Before stepping into the brave new world of the current generation, it’s often nice to take a look back. A lot has happened since the 360 first appeared in late 2005 - namely a whole tonne of video games. With that many releases it’s easy for many to be looked over or forgotten - in other words, to have fallen by the wayside. The aim of this series is to look at the games that few people played (and that most have forgotten) that are worth talking about. This can be because they are great, or just because they are interesting in some way. Of course, many of you may have played these games, but that doesn’t stop them from being overlooked by the majority and simply titles worth talking about.
To kick things off, we have 2010’s Enslaved: Odyssey to the West.
Not enough people played Enslaved. It’s pretty much the perfect example of a B tier game, which was something of a death warrant in the last generation. Though in generations past these mid-tier releases had a viable market, recently things have become triple A or bust. The rise of smaller downloadable titles and independent games has taken over this space. Games have become so large and so expensive that it’s now go big or go home. Mid-tier releases just couldn’t find a foothold and have fallen by the wayside. With download only games and independent games rising up - entering at a lower price point and giving you respite from triple A – there just isn’t room in the market.
Of course, being part of an oft forgotten tier isn’t what makes Enslaved interesting; it’s just a big reason why nobody played it.
The main (if not the sole) appeal of Enslaved is in its story telling. Though its narrative is no landmark achievement, it is excellently told. This is all due to how it portrays its characters and how it works on building a believable relationship between them. The game takes place in an apocalyptic vision of the future, where cities are overgrown and uninhabited by humans. Violent mechs prowl these areas and surviving humans have to live in secrecy if they are to avoid being kidnapped by slavers.
It’s ultimately a buddy story; two characters make a journey across the country – and against the odds – to find something very important. They don’t start as friends, but maybe they will learn something about each other along the way and develop an unlikely relationship. It is stuff you’ve seen before, but it is stuff that is elevated by great characters.
You play as Monkey and Trip is your constant companion. You both fall into known archetypes; Monkey is a gruff, strong, lone survivor whilst trip is smart and resourceful,whilstnot being used to this horrible and hopeless world. Trip grew up in an isolated human settlement, a hidden commune of civilised humanity away from the mechs and slavers. The only problem being, apparently it wasn’t as far away from slavers as they all thought…
The opening moments of the game are you as Monkey on a crashing slave ship. You’ve been kidnapped and so has Trip. This is how you meet, both trying to get to the last escape pod and her not letting you in. You are forced to cling to the outside of it, the landing impact knocks you out and you wake up enslaved (hence the title). Trip has put a crazy metal bandana on you,which means you have to do what she says or experience pain. You get to far away from her – you die. She dies – you die.
It is this set up which allows the story to escape basic convention and get quite interesting. The characters develop over anpredictable arc, but the situation the game has put them in makes this arc more interesting. It’s not just a story of an unlikely friendship, it’s a story of them both progressing as people. They learn to trust each other and both of them find a lot of what they need in the other, be it hope or companionship – or just a purpose. A lot of the game focuses on the need to do something rather than just survive and that’s a concept that really interests me.
What makes this game special and memorable is the interaction between the two characters. The game is actually very well written and shows a great care for its characters. One could criticise it of forcing a friendship too quickly - or perhaps too easily - and this is true to a certain extent. The bond between them formstoo quickly for a pair where one has literally enslaved the other, but it’s a credit tothe writing and characterisation that the game stays believable. This connection chimes with the world and the characters, making sense because they have nothing else. Also, though you only spend about eight hours with them, the game makes it feel like more time has passed and that they have gone on a long transformative journey together. This all helps the relatively speedy arc to not be jarring.
There are a number of great character moments in the game, just lovely interactions between the two where the writing and acting shines. Monkey is played by Andy Serkis and his talent brings so much to the role. The game cares about its characters and puts them right at the centre. This works really well for Enslaved because of its writing;interactions feel natural and can be wonderfully poignant. You grow attached to the characters and their struggle keeps you going, making it a journey worth taking.
This is all very important because on a gameplay level Enslaved is somewhat dull. Combat is functional, and fun, but it’s shallow and loose. The camera is also too close in and can be really constricting and problematic. There’s also light traversal, Uncharted-esque leaping up environments and buildings. These only happen in specific points and are rather unexciting. There’s no sense of risk or exploration, just pressing A or X until you get to the end. Occasionally you get a very nice vista but the gameplay itself isn’t fun. As a whole, Enslaved plays fine, but its gameplay lags behind its impressive and well-crafted storytelling. The end result is something that feels like a super pretty original XBOX game or an early 360 title. It lacks some of the refinements you expect from the previous generation.
The stand out moment for me though – and why I think the game is so interesting – is the ending… Spoilers ahoy… The game has some interesting story moments towards the end, but goes somewhat downhill. Environments are more standard and less interesting, and the more you play of the merely OK gameplay the less compelling it gets. There are some standout moments in the final hours that rectify this, but the true highlight is the ending itself.
The end of Enslaved capitalises totally one what is a major theme of the game, finding something to survive for. At all points you have an objective. First it is escape a crashing ship, then it’s get to Trip’s family and then it’s take down the slavers. There is a driving force giving your life purpose, it makes things meaningful in a world that seemed devoid of hope. The ending puts this on its head though, presenting the ultimate villain as someone who sees himself as helping rather than hindering. A man who recognises that life as it is now is pointless. There’s no hope left for people and just struggling to survive is not a life worth living. His plan: kidnap the people and plug them into a virtual world where life isn’t just a struggle to survive.Somewhere where you can live rather than just be alive.
This presents a bit of a moral dilemma, or at least a thought provoking situation. Though different people will have varying views on what is right and wrong here, it is far less clear cut than most other games. You’ve spent a number of hours in this world and know that it’s somewhat hopeless, the only way you kept things light and kept motivated was by having constant goals. You were driving towards something and now you are at the end. You want to end the slavers, but if you end them there’s nothing after that. What do you do? Just keep living in this empty and still dangerous world with nothing left to strive for? It’s reality for sure, but does that mean it’s worthwhile?
The other side of the coin is virtual bliss. You see all the people plugged in; you see them as they really are - empty nothings living in delusions. It’s a better life in their heads, but does it mean anything if it’s not real? It raises a lot of interesting questions and the brilliance here is that Enslaved manages to capitalise on the potential and end in a perfect way. It masterfully takes the decision process away from you, making you powerless in a game where you have been the driving force. Trip decides to take things into her own hands and ends the process, destroying the illusion. You watch and wonder whether her rash action was really the right thing to do. After all, this needed thinking about and she acted instantly. The reason this is so perfect though is down to the audacity of quite how they leave the game, Trip’s last line asking if she did the right thing.
This provides an exceptional conclusion to a decent game, a hugely memorable moment that makes the game stand out as a whole. It’s a brave way to end the game and is genuinely thought provoking. On a gameplay level Enslaved is uninspired and perhaps flawed, but its impressive writing and memorable storytelling make it hugely worthwhile. It may be an example of something that doesn’t take huge advantage of its medium, as the bits where it is a game are its weakest points. However, it is still a great example of well-handled storytelling in a game even if it didn’t need to be one.
More people should have played it.