by Aria Velz
If you ask people to name some of their favorite duos in video games, you might hear Ratchet and Clank, Jak and Daxter, Gordon Freeman and Alyx Vance, Ellie and Joel, and perhaps Chell and Companion Cube. You probably won’t hear many mention Monkey and Trip from 2010’s underrated Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, yet no other pair embodies the Taoist notion of balance as well as they do. Enslaved’s two-fold strength of emotional storytelling and thrilling action through advanced motion capture wasn’t merely ahead of its time. The technical achievement illustrates a truth in the duality of the protagonists.
Developer Ninja Theory’s update of the 16th century Chinese novel Journey to the West takes place 150 years in the future. Monkey (given wonderful nuance by motion capture actor Andy Serkis) is in a slave containment cell in an airship. When Monkey tries to escape, he sends the ship toward a crash landing. He then notices a young woman named Trip (played by Lindsey Shaw, who matches Serkis’ performance) using an escape pod, but she refuses to let him on board as the ship crashes. Monkey awakens somewhere in the eastern United States and discovers that a gigantic war has raged through civilization and created a post-apocalyptic world. While “post-apocalyptic world” is often associated with storytelling cliches and can conjure the urban, barren settings of Fallout and Gears of War, Enslaved doesn’t take this approach: its visual splendor predates the style of The Last of Us, with bright colors and plentiful wildlife juxtaposed against entire cities with no people in sight. In Enslaved, the grays and browns that have saturated post-war landscapes come with bright blue skies, foliage climbing on the tallest skyscrapers, and multicolored sunsets. The beauty of this contrast reaches a height as you walk across New York City, a literal jungle filled with life rather than concrete, and wonder if the elimination of most of humanity was the best thing that could have happened to it.
You spend the game playing as Monkey with a diverse pallet of action. Platforming, hand-to-hand combat, shooting, and even elements of racing show up. Keeping with the theme of duality, the combat and story move together in a symbiotic way so that there is never a need to stop and grind or go back to collect more things. Controlling Monkey isn’t difficult, and at times you may feel Enslaved is holding your hand too much. This ease is counterbalanced by the camerawork, which, especially in close-combat sequences, frenetically follows Monkey, making every movement punchier and every victory more satisfying.
What truly elevates Enslaved is the storytelling, namely the relationship between the two reluctant partners in freedom, the strong and brutish Monkey and the savvy and vulnerable Trip. Monkey wakes up to find that Trip has put a slave headband on him, which coerces him to guide Trip to her home village from which she was kidnapped. The headband ensures that if Trip dies, Monkey will die with her. It seems like an action story cliche: Trip needs to get from point A to point B but is afraid to go alone, so Monkey is forced to act as a bodyguard. But Trip’s softer, yielding yin and Monkey’s aggressive, focused yang reflect the desperation of both characters’ need for freedom and propels the game into high stakes and high tension. Although you control Monkey, climbing buildings, smashing robots, and providing all the brawn, Trip is always there to provide information, illuminate points of interest, and hack different devices. As much as Trip is helpful and useful, she also spends many sequences of the game as a damsel in distress, which can leave one hoping for more from her character. After the fifth or so sequence of Trip getting herself into trouble and screaming for Monkey’s help, the tension gets a bit deflated.
Despite this flaw, the two have wonderful chemistry. With Serkin and Shaw, Ninja Theory pushes motion capture performance further than its excellent 2007 game Heavenly Sword (whose abruptly short length couldn’t take its character development far enough to become a hallmark for storytelling in video games). No cutscene feels wasted, no single glance feels forced. The dialogue is impressively scant, the relationship building more about the nonverbal than waxing poetic through words. Trust has to be built through action, as when Trip uses her intellect to streamline a path so that Monkey no longer has to rely on muscle. After traveling hundreds of miles together, the two absorb parts of each other, as emphasized in a turning point when Trip reaches her destination and investigates her home, realizing that everyone in her village, including her father, are gone, rendering her journey useless. The roles of the two characters change: Trip becomes the aggressor, while Monkey calmly supports. The beauty and importance of this scene is that the two discover they are not alone.
Enslaved’s deus ex machina doesn’t take the focus away from the lessons of this friendship. Monkey and Trip discover that a program named Pyramid is behind the widespread slavery of the planet via a virtual reality reconstruction of the pre-war world based on the memories of one man. In Pyramid’s illusion, there is no sadness or sorrow as the enslaved remain blissful and ignorant of the real. As Pyramid says to Monkey and Trip, “They are not slaves, they are citizens. They have jobs, they have marriages, they bring up their children, their children go to schools. You have no schools; you have mechs.” While Monkey becomes enraptured by this scenario, Trip, who has almost no more joys in life, rejects Pyramid’s mirage. Trip then destroys Pyramid, but as the enslaved come to, the heroism isn’t obvious to Trip as she asks, “Did I do the right thing?”
Since the sequel to Enslaved was canceled, one might say we will never know the answer. Yet the game ends with Monkey and Trip standing together, ready to face whatever comes, and you understand that their partnership represents an acknowledgement of the real and the false — and the fight to balance them.