WARNING: Spoilers follow.
“A man chooses. A slave obeys.”
So said Andrew Ryan, the iconic antagonist of 2007 classic Bioshock, and so changed my perspective on just what it meant to play a video game. With those six simple words, I was led to consider just how much control stemmed from the seemingly misnamed controller I held in my hands.
Sure, I may have been the one doing all the running, jumping, and shooting, but when it came down to why I was actually doing all those things in the first place, the answer was simple: because I was told to. I realized that my in-game freedom had been an illusion—an enjoyable one for sure, but a fallacy nonetheless. Once I entered into the game’s world, I effectively constrained myself to the only paths it had ever provided for me.
It’s this notion of confinement that is at the heart of 2010 action-platformer, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. Now, a cursory glance at developer Ninja Theory’s epic may not make this immediately apparent, but if you dig a little bit deeper, you’ll find a modern gem that, like Bioshock, achieves no less than to propose a theory on the nature of video game playing itself. Unlike Bioshock, though, Enslaved shows us that being a “slave” may not be such a bad thing.
If you’ve never played Enslaved, allow me to get you up to speed. It’s 150 years into the future. The world has been devastated by a catastrophic global war. Savage mechs left over from the conflict roam the lands, attacking whatever they can find. The few splotches of human beings left have either died out, or have been taken as slaves to the mysterious Pyramid.
You play as Monkey, a brawny loner with no discernible background. Your partner is Trip, a technological genius desperate to get back to her family. She needs you, the skilled fighter that you are, to get there, though, and to that end she places a slave headband around your skull without your consent. This makes it so you are subject to her every command. If you stray too far from her, you die. If you disobey her orders, you die. If she dies, you die. You are given no choice but to do as she says until her needs are met.
Sounds harsh, right?
When you think about it, though, Enslaved would be a fitting title for just about any video game. For the most part, playing a game is all about adhering to a particular set of guidelines and rules. You are dropped into a contained world, with boundaries you can’t cross and actions you can’t do.
The abilities you are given in games are almost universally limited when compared to reality. With Monkey, for instance, you can jump, climb, attack, roll, shoot, yell, and, well that’s about it. From there, the game will only progress unless you complete the task required of you at that moment. Don’t feel like jumping onto that platform? Fine, but don’t expect anything new to happen until you do what needs to be done. And so on.
When you play a video game, there’s an implicit understanding that you will do what the game tells you to do—at least if you want to do something other than watching your virtual avatar just stand around. Video games naturally require progression of some sort, whether it be getting from level to level, or upgrading your character, or creating an item, or what have you. By being forced to progress along the specific lines the game’s makers have picked out for you, in the pursuit of the specific goals they’ve set out for you, you lose your freedom. You become a slave.
Or, in Enslaved’s case, you become a monkey. It makes sense—there’s something distinctly primal about stripping yourself of your will like this. Monkey, fittingly, is quite animalistic, with his brute strength, wild leaping abilities (it’s a platformer, remember), and introverted nature. Because so little is known about his past, players are naturally able to project themselves into his character. And that’s the point.
Enslaved puts you into the shoes of Monkey, while simultaneously making you recognize that you yourself are like a monkey while playing it. You’re there to press your buttons so that you can defeat mechs and jump from platform to platform. You’re there to complete the tasks that you’re required to do—beat this group of enemies at this point here, and leap onto that ledge there. You’re just there to obey.
But a monkey needs to obey someone. Here, that someone is Trip, your AI partner and Monkey’s slaver. Simply put, if this interpretation of Enslaved considers each player to be a monkey, one that follows orders and completes the tasks assigned to him without free will, then it can then consider Trip to be the game’s developers, those who set the rules and orders that the “monkeys” must accept in the first place.
Like the makers of a game, Trip controls what you, Monkey, can and cannot do. Monkey’s entire quest becomes one in which he must serve her requests, just as your quest through a game is one in which you must adhere to the requests of its developers.
For example, you’re allowed to try running away from Trip’s control at any point in the game. Stray too far, though, and you’ll automatically die. If you choose to keep running, Trip yells “Command: Stay” and essentially forces Monkey to return to her side—keeping both him, and the player controlling him, on a leash. The “choice” you were given turns out to be not much of a choice at all (unless you’re cool with perpetually killing yourself). Trip, like Ninja Theory, lays out the only possible path you as a player, and as Monkey, can take. Disobey her, and you die. Die, and it’s game over.
And as is often the case between a player and game maker, Monkey and Trip’s relationship is frequently one of tension. Monkey is rightfully hostile towards Trip for enslaving him at first; he promises to “break her neck” in one of their first scenes together. But just as a player adapts himself over time to the rules and mechanics of a particular game, so does Monkey learn to embrace his personal enslavement. Both pairs—Monkey and Trip, player and developer—come to realize that they’ll always need each other to make the game progress. A game needs both someone to make it and someone to play it, after all.
Perhaps the single most striking moment of Enslaved comes just before the game’s grand finale, where the duo (and their newfound partner, Pigsy) prepare themselves for a final assault on Pyramid. Trip, now feeling guilty for the way she held her partner captive, unlocks Monkey’s headband, setting him free to do as he pleases. In a twist, Monkey refuses, realizing that the journey, and the game, is not yet finished. He demands that Trip re-apply the headband, keeping him, and players, under her control until all the game’s deeds are done.
At this point, Enslaved makes it painfully clear: playing a video game necessitates enslaving yourself. To free yourself, and to beat the game, you must hold yourself subject to the developer’s whims. Only when their directives are completed—when you beat the game, in other words—can you be liberated from their game’s structure and regulations. As long as you play, your only choice is to abide by the game’s demands. Even when presented with the option of freedom, Monkey realizes that, if he wants to see his trip (get it?) completed, he needs to stay enslaved.
The word “enslaved” rightfully has a certain stigma surrounding it. But with video games, Enslaved seems to tell us that it really isn’t all that bad. It’s simply the nature of the beast.
This is the lesson Enslaved wishes to impart unto us. Beyond its already-solid narrative of two post-apocalyptic survivors finding freedom is a meta-commentary on the nature of playing itself. It’s a video game about interacting with video games. And it’s beautiful.
Enslaved ends with Monkey and Trip reaching the mysterious Pyramid facility and finding thousands upon thousands of enslaved men and women. Pyramid, they find, is a place where these slaves live in a Matrix-like dream world, one created by the memories of a man who lived before the war. In the end, Trip pulls the plug on the Pyramid project, removing everyone from their unreality and bringing them back to the wasteland she and Monkey have traveled.
“Did I do the right thing,” she asks, and no clear answer is given. With the plugs pulled by this former slaver, and with the slave’s headbands deactivated once and for all, the game ends.
Personally, I didn’t think Trip made the right choice. So I decided to select “New Game” from the start screen and become Monkey all over again. I thought it was even better the second time around.
Jeff Dunn is a freelance writer from Boston, MA. His work has appeared at Cheat Code Central, The Escapist, VG247, and VideoGamer, among others. Follow him on Twitter and he’ll hug you.