Sunday, October 24, 2010

What right does Andy Serkis have to a God Complex?

Expectation and reality rarely meet. Often they are on divergent paths that only occasionally intersect. Those moments of intersection (if our expectations were positive and rooted in a hope for quality) are where gamers experience moments of pure bliss. Good games achieve this. The best games exceed expectation, or cleverly reveal little during the process of their marketing campaign so as to temper our radical enthusiasm. It is impossible in today's information-obsessed world for high profile games like The Force Unleashed, Fall Out: New Vegas, Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, or Call of Duty: Black Ops to exist without a series of high expectations being roused in a gamer's mind. Videos, articles, and demos may wow us and entice us during the lead-up to the actual release of the game, but the reveal of such moments inevitably diminish their impact when one actually experiences them in the video game itself. Furthermore, that hideous and inescapable expectation is always there nagging us to question our experience as we play. Does this live up to the hype? Is this better than the first game? Have they made enough changes?

And so our judgment becomes unavoidably tainted and we are unable to simply be in the game. In order to have a truly pure opinion of a video game then, it would follow that we must come to it without expectation. For the first time in a long time I had such an experience in the likes of Enslaved. Sometimes we must turn to the lesser known, often-considered mediocre games to experience something in a refreshing, unbiased way.

I knew nothing of this game. I saw no developer diaries and I read no articles. I knew nothing of its existence until I saw it as a demo on X-Box Live. I downloaded it and played it. I was immediately interested thanks to an exciting opening that introduces players to Monkey, a brutish protagonist that is deceptively simple. I was shocked by the polish of the experience and overjoyed with the fresh platforming mechanics. One of the things I loved about Uncharted 2 was that it took the standard mechanics of leaping from pipe to pipe or ledge to ledge and made it feel like something new. Pips snapped. Ledges broke away. Tentative and natural handholds would shift and curl and Drake would be forced to improvise and latch onto something new. Enslaved adopts a similar platforming style, and in many ways perfects it. Instead of convoluted puzzles involving lever-pulls and mirror-adjustments, players find themselves leaping about natural environments that don't require a suspension of disbelief. One of my problems with typical platforming puzzles, the kind you find in Prince of Persia or Uncharted, is that I simply cannot bring myself to ignore the fact that human beings (fictional as they may be) had to construct these elaborate mazes. I therefore feel insulted by the game itself when I'm supposed to believe that some ancient civilization purposefully constructed these mirrors, ledges, ladders, gears, and statues so that a wise-crackin' leading man can leapfrog his way to some incoherent lever attached to the eyebrow of one of those statues so as to make a door open.

Enslaved does not work this way. While there are a few lever pulling puzzles, the game mostly relies on creating platforming sandboxes one could easily find in reality. In providing a variety of environments, some industrial and others natural, the game rarely feels repetitive in the way of platforming.

The same cannot be said for the combat. The strong attack, weak attack, counter, and block mechanics of the game are fairly standard and function well so long as the camera does not become pinned against a wall. But the game features about four different fights repeated throughout the entire experience. This creates a sense of repetition, but what Enslaved does well is ensure that those four fights are always fun no matter how many times you do them. Monkey's moves are brutal and vast and once the simple mechanics are mastered and powerups are unlocked, the player can link together a series of devastating blows to a variety of enemies. The only time I became tired of this system was one tower defense section of the game where waves of mechs attacked me and four power generators I had to protect, while a series of Gatling gun wielding mechs rained fire down upon me from above. It was simply annoying. This section seemed to last forever and thanks to limited ammo and a terrible ranged attack dynamic, I found myself frustrated. The game also likes to throw a bunch of little enemies at you to make the big enemy you're already fighting that much harder to kill. This is typical boss-battle fair and it's so much less intelligent then actually creating a newer, more interesting boss to fight. The real life equivelent would be as follows: a dog attacks you and you defeat it. It puts its tail between its leg and disappears. You run down the street for a few hours, knocking a few gnats off your face along the way. Then the dog reappears, strength returned and with perhaps a new attack up his paw. And, this time around, the gnats start attacking too. So now you've got gnats in your face, in addition to the same obnoxious dog-fight you had earlier in the day. Wouldn't it be so much more interesting to have to fight an alligator instead of the dog again?

Even with these frustrations I still found so much fun in the climbing and the story, particularly the excellent relationship between Monkey and his female companion Trip, that I deemed the game a success and looked forward to the ending.

The first several chapters of the game are so good and the characterization so convincing that I'm inclined to recommend this game. I would like to say the voice actors did a brilliant job but I find that to be an inadequate compliment due to the superb quality of facial animations and the writing. The acting in Enslaved is superb. Trip and Monkey are extremely likable characters (Trip is especially endearing. You want nothing more than to hold her and tell her everything is gonna be okay...and marvel at her rockin' body...I'm aware that she's not real) and the subtlety of their love story is expressed perfectly in cut-scenes and in the actual mechanics of the game. I cannot express enough how the simple action of being able to touch or hold an AI character in-game provides a sense of connection with that character, the game world, and makes it so much more tangible and satisfying an experience. Picking up Trip and carrying her on Monkey's back serves an emotional purpose as well as a practical one: keeping her close is helpful as she has a list of commands you can use to strategize in your attacks. Trip surprisingly does not get in your way, though, which is a rarity for AI teammates.

Again, because I had no expectations, my experience of Enslaved throughout the first several chapters was one of continual surprise and joy, and a fair judgment of its merit. I said to my brother, while playing, "This is a great game". Not only was it fun to play, it was fun to watch. The science-fiction tale, combined with ancient stories of archetypes and heroic journeys, is an excellent standard other games of this kind should stride. Enslaved demonstrates that simply because it's a video game this does not mean cheesey dialogue can ever be good dialogue. A recycled bad-action movie plot does not make a good current video game plot. Good dialogue is simply good dialogue and Enslaved has this. The game-writer's vision of the future is also unlike most you will see in the post-apocalyptic genre.

This goodness was apparently too difficult to maintain, however. About two-thirds through the game a new character is introduced to the story named Pigsy. The very interesting and captivating duo of Trip and Monkey becomes a trio. Not only is Pigsy obnoxious, he's entirely useless. He talks incessantly and his dialogue is so clearly trying to be funny that it's painfully not funny. I was waiting for him to serve his purpose, disappear, and allow the good game I'd been playing to continue, but he never goes away. I wish I could see passed him, but he destroys a dynamic I had become really invested in and I couldn't see nor hear him without thinking: The writers really wanted to have strong characterization here. They really wanted some comic relief. They really wanted that whacky, introverted character to flesh out this story.

And so Pigsy is nothing more than a contrived annoyance. His inclusion lowers the actual gameplay itself as well. In the early stages of the game players access Trip's command wheel and work with her to distract, attack, and disorient their enemies. There are only a few commands at the outset and it appeared as though the game was gradually and naturally going to evolve this system in tandem with Monkey and Trip's relationship. This would have functioned in two ways: 1) more fun for gamers due to a wider variety of choices and depth with their AI partner and 2) provide a metaphor for the growing relationship between these two characters, that being the closer they become the more they can achieve together.

All of this potential is assuaged for fat-guy and dick jokes thanks to Pigsy. He never actually helps players progress apart from the occasional land-mine toss to clear some obstruction or stall some giant mech and even Trip suddenly becomes less involved in the adventure when he shows up. The entire focus of the game, which had previously been one of starting small so that you could end big, shifted toward: we've shown you all we've got, so we're going to stop progressing with the gameplay and try our best to wow you with these cooky characters and a big twist!

Not only would it have been more satisfying and fun had the progression system of moves and commands evolved in a deeper way over the course of the game, it would have also functioned better within the story, which is supposed to represent a human being's journey from point A to point B, a change in character. "Journey to the West" is the actual subtitle of the game and it never actually feels as though this journey takes place. It feels more like moving from level to level not unlike a Mario game. Each chapter is a little platforming/melee combat sandbox that's deceptively linear, and these sections are married by cut scenes that show the actual journey take place. Had I been able to ever actually drive Monkey's motorcycle through the wasteland I would have actually felt as though I'd taken part in this grand, epic adventure to the west, instead of being a passive observer taking no part in any of the actual work until I'm called upon for the most trivial of tasks.

The game quickly devolves in the final chapters due to Pigsy and halted gameplay evolution, which is a shame because the beginning of the game is truly spectacular thanks to an original story, interesting characters, fun gameplay, and entertaining boss fights.

But Pigsy is not the only problem. Up until the very end, the writers and actors and artists who had crafted this experience remain in the background and allow their creation to do the talking for them. But when Andy Serkis, the actor who plays Monkey, directs the game and...yes...once played Gollum in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, plants his talking real-life head on a giant television screen and has a "deep", revealing dialogue with the other character he's actually playing and directing in the game, I shook my head in shame, for Enslaved became yet another video game that suffers from the epidemic of TOO MUCH STORY.

While the twist is certainly interesting and could work in any other video game or movie very well, it simply doesn't fit with the entirety of the experience Enslaved has to offer. It is like this strange little coda that has no place. Imagine watching Beethoven conducting one of his infamous symphonies, and then, at the very end, he turns around, faces the audience and then jerks off onto his own sheet music. He then pats himself on the back, as if this was the goal of the entire orchestra to begin with, bows, applauds himself, and walks off stage. That would be odd, wouldn't it?

Enslaved does something similar and why Andy Serkis makes himself the Beethoven in this scenario is something I find entirely off-putting. Perhaps he just really likes video games. But his presence, one that becomes overbearing in the final cut-scene, tarnishes the experience even more than the inclusion of Pigsy could. The reactions of the characters to this twist is at first interesting, but when it becomes clear that their quick decision is the climax, I was left entirely infuriated. I want to play the end of a story when I'm playing a video game, I do not want to watch it. And the ending is blatantly trying to be deep. Trip asks, "Did I do the right thing?" literally one second after very decisively and passionately making her choice. And we are left with two characters who are in the middle of nowhere, their love story incomplete, and some sci-fi babble, philosophical-heavy-handed posturing that previously had no place in this game-world. Nothing actually seems connected anymore, after this reveal. I am left thinking: What then was the point of their journey? Why would this ever actually happen? What was the point of anything? All of this could have been avoided had the story remained focus on Trip and Monkey and their need to keep on the move. Revenge is not always the best motivation for characters, especially not revenge that is caught up in a convoluted plot involving vague, unseen enemies.

I often think that not having any expectations will actually make me enjoy something more and judge it more fairly. What I did not consider is that this is actually true, but also with regard to things that fail. Not having expectations doesn't just mean you'll like something more. It also means you'll dislike something just as much if it falters and becomes bad. Enslaved is by no means a bad video game. There is too much good in it and the mechanics are too polished to ever label it as bad. So I can only best describe it as an unnecessary and unexpected let down.

If obnoxious characters and a bad ending are things that will spoil a gaming experience for you, keep clear. If you can see passed these things and just take pleasure in some solid bashing and climbing and sci-fi, then give it a try.