It’s usually not a good sign when filmmakers decide to get involved with games. Barring the occasional inspired celebrity voiceover, such as Dennis Hopper’s porn mogul in GTA Vice City or the previously mentioned Bruce Campbell narrating the Spider-man movie games, they almost always end in disaster. Some of you may remember one of the first of these ‘Hollywood’ games, Apocalypse, the PS1 game ‘starring’ Bruce Willis’s likeness and voice talents. The only blessing may be that the PS1 didn’t have the graphical power to make it very realistic, Bruce being presented as a sunken-faced zombie. Perhaps they chose Mr. Willis just so they wouldn’t have to strain the PS1 processor trying to render hair?
If they tried this on modern hardware you would get lens flare shining off that barren bonce
The game was pretty poorly received, and it was clear a lot more time, effort and money went in to getting Baldy McVest on board than ever went into gameplay or level design. Since then Tinseltown stars have shied away from being involved in videogames by and large, perhaps because Bruce got his fingers burned or perhaps because Hollywood still doesn’t really care about the games market (which, last time I checked, was now making more money than movies, though admittedly it gets spread around a lot more peoples’ pockets). People got very excited when James Cameron got personally involved in the Avatar game, only for him to produce an average third person shooter where you play a space marine in a giant mech. Given the plot of the film, I don’t know why we would expect anything approaching originality from him, but still, this is seriously phoning it in.
There is, however, occasionally something to be said about games where a known film celebrity is an active collaborator in the project, providing input into the story as well as their likeness. Vin Diesel’s efforts on The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay are well documented and the game (though personally not a favourite) was innovative and well-executed enough to spawn a recent remake/sequel.
Hoping to emulate and probably exceed this success, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West stars the voice and motion capture expertise of Andy Serkis (King Kong, Lord of the Rings), who also co-directed the cutscenes, and was co-written by Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later). Serkis has been quoted as saying he’s more interested in directing than acting these days, and I have no doubt that being involved with the cutscene direction would definitely have been a condition of him coming on board and once again being ‘seen but not seen’ in his performance. For a man renowned for working with computer technology, this is actually a pretty smart move, not least because, for all their progress in recent years, video game faces are still incapable of anything approaching realistic expression, meaning an actor with Serkis’s experience of having to use his voice to emote where his face cannot is the perfect fit.
The story is essentially a road movie with the characters and some story elements ‘borrowed’ from the classical Chinese novel Journey to the West/ 70s TV series Monkey (presumably 16th century scholar Wu Cheng’en is the other ‘co-writer’?). It starts with leading lady/tech expert Trip(itaka) escaping from a cell on a slave ship, and, in the process of destroying said ship, freeing the similarly captured Monkey in the process, who, despite his name, is a decidedly human, very agile, hugely-muscled bloke (though he does wear a sash that dangles by his side like a tail as a nod to his simian name). After the ship crashes, Monkey wakes up to see Trip standing over him, having put a ‘slave headband’ on him, meaning he has to do what she says or face incredible pain/death, and if she dies for any reason, he dies instantly. Again, this is from the original Chinese story, but the concept did create an interesting setup that, sadly, was only explored and resolved in the most predictable way. It doesn’t affect the gameplay, but it was a chance for Garland to show a bit of originality in his writing, a chance he appears to have not just passed up, but run away from like it had the Rage virus.
Trip needs to get home, and, since the 300 mile journey across ‘I am Legend’-style long-abandoned, nature-reclaimed America teeming with robot ‘mechs’ is too dangerous for her on her own, she finds the nearest unconscious guy and forces him into subservience and risk his life protecting you instead. And so the unlikely partnership of Trip’s tech gadgets and Monkey’s ability to hit things with a stick set off to find her village, and later to destroy the Slavers who took her and Monkey hostage, teaming up with Trip’s friend and comedy relief Pigsy (who, unlike Monkey, does resemble a pig) along the way.
Though there are several different beautifully-rendered levels along the way, and a couple of different gameplay mechanics, most of the time you’ll be doing pretty much the same thing: clambering on drainpipes, handholds and ladders to reach a handful of robots for you to beat up with standard X/Y button combos to clear the way for precious flower Trip, collecting ‘tech orbs’ that fuel the seemingly ubiquitous and largely arbitrary upgrade tree, and occasionally carrying Trip/flinging her across gaps/making her a cup of tea as required. A few different ‘boss’ mechs do show up to break the monotony slightly, but even then you will see the same ones several times each, with some like the huge ‘Dogs’ showing up so often that what starts out as cool and even scary ends up being mundane and even a bit annoying. OK, yes, I get it: the enemies are robots, so there are bound to be loads of the same model around, but the old ‘hundreds of cloned enemies’ trick is one they really need to stop. Another terrible choice is the ‘instant death if you make a mistake’ chase TOWARDS the screen. I get it, it’s more dramatic to be able to see your pursuer gaining ground behind you, but you know what I can’t see? WHERE I’M GOING! It’s really pot luck if you get through this on your first attempt, and you’re likely to need three or four just to know where all the obstacles are going to be.
The climbing part of the game is well-handled, striking a good balance between Prince of Persia 2008-style ‘just hit one button to do everything’ and Prince of Persia Sands of Time-style ‘you actually feel involved in the movements of your character’. I don’t think I ever plunged to my death because Monkey leapt the wrong way, or didn’t follow the direction I wanted him to go, but it is also quite easy to move from handhold to handhold fluidly and at speed, which is nice to see. It also handles the camera very nicely, subtly repositioning it to help guide you in the right direction when it otherwise might be unclear – if you have to fight with it, you’re probably going the wrong way.
Having said earlier that faces in games still don’t come close to being able to convey realistic emotion, the characters on display in Enslaved may be the best I have ever seen. Partly it’s due to the fact that the cutscenes are being directed by a film director rather than a game director: Serkis does a great job focussing on character’s wordless interactions- expressions and subtle gestures, glances and winces doing more than the standard stony-face expositionary dialogue. Partly it’s due to some serious time having been spent on the rendering of the models – nice to see they recognised that there’s no point in having a celebrated motion capture actor in your game if you’re not able to show off his performance properly.
Although the two main characters are reasonably well rounded, and the game world certainly detailed and varied, the actual backstory to the world and any other characters (not that there even are that many that aren’t robots) is largely ignored. We know the slavers take people, but we never see any of them except on the ship at the start (and it’s suggested that even they might be slaves themselves). The reason why they take people is sort of explained at the end of the game, but doesn’t make a huge amount of sense. There are huge robots, land mines and automated turrets spread across the abandoned city, but again no real explanation why they’re there. Also, why is the city abandoned? Where did all the people go? At one point Trip herself asks why the slavers have done certain things, and nobody even attempts an answer. Maybe it doesn’t really matter, but surely the point of boasting that you have a Hollywood writer on the project should be that the story is, if not good, then at least complete? Instead we have things mentioned once and never referred to again, things brought up casually and wound into the plot without any explanation of where they came from and bizarre statements that are never explained, such as Trip remarking that she can hear one of the mechs ‘breathing’. Are these robots at least partially organic? Is she imagining things? What at first seems like a rich and deep background world actually becomes very vague once you scratch the surface.
That said, Enslaved is a solid 8 hours of largely entertaining, if somewhat repetitive, gameplay, with great cutscenes, character models and acting, in a very pretty and original world. It’s not going to set records for sales, I would wager, but it’s probably worth a look when it drops down to around £20 (which likely won’t take very long). Based on this game, I don’t think the we really need Alex Garland if this is the best he can come up with, but we should certainly welcome Andy Serkis’s involvement in future releases, so long as we continue not to see his actual face.