Overall, Enslaved is a game that thoroughly embodies the phrase ‘eh, it’s ok’. The game takes place in a post-apocalyptic future America where a cataclysmic war has wiped out most of humanity and those that remain have formed small, scattered communities that seek to fend off the hordes of robots left over from the war that now mindlessly wander the wilderness while also hiding from Pyramid, a group using pre-war technology to capture and enslave them. Not a terribly unique setting, but I enjoy this kind of stuff so it’s fine. The combat is can be pretty repetitive and several of the boss fights get recycled, but it moves the story along, so that’s fine too. The exploration in the game is aggressively linear and there’s lots of uncharted style, you-have-one-path-to-follow climbing in it, but the game looks really good for something that’s now a decade old. This is fine. Everything’s fine.
But what’s interesting about this game and the reason it’s still worth talking about these days is its key plot device. Slavery.
If you care about spoiling the story for a 10 year old forgotten game, this is where you get off the ride. Thanks for coming, be sure to collect your belongings as you exit.
You see, you play a man named Monkey who gets enslaved by a young girl named Trip shortly after you both escape from one of Pyramid’s slave ships. She does this by affixing one of Pyramid’s slave headbands to you while you’re knocked out, giving her the ability to instantly microwave your brain if you disobey, get too far away from her, or if she dies. But she agrees to remove it if you escort her through the wilderness and back to her village. This is a unique setup that gives the game a lot of interesting directions to take the story that explore the relationship dynamics between a master and their slave. Unfortunately, the game chooses none of them.
Instead, the story plays out how mostly you’d expect. Monkey (a strong, silent boi and likely the last man on earth still juicing) escorts Trip (the smart n sassy hacker gril) as they make their way across killer robot infested ruins of NYC, using each other’s strengths overcome the many obstacles that stand in their way (yes, I know this is very TLOU, but the game came out 3 years before it, so give it a break). To the game’s credit, it doesn’t directly acknowledge a romantic relationship is developing between Trip and Monkey until near the end. Every time Monkey saves Trip, it’s always colored by the fact that he’ll die in excruciating pain if Trip does. There’s even a point about halfway through the game where you meet a guy who asks Monkey if he and Trip are a thing, at which point he reminds him that she essentially has a loaded and cocked gun constantly pointed at his head.
But just before the last mission, Trip has a come to Jesus moment where she decides to turn off his headband and tells him he’s free to go if he wants. Monkey responds by immediately telling her to turn it back on with no explanation as to why. And just like that, the game chooses the worst possible direction to take the slavery dynamic. It uses it as a metaphor for Monkey and Trip’s romantic relationship.
So here’s the thing, relationships are based upon consent, but in slavery there is no such thing. Slavery, by its very definition, removes a slave’s ability to give consent. This is why sex between a master and their slave is rape, regardless of the surrounding circumstances. But the writers here don’t seem to understand that, which is really odd considering that the writing in this game is otherwise pretty good. The script was co-written by Alex Garland (the writer behind 28 Days Later and Dredd) and it shows. The plot may be predictable, but the dialogue between Monkey and Trip is well-written and both come across grounded, believable, and complex characters. Ignoring the half-assed, Shyamalan-esque ending, the story in this game is actually pretty good.
It almost feels like the writers came up with this take on the slavery dynamic while high one night, thought it sounded really cool and deep and then just never questioned it afterwards. It’s just a classic case of writers failing to step outside of themselves and realize what their own story is saying.
Anyways, that’s it.
I give game a White-Man’s Burden / 12 Years a Slave.
Thanks for coming to my TED talk.
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