A Critical Look At The Story And Characters Of Enslaved.

First of all, I want to say two things before getting into the meat and potatoes of this piece: One, there will be spoilers- lots of spoilers for pretty much the entire game. If you’re sensitive about them then stop reading now. Second, I like Enslaved. I don’t love it, but I certainly like it. My exact feelings are in this review, so please bear in mind that while this is critical analysis, and not favourable, it doesn’t reflect my feelings and experience of the game as a whole.

With that out of the way, here’s the crux- Enslaved’s story is pretty poor. It’s not the worst attempt at video gaming story telling I’ve ever seen, but it is certainly not worthy of the praise people keep heaping on it. Obviously, such a statement requires justification, and that’s the purpose of this post.

First of all, let’s take a look at the characters. The presentation of the characters is excellent, the voice work, the motion capture and the expressions are all top notch. The problem I have is with the character’s themselves- the ideas, the personalities and the experiences. The first issue I take umbridge with is that they never actually change. The characters never grow, they never evolve or learn.

For example, Trip returns home to find her village has been attacked and half of the population is missing, the other half are charred cinders on the ground.

The result? She spends a chapter of the game wondering around in a near catatonic state of grief, and then swears revenge. That’s it. It’s the sum total of all of Trip’s experiences in the entire game, and beyond the initial grief they don’t seem to effect her one iota.

She remains just as much of a wet behind the ears mouse as she did in the first half of the game. You’d think that she’d become more resolute, more forceful. Not necessarily more confident, or a badass, but at least more driven in her behaviour and actions now she has a strong motive- that being revenge. Sadly, this is not the case. Stuff happens to her, and she reacts- but she never grows. I feel very sorry for Lindsay Shaw as her acting talent was really wasted here.

On a final note, Trip doesn’t exactly strike me as a great female character. I don’t think that every female character needs to champion feminism, but honestly, she’s just a damsel in distress. I’ve got no problem with a character having that role, needing to save a person as opposed to an object or idea often provides far greater drive and emotion to a story, but given the lack of development and exploration, Trip just seems to lack any character- leaving nothing but another Princess Peach style DID. She is capable, and does serve other purposes, indeed her tech abilities saved my arse more than once during game play, but you spend far more time saving her than anything else. I wouldn't be so pissed off about this if it didn't highlight the fact that she never seems to grow or learn. Her first response to serious trouble is to run and hide, and let the big strong man deal with it. She's not a trained fighter and if she dies the slave headband kills Monkey, so it sort of makes sense, but it still seems to send the wrong messsage. As a counter to point to what I would consider a good take on this idea, look at Prince of Persia. Elika spends as much time saving your arse as you spend saving hers.

Monkey doesn’t do much better, but to be fair that’s a part of his character. It’s established very early on that Monkey is a pragmatic man- things are how they are and if he can’t help them, then he learns to live with them. This is shown very quickly after Trip puts the slave headband on him- Monkey rages, he threatens to kill her, but after a few minutes (and a few jolts) he calms down and realises that there’s nothing he can do, so he resigns himself to the idea of getting Trip home as being the only way he’ll ever be free.

It was refreshing to see a character who wasn’t emo raging about the situation, and for most of the game I was quite fond of Monkey. He didn’t develop, but he didn’t need to- he knew who he was, he knew what he could do- and more importantly what he couldn’t do, and accepted that. He was simply trying to do his best with the situation that was presented to him. His attitudes where explored through the situations, meaning he develops in your mind, even if he doesn't actually grow and change.

Then comes the moment onboard the mega mech when Trip finally deactivates the slave head band. To paraphrase:
“What I did to you was wrong Monkey, nothing gave me that right. I’ve turned it off.”
“You mean I’m free? I can do whatever I want? Just leave?”
“Turn it back on.”

What. The. Fuck. I suppose this was supposed to be some sort of touching moment about how he doesn’t want to leave her, but it’s totally at odds with the character we’ve seen so far. He’s a wild card, he likes to live free. So even if he has fallen for Trip- which is never really shown, why doesn’t he just stay of his own accord? That would have made the moment far more touching and far less WTF:
“What I did to you was wrong Monkey, nothing gave me that right. I’ve turned it off.”
“You mean I’m free? I can do whatever I want? Just leave?”
*Pause while the gears turn in Monkey's head*
"Don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere.”

Huge dramatic shifts in a character’s attitude can work, but they need to either be explored in retrospect, or foreshadowed. For example, Darth Vader killing the Emperor in Star Wars VI. It’s foreshadowed by the fact we learn he was once a Jedi, and even more so by Luke saying he can still sense good in him. As Luke and the Emperor fight, we see building tension and frustration through his body language until finally he snaps. That’s a well done character heel turn (I.E Not a heel turn at all).

Watchmen went the other way with Ozymandias. The character’s betrayal comes as a heel turn, and is then explored in the remainder of the story so it makes sense.

Monkey’s refusal to stop being Trip’s slave is just a snap decision. Imagine either of the above examples if no indication that the character’s oncoming change, or exploration of the reasons for the change, was ever present? There’s a fine line between sudden character change and bad Deus Ex Machina. When this is the one thing your character does in the whole game that shows some growth, you want to make sure it’s done right. I don’t think it was.

Maybe I missed the signals that Monkey was falling for Trip. Supposedly I do miss the signals when people flirt with me so God only know how bad I must be when two other people are dancing the romance tango- so I guess it's possible. Some people may point to him comforting her after the destruction of her village but I didn’t see any romantic undertones in that sequence. He was just trying to be a shoulder to lean on for someone who had just lost everything. A woman crying on a man’s shoulder does not necessarily equal romantic interest and Monkey certainly just seemed to be trying to be help her deal with this matter. After all, if she dies, he dies and he needs to make sure she stays in a healthy state of mind- especially given how she spent the previous chapter nearly getting killed as she was catatonic with grief. That's the closest they ever come to a moment, and as outlined, I saw nothing romantic in it. I remember thinking afterwards how refreshing it was to see a purely platonic relationship between a male and female lead in a videogame. Guess I was wrong.

Finally, Pigsy. Crammed in at the middle point of the game, he’s the only one who I don’t really have a problem with. The whole rivalry between him and Monkey is built up fairly well (including some nice interactive competative elements), and while the moment where he tries to get Monkey killed by the Rhino is stupid as all hell (seriously Trip can see he’s sent Monkey into a dangerous situation without warning, she’s a wuss, not an idiot), jealousy does make people do some very silly things.

Beyond that, there’s not much to say about Pigsy. He joins the story so late that apart from putting Monkey in mortal danger because he thinks Trip’s fallen for him, he doesn’t really do much. It feels like he’s there because the writer got himself into a hole and needed someone with a flying machine to get out of it. He was also probably in the source novel too and so a pig character needed to be shoe horned in there somehow. With all the subtelty of a hippo on PCP. At the end of the day, he’s mostly harmless in terms of the quality of the story and characters, and provides some (un-needed) comedy relief. But at the same time he doesn’t really contribute much either. Like Lindsaw Shaw, Richard Ridings delivers an excellent perfromance, but sadly poor writing and directing stop him from bringing the character to its best.

Now for the story itself. For the most part, like Pigsy it’s harmless. What surprises me is the amount of critical praise such a bland story has received. Very little happens and there’s no real subtext. You’d think the idea of Trip enslaving Monkey would make for a good platform to explore subjective morality, but no it's never even looked at beyond then the headband goes on, up until Trip turns it off. We could have had a gripping story exploring how people will do things they know are wrong when desperate, and how the live with those options, along with being the victim of such an act having to realise the person who did this to you holds no malice, but is just terrified and making bad decisions becuase of it. Instead, Enslaved is just two (and later three) people on a road trip, and at one point there’s some friction between two of the characters over Trip’s supposed romantic preference. Trip herself doesn’t seem to show much romantic interest in Monkey either, unless the signs where so subtle that I missed them. There’s no drama, no exploration, no message, no point.

There are two plot holes that really grind my gears. One of these is pretty standard fare- When the crew go to hijack the mega mech to attack Pyramid (the big baddies), it is of course fully operational. Which begs the question why the hell are Pyramid not using the damn thing? We can see it’s fully fuelled, operational and ready to go. Why are they not using this ultimate weapon!?

The second is the ending where we learn that Pyramid is not actually a group of slavers, but a single man from before the Great War that destroyed the world, ‘rescuing’ people from the wasteland to plug them into the matrix.

No joke, it’s the matrix. He kidnaps people from around the world to plug them into a virtual world that’s a simulation of before the war.

Obvious criticism aside, two plot points are raised. At the start of the game the Pyramid ship Monkey and Trip escape from refers to the occupants as slaves. It even classifies them calling them grade A and grade B slaves, like livestock- and then it kills one of those slaves for helping Monkey. The only way I can see thing working is if this ship was actually a group of Slavers not associated with Pyramid... Except the Slaves wear exactly the same uniform we see people plugged into the matrix wearing. This doesn't strike me as the behaviour of someone in a benevolent attempt to bring everyone together into a utopia. Just like with Monkey's 'Turn it back on' moment (I'm sorry I just can't let that go), it needs to be developed before it's revelaed. The best plot twists are the ones that, in retrospect, you should have seen comming. Now there is a gameplay mechanic whereby collecting mask icons make Monkey see snapshots of the world before the war (which I'm certain are Andy Serkis' holiday snaps), but what does that establish? Nothing. Later it's establisehd he may see these images becasue of the headband, but there need to be a few more pieces in place that could help. Maybe the mask symbol appearing on Pyramid mechs? That way there's a link between the images and Pyrmaid, instead of just a link between the headband, the mask and the images.

The second is even more mind bending. If they’re trying to save people, why the hell did Pyramid kill everyone in Trip’s village? There’s something about Pyramid being some sort of ark, preserving… something. History maybe? So perhaps they keep force people into the Pyramid thinking it’s for the greater good, but then kill anyone who resists. Except as we established in The Matrix, there are plenty of people willing to do this sort of thing anyway. A life in a utopia where I never need to worry about money, food, disease or crime? And I can't tell the difference between that and reality? Sign me the fuck up! These people need a leaflet drop, not a God damn mech army.

The problem is that I need to grasp for explanations here, and often any explanation offered has more holes than my boxer shorts. If Enslaved was as well written as people claim, we’d have the facts, or at least enough information to put together the facts. If you’re trying to discuss morality and make the reader/gamer question the ethics of something, then you present them with a morally ambiguous situation (I.E Pyramid) and then leave them to ponder it. The ending of Enslaved is not a moral ambiguity issue; it’s just a self contradicting mess. And having Trip's last lines being "Did we do the right thing?" doesn't invalidate that fact.

So there we go. My thoughts on this ‘brilliant story’ that everyone’s going on about. I really don’t see it. Enslaved is a pretty good game, the mechanics are fun and the story isn’t awful (by videogame standards) but its narrative certainly leaves more to be desired than most reviewers claim. I think people are getting confused about the difference between great characters, and great character presentation, the latter of which Enslaved has in levels to put any other game I’ve played to shame. Or, as I stated in my review, maybe I just don’t ‘get’ Alex Garland’s writing as I felt the same way about another famous piece of his- 28 days later.

Still, practise makes perfect and if we get some better writing to go with the technology and acting talent that can be found in Enslaved, we may be able to get a Final Fantasy VII for this generation.

-Evis T

0 Response to "A Critical Look At The Story And Characters Of Enslaved."

Post a Comment

Powered by Blogger