Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (and friends!)

So last week we talked about Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, which is basically the video game tie-in for Planet of the Apes. Well, it’s not, but Andy Serkis plays a monkey in both of them, and I thought it was funny last week, so I figured I’d try it again. Remember: recycling is good for the environment. Anyway – so we talked about how Enslaved dallies with the whole ‘You don’t have choice’ thing, exemplified by Portal, and has its own little emotional hook in the relationship between the player-character, Monkey, and Trip, the woman who enslaves Monkey in order to get home. That’s where I want to pick up today.

Here’s the question: from a purely narrative perspective, would Monkey have made a better protagonist, or a better companion? Obviously from a gameplay perspective it would have been a pretty shit game if your role was to sit around while Monkey did all the work – the whole point of Trip enslaving Monkey in the first place was that she wasn’t capable of getting home by herself. We’re going to set that point aside, and just focus on the narrative – and I know that’s bad practice, because the narrative is partially communicated through gameplay, but we’re going to do it anyway.

So: setting aside the point that we shouldn’t be trying to separate gameplay and narrative, which protagonist would make for a better story? The enslaver or the enslaved? Part of the question revolves around your position as a player – in a game like Minecraft, you’re hypothetically able to project yourself into the character and the world much more deeply than you could in a game like Spec Ops: The Line. In Minecraft, you’ve got a blank slate character, whereas I would argue that The Line‘s effect is predicated on you coming to the conclusion that Martin Walker (protagonist) is a terrible person and you don’t like him very much. That involves actually seeing the protagonist as someone separate to you – but then Minecraft is all about the player inhabiting this blank avatar. In that regard, I think Enslaved‘s got pretty strong characters, so I think it’s possible for the player to see either option as a separate person. This is helped along by the fact that the game runs on third-person perspective, which means that you’re looking at the protagonist, rather than through their eyes.

This is important, because it dictates the relationship between player and protagonist. There’s a scene in The Last of Us where I had to push a piano over to a wall to climb up. I couldn’t do it myself though – Ellie had to come help out. I was really hacked off at that, because I thought it was an inorganic and frustrating design decision, to have me become so dependent on Ellie all of a sudden. A friend pointed out to me that maybe that was the point – the frustration I felt at Ellie mirrored Joel’s frustration at having to look after her. It’s a fun little way to communicate emotion through gameplay. Anyway: the point is that if you’re playing a blank slate character, there’s no point asking how the character feels, because, as the player, your emotions are the ones that matter. However, in something like Enslaved, we can make that distinction between your emotions and those of the protagonist – so you respond to them rather than as them.

If that’s the case, the importance of which one’s the protagonist potentially decreases, because either way you’re still going to be watching these two characters interact and responding to their personalities. The key difference for you as a player is going to be more in terms of association. Imagine watching a James Bond film from the perspective of a Bond girl – totally different film, right. I mean, pick one of the ones who doesn’t die twenty seconds after having sex with him. By changing who the story follows, we can change how the audience feels about different characters. We can focalise the story through the eyes of different characters, and show things in a whole new light. This is one of the biggest missions for feminist narrative, by the way – Bond girls might be pretty, but we always see them from Bond’s perspective, rather than as they see themselves. That’s why we talk about how they’re reduced to furniture or window dressing – it’s not because they’re incapable, necessarily, it’s because the perspective is always a male one. Yes, I know James Bond is a male character – that’s not the point. I’m talking about a more widespread issue across the entire industry.

Man – digression central here today, sorry about that. So the question is whether we’re looking at Trip from Monkey’s perspective, or Monkey from Trip’s perspective. We already know what the former is like: Monkey is initially angry at Trip for enslaving him, but becomes slowly attached to her over the course of the story (PS: it’s called Stockholm, and it’s not a good thing). By the end of the story they’ve developed a romantic relationship (sigh), and Monkey isn’t really that bothered about being enslaved in the first place.

That’s how you spot a deep and sincere character development – their personality goes completely out the window within a dozen hours of gameplay. Can you imagine if he remained an angry, bitter character? Trip takes off the headband, and he rips her to shreds and leaves. That would’ve been a story worth talking about. It really displays Trip’s fragility, and the bestial nature of Monkey – she’s got this tiger by the tail, and when she lets him off the leash (imagining some romantic attachment), he kills her, because he’s huge, strong, and angry. But, of course, that doesn’t happen, because video games are too invested in making the player feel good about themselves. More digression!

So from Trip’s perspective, if we reverse the situation, you’ve got fear about Monkey, but also a real bravery in that she’s dared to enslave him. There’s potential to explore the moral quandry of whether or not her actions are justified – Monkey doesn’t really care about the ethics of the situation, he’s just fuckin’ mad about it. There’s opportunity for a more subtle, intellectual approach to conflict with the mechs, and a great opening to mock the hyper-aggressive masculinist approach to violence in video games.

Also, if we sustain Monkey’s anger throughout the whole game, there’s a lovely opportunity to explore proximity and attachment. Imagine: Trip’s enslaved Monkey, and, although she’s initially very wary of him, she’s also physically dependent on him to get her home. In that reliance she starts to see him as more of a friend or companion. She attempts to reach out to him emotionally, and boom! Monkey says something shitty (because he’s angry and stupid), and she retracts back into herself. Over time, she builds her confidence back up, tries another approach, and is similarly rejected. Now this is a story: Trip trying a range of approaches, trying to get Monkey to open up and be her friend. Monkey not responding, because he’s a savage creature who’s not very impressed that he’s been enslaved. Resolution: either Trip takes the headset off, and gets killed, or she realises that she’ll never be friends with her slave, and she stops trying. She becomes cruel, cold, and callous towards him. To put it another way, she either gains a more mature understanding of the situation, or she doesn’t (and so she dies).

I wouldn’t offer both endings as a ‘choice’ to players though – I don’t think this is a situation where the designer can have their cake and eat it too. I think there’s more emotional power in something the player doesn’t choose, because it gives the weight of the decision to the character, rather than the player. It allows the character to complete their own arc, rather than whipping their autonomy out from under them at the last second. I think that’s something I’m becoming more convinced of – if you want to make great stories in video games, maybe you’ve got to take control of the narrative away from the player. Instead of letting them playing out their own story, you make them play your story – and if you’re any good at story-telling, they won’t mind!

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