Enslaved isn't that great. This may seem like an odd statement given the fact that I'm about to tell you I loved the hell out of it. In fact, it might be on my short list for game of the year. So, what makes it a winner? Well, simply stated, it's because it's not really a game. It’s an interactive movie, and as a piece of fiction, it excels.
I'm not looking to start a debate on the subject of storytelling in games. I'm also not looking for the rebuttal to my claim: “If it was a movie, it would suck.” Nope. Not looking for that discussion. What I do want to discuss is how Enslaved functions on two levels.
Developer Ninja Theory has created a product that is interesting; it really cares about story. They brought in top Hollywood talent and worked very hard to find the right balance between yarn-spinning and letting you have some fun killing things. Overall, it’s a dynamic, well-paced experience that's a nice mix of adventure storytelling and blowing up mechs. So, what are its defects as a game?
Well, let’s forget the story for a minute. When it comes to what youhave to do — as the active participant — the game is merely “pretty good.” The third-person view works well for the most part, but the camera often gets in the way. It points where you're not trying to look, and it zooms in too close — you know, the basic kind of stuff. It also has problems with creating in-game tension. You can’t really die, unless it’s death by mech. In parts, it looks like a platformer, but you will never accidently fall to your death, even if you try to. Traversing is made easier this way because you can’t screw up. You just follow the highlighted ledges and go. This is both good and bad: It's what keeps the pacing of a film alive, but it also keeps the challenge of a game low.
It's not just the jumping; I feel that all the interactive aspects fall short — including combat. The style of the fighting isn't the problem — the melee and range attacks feel impactful, and the large-scale fights play out well. Rather, it’s the basic, button-mashing repetition that gets in the way of the fun. Enemies are all kinds of the same, and you repeat very simple button presses over and over again. It was so uninteresting, in fact, that at times I dreaded the combat portions. Get me back to the story! I cried. In fact, the only satisfying fighting was tthe lavish set pieces.
I have to say that without the framework of the story, Enslaved amounts to a few amazing encounters and a lot of repetitive fights — with a dash of dastardly mechs. But when you add the story back in, well, that's where the real experience is; it's where you start to feel the movie that Enslaved could have been. The relationship between the two leads is so well done, both in terms of acting and motion capture, that it’s a lot like watching a good sci-fi film. In fact, there’s a bit of Logan’s Run in there: two people on the run in a futuristic society, forming a bond along the way. It’s really touching, and made all the better because it has so few characters.
The whole situation is novel. The characters have a weight, a depth, and a consideration that's equal to the care given to the fictional world. It looks interesting, and it gives you the illusion of epicness by dropping in its back story in nuanced ways.
And that’s the genius of this game. It’s written like a movie, and Ninja Theory sprinkles bits of gameplay throughout. The script focuses quite rightly on the story of the two lost and beleaguered heroes and features many character moments most games would never attempt. 28 Days Later screenwriter Alex Garland crafts a script that is a movie first and a game second — and it's plain as day.
Enslaved shows and doesn’t tell. Its action gives you the characters and makes them more interesting than clever level-design choices. That may be why so much of the gameplay is so basic. You need to traverse quickly to keep the inertia of the story going. Even large scale battles feel paced like movie scenes, with interrupting breathers to dice them up. Without giving too much away, the game gives you boss battles that feel organic, earned, and full of characterizing tidbits. The set pieces become a part of each character’s story, and the action beats tell you something about the people and the world while also giving you cool shit to do.
Enslaved takes long dialogues between characters and makes them interesting. It gives you the character in-betweens that many games would simply skip over or cut. And in this game, you can't skip past that stuff. The story is the experience. It's so much fun that I could have watched someone else play it.
As we all know, storytelling in games is still evolving, but it’s nice to think that a story alone can still yield something different: No space marines and no trite dialogue. You know, just a good, rip-roarin' tale mixed with interesting things to do.