To The Bitter End

Enslaved

Happiness In Slavery

Enslaved doesn’t want you to cast off those shackles just yet.

By Anthony John Agnello • July 24, 2012

Games are often left unfinished. Sometimes they’re too difficult, too vast, or too repetitive to see all the way through to the closing credits. To The Bitter End is The Gameological Society’s look at those endings that are worth fighting for—or at least worth reading about.

Enslaved: Odyssey To The West is not a proper modern telling of the 500-year-old Chinese novel Journey To The West. In the novel, a monk, Tripitaka, uses a golden circlet to enslave a staff-wielding warrior monkey and the two of them go west. In the game, Tripitaka is a fearful hottie rather than a Buddhist monk, and she enslaves your character, Monkey—a dumb brute with robo-gauntlets.

Enslaved

Yet the characters of the adaptation and the centuries-old original share a common goal: enlightenment. Therein lies the trouble. Journey To The West culminates with Buddhist scripture rescued, knowledge delivered to the people, and the heroes ascending to heaven. Enslaved ends with the hero saying that slavery is actually pretty good. The latter is a failure—not just because it delivers an unpleasant message but also because in context, the execution of that message makes no sense. But the ending is at least provocative.

Your travel through the world Enslaved is linear, constrained to a narrow path through debris fields and ramshackle towns. It can feel like the game is barely you pushing forward at all. The point-A-to-B-to-C journey kicks off when Trip meets Monkey on an airplane piloted by evil robots. The robots have been kidnapping the wayward remains of humanity, but Trip and Monkey get away in an escape pod as the plane crashes. Since Monkey is a tough guy who can destroy robots, waifish Trip fixes a slave crown on him—if Monkey tries to stray too far, or if harm comes to Trip, the crown kills him. It demonstrates how desperate things might be in the future, but it’s not behavior that endears you to Trip.

Enslaved

Trip is never that endearing, despite the game’s apparent intentions. For a character that’s supposed to be sympathetic and later seen as a tech savvy friend, Trip is a complete incompetent and a coward to boot. One of the main things you do in Enslaved is order Trip around; hide in these bushes, use your scout-bot-headdress thing, etc. She makes no sound choices on her own and relies on you for everything. Monkey isn’t much better. He has reason to be sullen, obviously, but as you make him jump over old skyscrapers and cobbled together windmills, he reveals himself to be a jerk in his own right, a grumbling dummy.

Of course, the Trip and Monkey of Journey, the Chinese original, are cads themselves. Trip is constantly getting captured, and Sun “Monkey” Wukong and his fellow warriors have to show up to save him. Those companions forge bonds that make them likable despite their flaws though. Enslaved progresses like that bond is forming between Trip and Monkey, but no dialogue or action cements it, which makes Monkey’s servitude to Trip all the more unsettling. Even when they return to Trip’s deserted hometown and Monkey saves her life from a giant dog robot, she doesn’t seem particularly grateful. She saves his life later on, and he acts like a dingus, as well.

The gap between the game’s presumption of an appealing relationship and the actual ugliness on screen makes for a dissonant ending, inevitably. Just before the game’s big finale, Trip apologizes and offers to deactivate the slave crown. Monkey chooses to keep it on—not just to keep wearing it, but keep it activated and tied to Trip. The message is twisted: Submission to another person is a sign of love. Monkey chooses to continue as a slave because, according to the game’s logic, that’s somehow noble.

This crucial moment highlights how you, the player, are a slave to the game’s rules and story. Enslaved demands that you follow its single path, never allowing you to stray too far, and your subservience is supposedly rewarded with happiness. Aren’t you having fun playing? Aren’t you noble for saving the day by following the rules? Life’s more pleasurable when you play along, Enslaved maintains. Monkey didn’t want to remove his crown. Why should you?

Enslaved’s grand finale replays that moment between Monkey and Trip on a grand scale. The duo discovers a pyramid in the desert; this is where the robots have been taking the kidnapped people. The captives are fitted with full bodysuits, and they’re all wearing slave crowns.

When Monkey and Trip enter the pyramid, the once-human cyborg controlling the facility informs the duo that he’s keeping the survivors in a simulation of the world as it existed before the apocalyptic war—a simulation based on his happy memories. They are slaves, yes, but they’re protected from a forbidding reality. Monkey and Trip intend to free the slaves, but first, the cyborg asks Monkey to just take a look at the fake world. He agrees. Immersed in a vision of the past, he proclaims, “It’s beautiful.” Trip then murders the cyborg, wrenching Monkey and everyone else out of the fantasy. She asks if she did the right thing. Monkey simply says, “It’s over.”

Enslaved

It’s not a victorious moment. It’s a bummer: Subservience was preferable. People had love and protection as part of the machine’s system, and without it they’re lost. It’s a remarkable statement for a video game this linear, this free of meaningful choices. Throughout the game, your input is perfunctory, and your sense of agency is an illusion; Enslaved maintains that it’s better this way.

The message of Enslaved rankles despite being persuasive—perhaps because it’s persuasive. Life and games both require you follow systems. Cross the street when the sign says walk, or a car will hit you. Jump over the pit or Mario will die and the game’s over. The world is a dialogue, though, and you exert your will on it as much as it does you. The best games are dialogues, as well, where the rewards for your participation are equal to the effort of understanding, following, and manipulating the rules. Successfully getting Mario over the pit lets you see new worlds and do impossible things.

Enslaved fails because its insights are bound to characters who are terrible people who do terrible things in a game that restricts your choices to the dull confinement of a linear path. If the game ended with everyone waking up and agreeing to pursue a better future, or even just retreating to the safety of the simulation, maybe Enslaved would be of a piece with Journey To The West. Enlightenment would have been achieved, in some fashion. Instead the game ends with astounding ugliness. Slavery to a system is not the same as willful participation in one, no matter what the tough guy and the redhead say.

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  • HobbesMkii

    Also tragic is that you have Andy Freaking Serkis, Gollum, King Kong, Caesar, himself, in your video game, and rather than give him an emotive character to provide mo-cap and voice for for, you just flip up an image of his actual face staring dully into the camera delivering his lines devoid of any life. Half the actors in Hollywood will do that for you for cheap cheap cheap.

    • http://gameological.com/author/johnteti/ John Teti

      Haha, agreed. This game had some surprisingly naturalistic physical performances, too, apparently owing to super-duper motion capture and Serkis’ expertise in that field. The characters were really expressive. It’s a beautiful game in many ways. But the heart of it does feel off-key, as Anthony points out.

      I was at a small Namco Bandai preview event here in New York before Enslaved was released. One of the developers was giving me a presentation about the game. He was rattling off a bunch of bullet points, and he was plugging the motion-capture pretty hard, but purely as a technical achievement. I interrupted him and I said something like, “Just looking at these characters on screen, there does seem to be an added humanity to the way they move. You must be excited about the sort of emotional impact that could have.” It was a softball semi-question that I thought would redirect the conversation a bit. Instead, he looked at me like I was speaking Martian — stared at me for a good five seconds — and he resumed talking about pixel shaders and block-sliding puzzles or some such.

      These are the kinds of things that prompt me to go home at stare at the wall for a while.

      I was not surprised when the resulting game proved to feel somewhat hollow.

      • HobbesMkii

        I think that pretty much highlights what most studios overlook when they make a AAA title. They’re off building rollercoasters and thrill rides with their games, when they’ve got a medium uniquely suited to an incredibly complex emotional storytelling experience, if they’d put in the work. I think the last time I heard a developer talk about actually trying to intentionally shape a player’s emotional journey was Valve discussing Portal and Portal 2.

        The indies are a little better, although they mostly achieve emotional depth through atmosphere, and not characterization.

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

          More and more AAA developers are starting to talk about narrative and the player’s emotional journey. It was something the Spec Ops and ME3 devs talked about quite a bit. Heck, even James Gunn talked about it in a couple of post-release Lollipop Chainsaw interviews. I don’t know if enough devs are talking about it, but at least some of them are thinking about it.

        • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

           @Merve2:disqus : And, specifically, the talk about motion capture reminds me of Rockstar’s LA Noire, which used the tech in a way that was intrinsically tied to gameplay, and capitalized on that extra “humanity” by being used in a mechanic that required the careful reading of expression and gesture – rather than as simple graphical polish or a bullet point for the back of the box.

          Whether it succeeded is up for debate, but at least their intent had a deliberate ludic and artistic purpose.

        • lokimotive

          @bakana42:disqus I would be more persuaded by that example if I was more convinced by the result. The idea that the expensive motion capture was absolutely necessary to get have that “gameplay mechanic” seems a bit spurious, considering you could see just as clearly defined emotions in the “hand animated” polygonal faces of Half Life 2, not to mention the fact that LA Noire was linear enough that it could’ve just been an interactive movie without loosing too much playability.

          I realize that the pre-release hype was geared mostly towards how that would affect the game, but I’m suspicious of what exactly it did that other technology couldn’t've covered.

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kevin-Johnson/501651 Kevin Johnson

          I just want to say that we shouldn’t imply that just cause a game’s linear, that’s it’s problematic or shallow. Linear games are often great (Portal) and have a lot of depth to them. I know most people aren’t saying that, but the article does have some of those connotations.

        • Enkidum

          @lokimotive:disqus I would say that this game is a good example of the potential of good motion capture – it’s leagues above Half Life in its ability to capture subtle emotional states. I would guess they used at least twice as many capture points on their actors’ faces as they did on all the rest of their bodies, which is necessary if you’re going to model the facial stuff that our brains care about. (Could be wrong about that, but that’d be my guess.)

          I’ve actually always thought of Half Life II as a really good example of the Uncanny Valley. Whenever anyone smiles they look a bit like a sociopath. This isn’t the case with the present game – you can see clearly communicated anger, sadness, happiness, tenderness, even wonder. Of course it has bugger all to do with the gameplay, as noted by several people.

        • lokimotive

          Wait a minute, I want to clarify something: I’m not saying that LA Noire was a bad game because it used motion capture, nor am I saying that linearity in a game is a bad thing. I was simply pointing out that the much touted motion capture wasn’t particularly relevant to the gameplay. You guessed that people were lying mainly on their shifting eyes; an effect that could’ve been achieved through older engines, or FMV.

          Did the game benefit from the motion capture? Hell yeah it did, but it was entirely aesthetic and not ludic, and in that respect I think the marketing for it was a bit of a cheat.

        • blue vodka lemonade

           @lokimotive:disqus I tried to guess at lies by people’s expressions, and failed miserably. Everybody acted shifty, and only when I ignored how people were acting and just listened to what they said did I have any success at interrogation.

          Maybe I just suck at reading faces.

      • Enkidum

        Wow, that description of the presentation fits perfectly with the finished product, as you say. Like I said in my comment below, the game is one of the only ones I’ve seen that actually can convey wordless emotions. But then they just let that completely slide.

        I was really quite excited when (spoilery) I got to the cutscene where they’re driving down the highway to her village, she’s on the back of his bike, and she clutches him slightly differently than normal, kind of snuggles into his back, and you realize that she’s now completely smitten. Never seen anything like that in a game, it really did manage to avoid the uncanny valley, for me at least. And then… wheels spin in terms of character development for most of the game, and all further emotions are made very explicit, usually in dialogue. (Lousy dialogue, for the most part.)

        The potential to actually use this in the gameplay was right there – yeah, it was a cutscene, but the cutscenes were rendered using the same engine as the rest of the game. Think about the capabilities there! But nada. I can understand why you needed to stare at the wall for a while…

      • George_Liquor

        Hey Teti, cut the guy some slack. If the developer you interviewed was talking at length about low-level technical details like the pixel shader, then he was probably responsible for the game’s rendering engine–and nothing else. Major developers like Namco Bandai are going to stovepipe game development like crazy. An entire team of software engineers may be responsible for the physics model, while another works on sound engineering and a third does the mo-cap. 

        So what I’m trying to say is question you thought was a total softball may have been a legitimate head-scratcher for the guy.

        • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

           I think that very compartmentalized system that ‘justifies’ the developer’s bafflement/response could still be part of the problem with the AAA games industry, indicating why its product is often artistically compromised. If your scenario is true, then the mo-cap team simply worked on mo-cap as an end in itself, rather than being filled in on the ultimate aesthetic goals of their mo-cap, and what it was supposed to contribute to the game as a whole.

          This then mirrors the way the game itself, and its PR message, that the mo-cap is a self-justifying technical bullet-point, and its potential use for powerful, empathic, acting and storytelling is ignored by the devs and PR folks, and squandered by the game itself.

        • Mike Ferraro

          Film sets are even more compartmentalized, but I think most people on set could speak to the creative and emotional goals of their work.
          I think the difference is games divide the focus between system engineering and creative output. Most of the effort is just making things work at all. It’s like half the team is building a typewriter while the other half tries to write a novel.

        • http://gameological.com/author/johnteti/ John Teti

          They don’t send low-level guys to these demos. He was a high-level producer.

        • Enkidum

          Even if the guy was a mo-cap tech or renderer, these days they’ll have to know enough about the emotional states they’re trying to capture as anyone else. You can’t do it without having some knowledge, which makes his inability to answer the question even weirder.

        • George_Liquor

          OK, then maybe the reason he was going on at length about their advanced motion-capture technology is he himself was an artificial mo-capped construct, and not programmed to answer your silly human questions about emotions.

        • Mike Ferraro

          Yeah, my other analogy is that you have a carpenter building the set (lowly environment artist), but the guy who is more senior is the guy who makes the table saw. So that senior guy does the interviews about the advancements they’ve made in cutting plywood straight, and doesn’t even really get what the artist is trying to do with that tech. The interesting part to him is the cool systems, they’re what he understands, so that’s what he’s comfortable talking about.

      • Mike Ferraro

        Note a lot of game developers are on the autism spectrum, you probably WERE speaking martian as far as dude could tell. The more accurate realtime modelling of known natural phenomenon could make someone cry or something?

        You may as well interrupt a car mechanic explaining how a rotary engine works to suggest it could make the groceries in the trunk taste better.

        • Electric Dragon

          Perhaps, and I don’t want to denigrate the job they do, perhaps a borderline autistic spectrum developer is not the best person to be giving a presentation to the press and fielding questions from them. You wouldn’t expect somebody from the lighting department to be making the rounds promoting The Dark Knight Rises. Maybe you want a DVD commentary from them – I love the technical commentaries on LOTR for example, even if you have to be quick on the volume button when it switches from the softly spoken Alan Lee to the rather more fortissimo Richard Taylor – but probably not the best for a preview event.

  • Enkidum

    Lotsa spoilers here, for those who care.

    Dunno if I quite buy the account of the characters here. It’s not a well-written game by any stretch (not to mention fairly meh gameplay and a totally incomprehensible world – on the plus side the graphics are very nice). However it’s not just two awful people doing awful things. They’re both fairly unsympathetic from the start, although (a) as you mention, Monkey has plenty of good reasons to be angry about being enslaved, and (b) Trip has good reasons to enslave him – as she notes, she couldn’t possibly live on her own. But the game attempts (hamfistedly) to show them bonding somewhat on their journey. And by the time they’re getting close to her village, she’s basically fallen in love with him (one of the things the game is decent at is the portrayal of emotion – this is revealed in a wordless cutscene). However after she discovers the robots have attacked and killed everyone in her village, she goes nuts and can only focus on revenge. By this time Monkey is essentially a willing participant, IIRC.
    The game doesn’t explain this well, but there’s also more to why Monkey doesn’t want to remove the crown. It gives them a constant telepathic connection, and he doesn’t ever want to lose that – he’s making a conscious choice to spend the rest of his life in constant contact with her. It’s not so much that he wants to be her slave as that he doesn’t ever want to be without her (it doesn’t say, but presumably she’s going to stop ordering him around as well). There’s presumably some sort of message mixed in there about the nature of choice in gaming (cf. the Man In Black from Half Life, a company that does this a lot better), but these guys aren’t good enough writers to get it across.

    So yeah, not the best game in the world, but I think the love story makes a little more sense if you dig into it a little.

    • Army_Of_Fun

      Had to finally create an account to defend Enslaved a little bit.

      The crown will kill Monkey under 3 conditions:
       - Trip commands it to.
       - Trip dies.
       - Trip and Monkey get separated by probably about 100 yards or so.

      When Monkey leaves the crown on, he isn’t picking enslavement over freedom. In that one act, Monkey was committing himself to a life with Trip. One can fairly argue if that level of committment was unearned.

      Monkey’s decision to leave the crown on was as much of an endorsement of slavery as a wedding ring and its attendant vows.

      • Enkidum

        Well, a bit more than a ring – he has given her absolute authority over him for the rest of their lives (he literally has to do everything she ever asks), will die when she dies, and cannot ever move away from her. So the slavery thing isn’t exactly being pulled out of a hat (plus, y’know, the name of the game is “Enslaved”, so I think we’re on pretty safe ground here). But you’re definitely right that there’s more to it than just slavery.

      • The_Forgotten_Quill

        I agree, but can also think of a more basic motive to keep the crown. Remember, the crown serves as the game’s “dashboard” of sorts. If he took it off, I’m not sure how you move through the rest of the game without the ability to see your levels, the link through the dragonfly, etc. 

        • Army_Of_Fun

          Good catch. I don’t remember exactly, but I thought Monkey’s decision came late enough in the game that the mechanic side of things may not have been much of an issue. Forgot that the stat upgrades were tied to it.

      • lokimotive

        Most modern wedding vows aren’t enforced by a device, nor do they include the option for one party to kill the other, for the other party to die when the first does, and it certainly doesn’t necessitate that one party maintain such a close proximity to the other. I mean, that’s pretty Venus in Furs type rules up there.

        • Army_Of_Fun

          Shit! Now you tell me! Where you were before I got married?!

          Sure, the effective results are a tad on the extreme side. Usually statements like “I will kill myself if I can’t be without you all.the.time.” to be a bit sociopathic. I give credit to Monkey for putting his money where his mouth is though. There’s no second guessing his level of commitment.

      • Effigy_Power

         Relationships can sour over time. I know that’s something games and movies don’t like to think about, we are supposed to accept the love-story at the end as eternal and strong, but in real life people can grow apart.

        Therefore you wouldn’t pick a wedding ring that rips your head off if the divorce goes through.
        It’s also very one-sided, obviously, because Trip has to give up nothing. Even if Monkey chooses “slavery”, for Trip this is a commitment only as long as she cares for Monkey’s life. I am sure she can deactivate the crown at a later point (can she?), but if she ever ran across Monkey having sex with a hot monkey lady, she’d only have to run faster than he does.

        This might work the other way around too. Monkey now has emotional hold over Trip, who is responsible for his life. As long as Trip remains in love with Monkey, but not vice versa, Monkey has a passive-aggressive hold on her. He can do whatever he wants, knowing that at least to a certain point, Trip will bend over backwards to keep him alive. After all, she’d have to live with having blown up (or whatever the crown actually does) the man she loves. This kind of guilt can give someone quite a lot of control over a person.

        I understand the similarity to wedding vows or love’s devotion, but the life-and-death control of the crown dips those wedding vows in a pretty dark light. If anything, I would see it more as the willful subjugation mentioned in the article already and there was no need to elaborate on that, because I find that Anthony already got that pretty much dead on.
        It’s a twisted take on devotion that could be interesting if the game had more emotional maturity and a more focused plot to delve into it. As it stands, it’s just a strange advocacy for slavery, first unwilling, then not.

        PS: I find the notion that Trip has good reasons to enslave Monkey in the first place disturbing. That kind of argument can lead to all sorts of strange explanations, such as that the plantation-owner’s family would have starved if he hadn’t bought 200 slaves to secure his income.

        • Army_Of_Fun

          A point of clarity. Trip has total control over the headband. She can deactivate it, and actually does towards the end. Monkey explicitly asks her to turn it back on. It’s a gesture Trip could reciprocate, in some way, if she chose to. She can break their bond without killing Monkey at will.

        • Persia

          Isn’t he a threat to her at first without it, though? (I haven’t played the game but thought that came up in the reviews. It’s certainly true of the original book.)

      • lokimotive

        You know, I do think drawing a parallel to marriage is an interesting idea (even though I haven’t actually played this game) as it brings it could subvert the historic subservience of women in that contract. On the other hand, it was mentioned that she initially imposed the slavery because she “couldn’t live on her own”, which is sort of an unfortunate thing to build a relationship on.

        • Enkidum

          FWIW, the “couldn’t live on her own” is because she’s thousands of miles deep into hostile territory with rampaging murderous robots all over the place, not because she’s lonely.

        • Enkidum

          FWIW, the “couldn’t live on her own” is because she’s thousands of miles deep into hostile territory with rampaging murderous robots all over the place, not because she’s lonely.

      • http://www.facebook.com/arthur.chu.94 Arthur Chu

        When I got married to my wife I didn’t give her permission to murder me at will, I didn’t promise to commit suicide the moment she died, and I didn’t promise to stay within 100 yards of her at all times.

        I do not regard this as somehow impugning my love or commitment for her, and I think anyone who would impose such conditions as a minimum standard for a romantic commitment is kind of disturbed.

        Also it’s an issue of reciprocity — it’s Monkey committing himself to Trip but not Trip committing herself to Monkey. It, in fact, gives Trip the power to get rid of Monkey whenever she wants.

      • caspiancomic

         You’ve taken a lot of heat over conflating marriage with slavery and I don’t exactly want to pile on any more objections, since I think it’s important to have an opinion different from that expressed in the main article and don’t want to risk snuffing such an opinion out.

        But I just couldn’t resist the urge to mention how sucky it would be to wear a wedding ring that would kill me if I caught the subway and my wife missed it.

        • Army_Of_Fun

          There’s a part in the game that mirrors that scenario. Trip climbs into a derelict car to rip out its still functioning power source and in the process accidentally starts it up. If you, playing as Monkey, don’t keep up with her, you die. Did I mention there’s robots trying to kill you at the same as you’re trying to keep up? Because they’re totally are.  That segment was indeed sucky. Still, a fairly novel take on the “stay within 10 seconds of your target or fail” sort of mission.

          If my comment confused marriage with slavery, then that’s due to my poor writing skills, I think. I was trying to say the opposite, that because Monkey is willingly giving up all of his freedom, he’s not buying into slavery, he’s going all-in on Trip. Real marriage obviously doesn’t go to the extremes that Monkey’s commitments would effectively mean, but to me, that’s just a (admittedly huge) difference in degree. It’s the phrase “I can’t live without you” taken to its literal extreme. Romeo and Juliet don’t get nearly as much heat.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ramon-Mujica/650405180 Ramon Mujica

         I’m pretty sure he keeps the crown on because it helps him fight better and he needed it on  if he was going to take on the bad guys.

  • caspiancomic

    Hm, when this game was first coming out I sort of shrugged it off as an imitator of other, better games (I saw traces of God of War and the rebooted Prince of Persia in there, with a bit of Resident Evil 4′s Ashley-hide-in-this-dumpster-and-never-come-out thing for flavour). But I’ve heard a lot about it in the months since its release. Not all good, mind you, but all at least interesting. Since I haven’t played it I’ll accept Anthony’s interpretation (although I appreciate @Enkidum:disqus’s followup), that the game’s ultimate message is by design or by incompetence of the writing staff sort of disgusting, but it’s interesting at least seeing a game in which the driving message of the story is in harmony with the mechanics of the game. Even if, as I said, that harmony seems to be a) upsetting on both levels, and b) probably accidental. Given the article I just read this is probably a silly question, but I don’t suppose this game has multiple endings?

    Also, looking forward to more of this feature in the future. It’s very satisfying for me seeing someone beautifully unlock the thematic core of a work using the ending as a key. It makes for very elegant criticism and tends to be fulfilling writing, as Anthony’s piece is here. It’ll be interesting seeing discussion in the future of games with multiple endings, I think, as it’s basically the only medium in which that narrative technique is really feasible (CYOA books and Clue: The Movie notwithstanding.) I’d love to see a discussion about the idea of “canonical” endings, the distinction between good/bad endings and true “multiple” endings (this is the difference between Silent Hill and its first sequel, for example, SH1 having a gradation of endings from “bad” to “good”, while SH2 has multiple equal but different finales to the same story), games in which one ending is in harmony with the work’s themes while one is unsatisfying or unfulfilling, etc etc. I’m sure you folks have plenty of ideas for the feature and don’t need my help.

    • http://gameological.com/author/johnteti/ John Teti

      On the contrary, we really like to get ideas from the readers, and you have some nice food for thought here.

      • George_Liquor

        I must be missing something here, because I get the impression this game really isn’t worth the effort of seeing it through to the end. Is this a cautionary example? Like “We play sucky games so you don’t have to”?

        • caspiancomic

           I don’t know, I certainly enjoyed reading about it, and I’d say the thematic coherence the ending has with the mechanics make the finale for this game one worth experiencing- or at least discussing. After all, you don’t have to agree with the message of a work in order to consider it worth experiencing. Even a piece with a downright abhorrent thesis can be competently or even exceptionally executed- I think the standard example for “great work, awful message” is probably Birth of a Nation. A game that basically (if, again, probably accidentally) condones slavery in not only its story but its mechanics is certainly worth experiencing in my opinion.

        • http://gameological.com/author/johnteti/ John Teti

          “To The Bitter End is The Gameological Society’s look at those endings that are worth fighting for—or at least worth reading about.”

          That pretty much sums it up. It’s a column where we talk about the endings of video games. The criterion for inclusion is the writer having something to say about the ending in question—something that contributes to a conversation larger than the game itself. Hopefully Anthony’s analysis left you with something more than the idea that Enslaved is a “sucky game.”

          Is it a cautionary example? No. The notion of making a special effort to caution people from playing certain games strikes me as a depressingly unambitious endeavor. Whether you play the game or not is up to you. We don’t presume to tell you how to spend your money or time.

        • Enkidum

          If you’re looking for advice on whether to buy it or not, watch a gameplay video, and if you find yourself attracted enough to the graphics and general style you’ll probably like it well enough. As various people have indicated, though, it’s hamstrung in virtually every area outside of graphics and motion capture.  

        • George_Liquor

          OK, fair enough. I just got the impression that the author took a particularly dim view towards Enslaved’s conclusions when I read this:

          “Enslaved fails because its insights are bound to characters who are terrible people who do terrible things in a game that restricts your choices to the dull confinement of a linear path.”

          That just doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement to me. Is the point of this feature to simply examine game endings that strike a particular chord with the author, positive or negative? If that’s the case, it’s certainly an interesting topic to me–I can think of a few game endings that I loved or that really stuck in my craw. 

        • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

           ”Is the point of this feature to simply examine game endings that strike a particular chord with the author, positive or negative?”

          I think that’s pretty much exactly the point. “Endorsing” the game discussed is simply not a goal that has any relation to the intent of these pieces.

          This is a game that fails artistically, partly due to its ending and concluding message. But the way it fails brings up interesting questions regarding the relationship between gameplay, narrative, and thematic elements in games that are worth discussing.

    • blue vodka lemonade

       Silent Hill 2 has my favorite range of endings, because rather than relying on your response to point-blank, binary prompts, it tries to look at your general behavior in the game and decide from that which ending suits “your” James best. The three  special endings are also all equally interesting, even though two are simple absurdities.

      More games should have something like the Dog ending, is what I’m saying.

      • caspiancomic

        Yeah, Silent Hill 2 is rightly held up as a shining example of a lot of game design ideas, and its approach to multiple endings is definitely one of them. The point you brought up about the game selecting the appropriate ending for your personal “characterization” of James’ character arc is a particularly inspired touch. I understand the series attempted to return to that system with Shattered Memories, but I haven’t played it personally.

        I also particularly love (as I alluded to above) that all the endings are equally valid conclusions to the story (and in fact, every ending is perfectly suited to an individual player’s style). In most games, and even in SH1, and ending is either bad or good, or somewhere between those two points, and bad endings are tantamount to non-standard game overs. Lesser games often use multiple endings to force players to “do” as much as possible- make sure you do every side quest, recruit every character, save every hostage, etc, otherwise you get a big fat bad ending. Which has its own merits in a way, and is obviously not a bad mechanic automatically, but too often it’s used to lazily and passive aggressively prod players into finishing a game multiple times when they wouldn’t have otherwise.

        (As an example of a game that uses a good/bad gradation but is still otherwise a decent execution of multiple endings: Suikoden II. Although there is one definitive “best” ending in which everybody literally walks off into the sunset, there are a number of technically “worse” endings which are all satisfying in their own ways, and the method for unlocking the best ending works harmoniously with the setting’s mythology and the deeper themes of the game, so I give it a pass. I also give it an automatic pass on all its faults since it’s Suikoden II and I love it with all my heart.)

        (Atghrrgh, one more thing. A company that has an interesting take on multiple endings is the now defunct Cavia, who made Drakengard and Nier. In those games, finishing the game once gives you the standard ending and unlocks New Game Plus, and every playthrough from that point forward unlocks a new potential ending- for a total of as many as 5- that reveals a totally different end to the story, usually including a new final boss and everything.)

        • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

           While I remember enjoying Suikoden II when I played it through in middles school (or early high school?), I think much of its greatness was lost on me, possibly because the glut of good JRPGs on the PSX at the time put me in the mode of just cranking through them to get to the next (with the added consequence of kind of burning me out on JRPGs).

          But every time I hear the game mentioned, it is cited as an unquestionable masterpiece, and some awesome design/narrative decision is brought up that as a kid I either swallowed uncritically or simply never noticed.

          Someday when I have time, and when the disc isn’t hundreds of miles away in my mom’s basement, I’m going to need to give that game another spin.

        • blue vodka lemonade

           I haven’t played Nier but keep meaning to. What I’m worried about is that I’ll be bad at the game/won’t like it enough to see the different endings–despite generally not being “good” at games, I have a completionist streak that pokes me in the butt whenever I can’t see something through to, uh, the bitter end. As it were.

          Is it hard? Do successive playthroughs get shorter? Like, the first time I played SH2 I think it took about twelve hours, but the fifth time or so took less than one, which certainly made it easy to see every ending.

      • EmperorNortonI

         I only played through once, and haven’t done research on it, but one game that I’m willing to bet had a diverse range of endings was Planescape : Torment.

        That game had a huge array of bizarre crap going on, and it would be a shame if it didn’t somehow have an influence on the ending.  I played a fairly dumb brute with a good heart, and even though my teammates all loved me and we wailed on the the final boss in the end, I got a rather . . . disappointing ending.  As in, “ah, man, now I feel bad for ruining my guy’s un-life.”  I suspect it’s only understandable in terms of the other paths and options that I didn’t choose.  Either that, or the game just had a bummer ending.

        • dreadguacamole

           Torment’s a pretty interesting example – the end cutscene is always the same (as well it should – it’s a masterpiece), but most of the plot threads and character stories get resolved shortly before it, giving the end a different flavor.

        • dreadguacamole

           Talking about Torment, another game that had an incredibly good (and much more malleable) ending was Mask of the Betrayer, from pretty much the same people.
           It’s, um, an expansion pack for Neverwinter Nights 2. But it’s really really good – seriously!

           The endings fit with the themes and concepts put out throughout the game, but one of the options is pretty much to rebel against them and go on to tear the universe a new one.

        • http://www.facebook.com/arthur.chu.94 Arthur Chu

          One of the things about Planescape Torment is that — as is arguably realistic, but can also be frustrating — if you pick a character with low Wisdom and Intelligence scores you will go through the game not really understanding all that much of what you’ve been through, and you will end up with that inevitable bummer ending feeling disappointing. (“I’m totally fucked and I don’t even really get why.”)

          Some would call it bad game design, but I think it’s interesting that they directly roll with the idea that the more you pump up Int and Wis the more chances you get to actually discover answers to some (but not all) of the game’s nagging questions.

          I don’t want to get specific here, but there’s some important interactions you can have just before the ending of the game that are only possible if you have a high Wis score — one of those interactions in particular makes it a lot harder to call the ending you do get “disappointing”. Tragic, yes, but also exactly what you finally realize absolutely must happen.

        • http://www.facebook.com/arthur.chu.94 Arthur Chu

          One of the things about Planescape Torment is that — as is arguably realistic, but can also be frustrating — if you pick a character with low Wisdom and Intelligence scores you will go through the game not really understanding all that much of what you’ve been through, and you will end up with that inevitable bummer ending feeling disappointing. (“I’m totally fucked and I don’t even really get why.”)

          Some would call it bad game design, but I think it’s interesting that they directly roll with the idea that the more you pump up Int and Wis the more chances you get to actually discover answers to some (but not all) of the game’s nagging questions.

          I don’t want to get specific here, but there’s some important interactions you can have just before the ending of the game that are only possible if you have a high Wis score — one of those interactions in particular makes it a lot harder to call the ending you do get “disappointing”. Tragic, yes, but also exactly what you finally realize absolutely must happen.

      • Raging Bear

        That Silent Hill devolved so sharply in that regard is one of the (many) things that upset me so much about the hack outsourcing. Homecoming had a lot of binary choices, which were at least a little oblique, but then Downpour had things like “X: Save her, O: Let her fall.”

        Both of them had the klaxon and the huge neon letters flashing “YOU ARE INFLUENCING YOUR ENDING!!! a-WOOO-ga!! YOU ARE INFLUENCING YOUR ENDING!!!”

        • Effigy_Power

          The submarine alarm makes this ever more poignant. I salute you, @Raging_Bear:disqus.

  • LoveWaffle

    You want a proper telling of Journey to the West that doesn’t endorse slavery?  Watch the first 13 episodes of the original Dragon Ball anime.  

  • Andy Drake

    This is actually one of my favorite video game endings, although I think I had a different read on it than Anthony did.  I saw it more as a direct mirror of the ending to the original text, where the heroes bring Buddhism to the people. I saw the virtual reality happy land as a kind of false nirvana.  Everyone is happy, but they are purposeless and incapable of the kind of relationship we saw develop (all quality issues aside) throughout the game.  It’s worth pointing out that when she destroys the Andy Serkis FMV Overlord, she also wakes up all the other slaves, sucking them out of their fake heaven and into their harsh, but more meaningful reality.  This all seemed very Buddhist to me, but I might be seeing more than is actually there.

    It’s not a perfect, but there’s a pretty low bar when it comes to video game endings.  I liked that this one tried to do something different, rather than just give us a musical montage of all the characters we met along the way followed by a slow fade as our heroes ride off into the sunset, or some such nonsense.

    • Enkidum

      Huh, I think that’s probably closer to what the devs had in mind, now that I think about it. She’s got to bring enlightenment in some sense, if it’s going to match the original, and that is what happens at the end. Nice!

  • Aurora Boreanaz

    Fascinating…I’m sure I’m not the only one to immediately think of The Matrix as a parallel to the pyramid here.

    Despite the clunkiness of the Matrix sequels, I still did like the ending – the humans were allowed to choose between being free and living inside the Matrix.  For some people, the chance to live in an idealized fantasy world instead of a sometimes harsh reality would be a difficult choice.

    I spent (some would say wasted) almost five years in World of Warcraft before I got burnt out…if I’d been able to experience it as near-perfect virtual reality I probably would still be in it now.  I’m alternately excited and scared at the possibility of that level of realism in games.

    • The_Forgotten_Quill

      I like your assessment, and I also think it’s interesting that you talk about choice. Trip ultimately makes that choice for everyone and, even more ironically, without even experiencing it. She lets revenge take over to the point where she disconnects everyone for her own selfish reasons. She doesn’t ask Monkey what he saw or even take a moment to put the mask on. She simply rips the guy apart.

      In a way, it’s kind of like Neo and friends. They assume, arrogantly enough, that they know what’s best for people. That because they’re “happier” out of the Matrix that everyone else must share their sentiments. Inevitably though, there are those (like Cypher), who would prefer the veil.

      • Army_Of_Fun

        On the other hand, the people living out the VR world were initally free and then captured by force. If the participants were willing, you’d think it’d be less trouble for Pyramid if he advertised his VR paradise rather than send out robot armies to round up people and force them into it.

        • The_Forgotten_Quill

          That’s a really interesting point. Which is why stories like this tend to be a vicious cycle of arrogance all around. Everyone thinks they’re “saving” everyone else from a terrible fate. 

          I’m also interested in what Monkey would have chosen had Trip given him a chance. It sure gave the impression he was leaning toward wanting to experience more. And what if Trip had seen this utopia? Would it have changed her mind? Would the sight of such a paradise have dampened her rage? Would they have been able to work out a better solution than simply unplugging the Pyramid forever?

  • Spacemonkey Mafia

    So if one agrees with the thesis of this essay, ‘Odyssey’ has the same message implicit that Bioshock made explicit; by simple virtue of playing a game, you are relinquishing much of your own self to fulfill an understood set of tasks provided you by another.
       Thinking on it, it becomes a little eerie how a gamer’s brain has been conditioned to the expectations of a game.  I can’t remember what it was specifically, but sometime ago I started a game while my wife watched, which is something of a rarity.  She asked me the not uncommon question for someone who doesn’t game; “How do you know where to go?  How do you know what you’re doing?”  Which I replied, having played video games over twenty-five years on a dozen plus systems, I was pretty fluent in the language of games.  Where to go, what that flashing doodad implies, what will occur by talking to that bobbing mushroom creature, etc. etc.
       So essentially, as gamers, we have conditioned our brains to take cues and follow directions.  Even the choice-y games are often simply a binary system. Do you a Eat the pulsating chicken leg?  Or b Kill the octopus?
       Thinking of it in those terms, it becomes more of an insidious hobby than even it’s common reputation as a violent time-waster would imply.
       ’Course that’s all an overly dramatic way of looking at it.  But it is a little incongruous that a medium defined as interactive remains something that can be experienced almost exclusively through reflexive muscle response.

    • The_Forgotten_Quill

      I also thought of Bioshock, but I think you’ve highlighted exactly what makes games different. Even if all games are just a demand that a player perform a series of tasks to ultimately arrive at a predefined ending, that’s more than any other form of media demands of you. 

      For example, when I sit down with a book or movie, barring that I’m really disliking it, I’m going to inevitably get to see how the whole story plays out. With games, not so much. Years ago, I began to play through Star Ocean: The Last Hope and just couldn’t master the battle system well enough to complete the game (Tri-Ace is always unkind to me). Eventually, I came back and somehow muddled through it, but for awhile, I was at an impasse.

      Mastering those “reflexive muscle responses” is, in a way, kind of an art form which can ultimately determine if you even get to make the next choice. It is a fascinating, and rather insidious, hobby.  

      • Aurora Boreanaz

        I’ve thought about that “reflexive muscle response” as well.  It’s always amazing when you pass the point between learning the keys/buttons to press and instinctively executing actions.  For me this happens more often in first-person games (BioShock, Skyrim) where the story immerses you as fully as possible.  Skyrim’s menu system detracts from that somewhat, but once you set up most of your common items and spells with hotkeys it makes it easier to forget the interface.

        • The_Forgotten_Quill

          Funny story about that…  My roommate always finds it fascinating that I can play Xbox with my hands wrapped in a blanket. She likes to keep the temp just above freezing, so it’s a must or wear gloves. I never used to think about it, but that just proves your point of how immersive a game can be once your know your way around the interface. 

          Also, it can work against you. For example, I played Darksiders right before I played Enslaved and for some reason kept hitting X expecting Monkey to dash out of the way of enemies. It was REALLY hard for awhile to reprogram.   

    • alguien_comenta

      It always amazes me how some things that we take for granted in gaming are not really that straightforward. I’ve noticed this a lot when I started gaming with my niece and saw her getting stuck in things that seemed so obvious to me. But I think this talks more about faulty game design (or designers expectations on their demographics) than indoctrination.
      Also, this makes the spare moments when the games go against the “norm” to be more memorable (like most of FEZ). It also makes the moments where the game goes against it’s own norm infuriating (like scripted boss fights or that stupid PoP 2006 ending)

    • caspiancomic

       I got to see this phenomenon myself recently. I hosted a couple of friends after a screening of The Dark Knight Rises, and since we were in a Batman mood, I introduced them to Arkham City. They started a new game on a new profile, and were so embarrassingly bad at it that I almost couldn’t stand to watch. Now, Arkham City is a complicated game (the sheer quantity of actions you can perform is what keeps me from going back- I don’t want to have to relearn all those controls), but these guys were in the first half hour of the game and struggling not only with the controls or their objectives, but with the actual language of the medium we all take for granted. For a start, in spite of having a green ‘!’ on their HUD and a towering arrow indicating their next objective, they still had to ask me where they were meant to go. When they got there, they flubbed the stealth tutorial segment and ended up in a fist fight. When they finished with the court house and had to use Detective Mode or whatever to determine the path of a bullet, they ran around the courthouse inspecting individual windows and throwing batarangs at Two-Face. They didn’t even activate Detective Mode.

      It was pretty shocking, because my very first time through the game I breezed through all of that in ten or fifteen minutes. You really do notice how much of the logic and language of gaming becomes second nature to you after twenty years, to the point that you can pick up a brand new game and control it fluently despite never having played it before. It’s strange to think that someone new to gaming could either ignore or not notice a spinning power-up, or have to ask what it’s for. Seeing someone look at their controller to find the button they’re being asked to press is equally disturbing. We huff and puff a lot about games dumbing themselves down for the masses, but when you see ‘the masses’ struggling to accomplish a task you could do one-handed, you start to understand why these companies make the choices they do. Whether or not they’re making the best choices is left as an argument for the readers.

      • Spacemonkey Mafia

        I think your final paragraph is pretty damn spot on.  Game controllers themselves are such esoteric artifacts that I believe on sight alone can just enervate someone thinking about playing a game.  Without that familiarity, just looking at one would be befuddling.
           As for your last sentiment, the Wii really did seem like it was about to find that golden mean of playability to fun to depth, but as things in the real world are oft to do, it kind of fell off on that potential.

      • blue vodka lemonade

         I’ll admit to occasionally needing to glance at the controller, because I played PS2 for years before I got a 360 and have only had the 360 for about ten months. Once in a while, I panic and forget letters.

        Two-stick 3D controls are something I always have a hard time watching people new to games try to parse. I thought my mother might like Alan Wake, so I convinced her to try out the controls in a safe part of the game. She ran in circles for a while, got angry at the game, and hasn’t tried a console game since.

        It might just be an old dog/new tricks kind of deal, but I wish there were a gentler way to teach basic control schemes. Consoles should come with some simple tutorial-games built in, so that people can learn new genres in a low-frustration environment.

        • caspiancomic

           Oh God, for total newbies, using both analog sticks at once is basically impossible. A bunch of friends and I were once taking turns playing some shooter or another, and we got worried that we were boring a friend of ours who doesn’t often play games, so we insisted on giving him a turn. Dood took his left hand off the controller to use the right analog stick to look in the direction he wanted, the put his left hand back on the left stick to move in that direction. Using both his thumbs to move his character and the camera simultaneously was something he just physically could not do- he didn’t have the dexterity for it, and his brain was unable to associate moving the analog stick with moving the camera. Needless to say, he didn’t exactly break new ground in our game.

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

          As someone who grew up gaming on PC and has never owned any consoles, I’m fluent in the language of games, but I can’t use a gamepad to save my life. I just never developed the manual dexterity or the hand-eye coordination to do so. I think that learning how to use a controller in a 3D environment requires a lot of practice, so it’s no wonder that games are often seen as having a huge barrier to entry.

  • Brian J

    I enjoyed this for the evening/next day that it took me to finish it after Redboxing it. I think I would have preferred to just watch it as a movie/TV show though.

  • alguien_comenta

    I did enjoy the game, I thought it was at least more daring than most games of the time. I also liked how the setting was green with blue skies and not that awful brown, orange and teal from most games (I also loved that on Mirror’s Edge and was really bummed when they started to put you in confined settings, which didn’t make sense in a “free-running” game)
    But in the end I was glad I used a GameFly trial for this (and also Vanquish) instead of buying it. I think is worth playing even with its failings.

  • http://twitter.com/weilide Alex Wille

    I realize this is 100% off-topic but this seems like the right audience. I’ve got a ~11 hour flight ahead of me and I was thinking of grabbing an IOS RPG to pass the time on my iPad with. I know there are some ports of classic games available (for example, Final Fantasy Tactics) but I’ve heard that the ports are often very slapdash. Any suggestions of new or ported games that would be worth the investment?

    • Enkidum

      Depending on how loosely you define “RPG”, and your patience for Rockstar, GTA Chinatown Wars is really worth playing, and could easily occupy a few hours. Other than that, though, I haven’t really found any RPGs on iOS that I actually liked very much.

    • alguien_comenta

      I chose FFT for this, and yes the port has some random graphic glitches that requires you reload your saved game. I noticed this on an iPad 1, not sure if it’s fixed on the newer ones

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

      For all your 100% off-topic discussion needs: the Gameological Steam group.

      • Juan_Carlo

        Wow.  Members only average 6 hours per week.

        Even the AV Club steam group has a higher average play time than that.

    • HilariousNPC

      Try Crimson Gem Saga.

  • HilariousNPC

    I think this writer’s making the mistake of giving credit to the game for trying and failing to make insightful points when it should all really just be ascribed to bad writing.

    The moment you know that the writers don’t have a clue of what they’re trying to say is when Trip sees the terrarium. She claims that it’s a perfectly sustaining ecosystem, like they one they’re trying to replicate. “The plankton gets the energy from the sun, the fish eat the plants, and the big fish eat the little ones.”

    That works for one generation. Then the little fish have all been eaten, the big fish die without food, or eat the rest of the plankton, and then die. This was supposed to be her big metaphor for life, and her mission and it’s all BUNK.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jon.halling.7 Jon Halling

    I actually think this game is underrated. It’s obviously not without it’s flaws but it feels like the sort of game where I’d really welcome a sequel if they fix some of the less appealing parts of the game design (much like assassins creed).
    With regards to monkey choosing to keep the crown, I understood this as him choosing trip and a symbolic devotion to her rather than slavery.
    As to the ending, it certainly is left field. I don’t think it’s an endorsement of slavery per se. More a provocation to think about issues of slavery and the sacrifices for safety we sometimes make as well as questioning whether a benevolent dictatorship really would be a good thing. It’s an Alex Garland story so i dont think anyone should have been expecting a simple happy ending.

  • Thirith

    I’d need to replay the game to write something longer and probably more insightful – but I found the ambivalence of the game (neither Trip nor Monkey are goody-goody, they’ve both flawed – although calling them ‘terrible’ strikes me as the sort of hyperbole you get on message boards) exactly one of its assets. Instead of being about freedom vs. slavery, I think the game, its story and its characters are about different kinds of freedom vs. different kinds of being enslaved. In a relationship (even without some techno-headband) you’re not 100% free – you agree to your freedom being reduced in certain ways, or you choose to leave the relationship. We tend to romanticise the ways in which we’re less free in a relationship, but the fact remains: in a relationship you trade some freedoms for other things. Same with society: there is no such thing as 100% freedom within a society, as there are always certain rules. Again, it’s a trade-off: you can be a free individual, or you can give up some of your freedoms in order to be part of a society.

    I’m not saying that Enslaved did an amazing job of raising these issues, and the restrictive gameplay definitely counteracts the narrative to some extent – but I find the author’s own notion of freedom to be somewhat simplistic and binary in a way that simply doesn’t correspond with reality. The game’s notion of freedom as something that is situational and interlinked with shifting dependencies within a developing relationship? Strikes me as both more interesting and more realistic.