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.
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.
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.”
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.