on non-verbal communication in the actors’ performances in a medium that is fundamentally hyper-dependent on visuals. Spaces where the music, usually ignored by the senses during play, could make itself known. That morally ambiguous conclusion. In a perfect world, the game’s “Did I do the right thing?” would be discussed with as much fervor as The Last of Us’ “I swear”—and Nitin Sawhney’s grand score would be listened to daily. In this world, the efforts of Serkis, Shaw, and Ridings would be referenced every time folks inquire about video game acting that can also reveal the actor’s soul. In retrospect, there was a lot to learn in Enslaved. I wasn’t receptive enough at the time.

Well, here’s me attempting to remedy that. I shouldn’t have dismissed Enslaved solely because it had fallen short in entertaining me, blinding myself to how the game was also approachable as a fount of neat game-designing knowledge—and a standard-setter in certain aspects. Although improbable, I’m still holding out hope for a sequel. It’s comforting when I imagine me again acrobatically navigating the refreshed ruins of the old world, now and then thinking, “Here’s where Bà Ngoại would say: ‘Why, that guy moves just like a monkey!’”

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