Please rate this review: Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
Note: this isn't a review per se, but rather a full discussion, with video, of the plot points of the game. As such it is one huge spoiler. Do NOT read this if you intend to play the game.
The Defiant Ones is a film about two escaped prisoners who are shackled together and must co-operate in order to survive. Sound familiar? In Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, the protagonists are two escaped prisoners who must co-operate in order that both stay alive. While the central conceit in the movie is that one prisoner is black and one is a white racist, and the setting is the American South, Enslaved’s characters have a symbiotic relationship in the sense that one, Trip, is compelling the other, Monkey, to protect her at the expense of his own freedom. The story of the game, like the film, is of the developing relationship between the two, and how resentment gradually deepens into respect through shared experience.
So far so good. However, while the characters in The Defiant Ones are linked together physically, it is a marriage of equals in a sense, because both are prisoners. The dynamic between the characters in Enslaved is very different, as one has enslaved the other to further her own ends. The mental bond that is created by the headband is part of a one way relationship, where Trip holds the power of life or death over Monkey, and the game narrative explores the development of that relationship. However, as the game begins, the player (Monkey) is left in no doubt as to his status: he has, literally, been enslaved.
We blithely accept this enslavement as a plot device, but and so, it seems, does Monkey. In the early parts of the game he rails against his imprisonment, but those scenes are over and done with quickly, and acceptance then seems to take over as the dominant emotion. Shouldn’t he be more upset? Shouldn’t we feel more anger? Instead, the notion of enslavement is almost exclusively reinforced by player actions. For example, I felt that as the relationship between Monkey and Trip developed, a certain level of trust began to build. Then when Monkey gets his ‘cloud’ for the first time, I was encouraged to try it out, scudding over the waves below the Brooklyn Bridge. This was a lot of fun, and I sped off over the water at high speed, only to go too far away from Trip, at which point the headband was activated and I was killed. Trip killed me. After all we’d been through! I felt betrayed, and the trust that had been building was replaced by sullen anger. As far as the cutscenes went, things were developing nicely, but it took a jarring gameplay element to bring me back to my senses, and to point out that I was still Trip’s to command. This was a shocking moment, but it worked wonderfully. It was interesting in that it was outside the narrative, and one would think the developers’ control, but it is safe to assume that sooner or later, the player is going to discover the limits on his freedom.
As is usual with the Cinematic Action genre the narrative of Enslaved is progressed by means of interspersing grand action sequences with more intimate moments, which are characterised by a cinematic focus on personal interactions, with emotions conveyed by highly detailed facial expressions. I found it interesting that the developers were also able to reinforce the notion of dependency between the two characters during gameplay by using the ‘Carry’ mechanic, whereby Monkey could pick Trip up and protect her from danger. As the story goes on, the theme of enslavement deepens and becomes more complex through the development of this theme of dependency. It is no longer sufficient to view it as a one-way relationship, and this is thrown into stark relief when, upon finding Trip’s village, she betrays Monkey when she should be granting him his freedom.
Watch from 00:00 to 00:55
Monkey’s acceptance of his continuing servitude didn’t sit right with me at this point. It seemed at odds with what had gone before, and my annoyance at this was an indication of my emotional involvement with the story. In the subsequent scene (above), it began to dawn on me that Monkey was a more complex character than I had given him credit for. I started to realise that I hadn’t yet begun to understand the characters, other than on a wholly superficial level. Trip was selfish (leaving Monkey to die on the slave ship, enslaving him) and Monkey was an athletic hunk of meat. That was all. I think a large part of this was due to the way the developers handled the exposition of the story and the characters. The reader is drip-fed the story, but only as much as made sense within the context of two strangers meeting for the first time. There were no huge chunks of exposition, and no long speeches on the part of the characters to fill in backstory at the expense of a natural-seeming narrative. The characters are cagey, only communicating when they need to. It is at this point that I started to appreciate the maturity of the storytelling.
It is also the point at which the burgeoning relationship between Trip and Monkey begins to take centre stage. We see it first at the campfire scene before they arrive at the village, where Trip hesitantly asks Monkey what he will do with his freedom. Monkey doesn’t have any concrete plans, thus raising for the first time the idea that his enslavement was something that sat a little more comfortably with him than he previously indicated. As their relationship becomes more cordial, the idea of what enslavement is also begins to morph and change. Specifically, I believe that the age old question of the nature of the relationship between men and women is dusted off and viewed in the sense of relationships themselves being a kind of servitude. I will come back to this point, but for now it is sufficient to accept that a) Trip hasn’t freed Monkey, b) Monkey has accepted that with equanimity, based on his own understanding of how the world works, and c) that their relationship has moved beyond enmity to being based on mutual respect. The seeds are sown.
That’s not to say that it is all plain sailing from this point onwards. Monkey continues to display a certain complexity through the ambiguity of his actions, and though his feelings may be becoming more manifest, they are immediately knocked back with the appearance of a competitor in the form of Pigsy. Pigsy is a great character, and his introduction opens up a new three-way interaction between the characters which is funny and embarrassing at the same time. His insistence on turning his rivalry with Monkey into a straight-up battle for Trip’s affections is both hilarious and cringeworthy. It’s straight from the school playground, yet is an exaggerated version of the male to male competition that we can all recognise. It is played for laughs, but has the power to be affecting at the same time. Monkey is now caught between two forms of slavery – Trip’s headband, and Pigsy’s insistence that he play out these terrible male rituals. He is truly trapped, but his maturity in the face of Pigsy’s childishness and his refusal to stoop to that level again give us an insight into his personality. He’s becoming a complex and mature individual. In the following key scene, this is accentuated by his clear explanation to Pigsy of the relationship between him and Trip.
Watch from 11:40 onward
While this has explanation is seemingly crystal clear, it is difficult, based on all that has gone before, for the player to accept it at face value. It is Monkey’s attempt at disambiguation, but has the effect of making the player think that Monkey hasn’t yet accepted that he is falling in love with Trip. But it has also lodged some doubt in the player’s mind, that maybe he does think like that, and it sets up a tension of expectation for the final part of the game on the part of the player. In other words, it’s a skilful use of characterisation to tell the story and give it more complexity, as well as extending the conflict between the characters and setting up the storyline for a satisfying denouement. Trip’s reaction perhaps mirrors the player’s and explains the conflicting emotions better than I can.
Later in the game, we are presented with an extraordinary scene. The gang of three have liberated the ultimate mech from the waters behind what may be the Hoover Dam, and are striding forth to do battle with the mysterious Pyramid Corporation. Having fulfilled his obligations, Trip offers Monkey his freedom during a quiet scene.
Watch from 11.40 onward.
And he refuses! It would be perfectly consistent with the story so far if he removed the headband but stuck around at Trip’s side for the final battle, in that convention expects him to see out the story until the end. But he actually insists that the headband is turned back on. This utterly confounded me – why would a character who has had all free will removed for the entire game so far, voluntarily seek further enslavement? Yes, the terms of the enslavement have been changed by his voluntary acceptance of it, and his action certainly signifies an expression of love to Trip, but this is the point in the game where I thought that the developers may be making a deeper point about the nature of relationships. If it’s a voluntary relationship, should we still assume that it is ‘enslavement’ of some kind? The intent of the scene is surely for Monkey to make the deepest expression of trust and love that he could to Trip. But the fact that Trip still holds the power of life and death over Monkey, and assuming that he will die if he goes too far from her side, would seem to indicate that there is a subtext about the balance of power in relationships, about how they are perceived from outside the relationship, and about the level of compromise inherent in successful relationships. As a corollary to that, by offering himself to Trip so wholly, it is possible that he receives an equal commitment back from her due to the level of dependence he shows to her. Another way of thinking about it is to reverse the roles – and I would hope that this isn’t taken the wrong way - if this was a man enslaving a woman for the duration of the game, and he finally granted her freedom, which she refused, would we be shocked? At the very least, we would look back on all that has gone before in the game and reappraise the motives of the characters and the dynamics of that relationship, and view it in a new light. This is what I found myself doing in Enslaved, which is a testament to the strength of the story and the themes that it conveys.
There is a final twist in the tale, as the heroes face the might of Pyramid, who is revealed to be a simulacrum of ‘one man who lived before the war’, and who has been enslaving the people of the world in his own way, by offering them an alternate reality. In a neat reversal of roles, having spent the game being rescued and protected, it is now Trip’s turn to rescue both Monkey and the slaves from this artificial utopia. We face a final twist on the nature of enslavement, and it is fitting that the game fades out with Trip asking, “Have I done the right thing?” To which, as with so much else in the game, the player must provide his own answer.
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