Is it even necessary to say they’re going to be spoilers in this?
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West has to be one of the games I enjoyed most in 2010. It is a beautiful game, both technically and artistically, and the art direction is ace. The story is compelling, with well-written characters, and the acting by Andy Serkis and Lindsey Shaw is nicely restrained. It’s also a relief to play a game where the writing doesn’t literally assault you with exposition (I’m looking at you, Singularity), rather letting the narrative unfold through environmental details. Gameplaywise it’s a pretty solid affair – the platforming elements are well done, and the combat is smooth if repetitive.
The most impressive part of the game, though, and the one that appealed to me the most, is the game world. Enslaved’s take on a post-apocalypse is pretty original, and the game’s depiction of a blasted, scarred New York that is slowly being reclaimed by nature is stunningly realised. The way the game juxtaposes the lush, plentiful fauna of the wilderness with the decrepit relics of civilization it is cannibalising is evocative and visually arresting. Enslaved is a game about this decaying world, and it is one of the game’s main characters.
So what makes the ending of the game such a shot way out of left-field is the discovery that, amidst this wreck of a world, there exists a massive Pyramid where a hive mind wants to plug the human race into a virtualisation of Andy Serkis’ blissful life before everything went to hell.
Let’s ignore the fact that, in the game, this is a tonal shift so massive that it registered on the Richter scale, or that it’s not foreshadowed by anything that comes before it, aesthetically or thematically. Let us first address the fact that I’ve seen this film before, in 1999, and it was called The Matrix. A small resistance of humans in a desolate post-apocalyptic wasteland, fighting against the machines that have enslaved humanity in a virtual world? I mean, come on Ninja Theory (and Alex Garland), it’s like you’re not even trying.
I guess that makes this guy Morpheus.
I wouldn’t even mind the striking similarities between Enslaved and The Matrix, if it didn’t so uncomfortably jar with the tone of the rest of the game, and contradict the game’s essential premise. Andy Serkis’ main reason for wanting to plug everyone into the Matrix is to spare them the pain and struggle of living in the devastation of the real world. But if he’s trying to save the human race, why are the mechs trying to kill everyone? I’m pretty sure decimating what little remains of humanity kind of complicates Andy Serkis’ goal to enslave them.
For that matter, why does Andy Serkis need to enslave anyone at all? If living in the Matrix is so brilliant, then, I dunno, maybe showing them an educational video would have been a more pragmatic start than the robot-army-scorched-earth avenue that Andy Serkis seems to have put into effect in the game. Surely such an altruistic mission requires a little more tact and a little less murder.
My main problem with this inconsistency in the ending is that it renders the final level completely implausible. In the finale, Monkey, Trip, and Pigsy (id, super-ego, and ego, respectively) commandeer the Leviathan, an enormous mech constructed by Pyramid as some kind of ultimate weapon. And then, in a gloriously epic final level, you march upon the Pyramid headquaters in the Leviathan, which is basically an island with legs, while you swing and jump around the exterior of the robotic beast, fighting off one of a wave of giant scorpion mechs with laser tails that’s climbed on top.
There’s literally not a single word in that sentence that isn’t perfect, and as a final level it’s impressive in scale and fittingly climactic. But the ending renders the whole thing totally absurd – if Andy Serkis is trying to save the human race from the horrors of its post-apocalyptic existence, then why does he need to construct an enormous robotic death beast for?
The last level of the game.
No doubt some smug douche will point out the inherent irony of criticising a game about people fighting a machine army in a ravaged New York two-hundred years in the future for not being plausible, but it’s about consistency. Videogames, like a lot of art, create a world that we can explore, and Enslaved has one of the most compelling worlds I’ve experienced for a while in video games. And while the worlds created in art and the things that happen in them don’t have to be plausible or even possible, they must at least follow a kind of internal logic. It’s the same reason why it doesn’t work to have Neo as a superhuman shaman in the Matrix sequels, because it totally violates the rules of the world that the Wachowski Brothers so perfectly created in the original film. When art starts to flaunt and bend the internal logic of their worlds, then they’ve broken the spell. And that’s an analogy so appropriate that I have to reward myself with a biscuit.
Finally, the ending totally ignores some fundamental questions about choice and free will. The premise that Andy Serkis is forcibly capturing people and putting them in the Matrix has a nice thematic parallel with Trip forcing Monkey to help her against his will, but it’s not explored at all. Is it better to choose to struggle in the real world or not have a choice to live a life of virtual bliss? Is Andy Serkis wrong to force people to live life in the Matrix? Is Trip wrong to extract these people from their simulated lives? Why do the writers not ask these questions? The game’s called Enslaved.
All we get is a paltry, “Did I do the right thing?” from Trip after she literally tears a man in half. And then the credits roll.
Pictured: doing the right thing.
BONUS COMPLAINT: Why are Andy Serkis and Monkey the same person? Seriously, this makes no sense.
Check out Yahtzee (of Zero Punctuation fame) give a pretty rich alternate take on how Journey to the West could have been adapted into a game.