Enslaved – “Ruined Future”
Forget the arrogant statement of adaptation to the classic “Journey to the West”, for such relationship is merely cosmetic: Alex Garland’s neo-environmentalist tale in “Enslaved” is a post-apocalyptic cliché on the destruction of the world by way of Man and his technology. The tone is ripped straight from TV documentary “Life After People” and the narrative proper is fascist hollywood methodology: all style and fanfare, zero emotional depth (Freeman’s emotioneering guidelines come to mind). However, ironic as it may sound, the thematic choice has more to say about “Enslaved”, the videogame, than its preposterous view of Mankind’s future. For like its character Monkey, Tameem Antoniades (director) believes that it is in the process of acknowledging the ways of the past, that the future can be won. History is therefore the key to enlightenment – such notion is insightful and appropriate for a medium that far too often has neglected its unsung heroes and crowned its greatest of villains. And at least initially, one gets the distinct feeling that Antoniades understands this truth.
Using “ICO” as the emotional core for its aesthetic, as well as basis for the empathic relationship between protagonists was undoubtedly a step in the right direction. Learning all the lessons from “Naughty Dog’s” action adventure library resulted in a balanced, if not perfect, exploration system. And choosing “God of War” as structural pillar for combat seems elementary these days. Others could be mentioned, suffice to say that Ninja Theory plays the student part well, and chose an agreeable (if highly debatable) canon to use in its pastiche. However, visions of the past are meaningless if nor properly dissected, and herein lies Antoniades failing as author. Not only did he not add anything unique to his citation jumble, as he only skimmed by the immediate past, overlooking unavoidable references. Even worse, he fails to blend them together so as to forge a new whole brimming with identity. Simply put, as an experience, “Enslaved” is lesser than the sum of its parts. Combat is intense but superficial, exploration is agreeable, but pointless. Pathetic western design ticks take the front stage far too often: in the noisy neon-colored HUD, in the absurd collectionism of shiny orbs (probably the worst appearance of such mechanisms since 2008’s Prince of Persia), in the lack of proper ludic challenge, and in the excessively directed level design – “do this, do that, have fun while you’re acting like a mindless robot“.
Surely, the aesthetic treatment is one of the richest in western titles this year – just a glimpse of the evocative landscapes and Trip’s face is enough to understand the care of the authors in this area. As always, Nitin Sawhney plays the part of composer with excellency, delivering another poignant soundtrack that makes everything seem more mysterious and deep than Garland’s down-to-earth writing imply. Aesthetically, there’s such good craftmanship here, it ends up justifying the very existence of “Enslaved”; it’s just a shame that the Unreal Engine’s colors and comic-book visual tropes never allow it to bloom fully.
Like its crumbling environments, “Enslaved” is a dead eco of days gone by. Nature runs rampant across the landscape giving it a lush feel, but you never forget that is but a faint glimmer of life. Trapped in misunderstood accounts of the past, the game loses itself in its vague citations, its vain beauty and vacuous discourse. Not that it is a poor breed of entertainment, quite on the contrary, it is a very comfortable, instantly familiar, bright western title in these ill times of dark military fantasies. It simply lacks any appeal besides its aesthetic, making it another of those fuzzy, amorphous memories of the past which lack strong emotional impressions. Antoniades is simply not that good an author (as “Heavenly Sword” also testifies), even when he limits himself at copying the best ideas that came before him. The medium’s past misunderstood means the way for the future is, yet again, ruined.