A lot of games this year have had great writing, from Portal 2 to L.A. Noire to (of course) Uncharted 3. But last year’s Enslaved: Odyssey to the West remains one of the best written games I’ve ever played. Much of that stems from a script that goes out of its way to avoid exposition, always making sure to imply more than it explains. Two moments in particular stand out, and I still remember them vividly even a year after playing the game.
“Turn it back on.”
Throughout the game, Monkey has been protecting Trip, not because he necessarily wants to, but because she stuck a slave collar on his head. If she dies, the slave collar will kill Monkey. But as to be expected in this type of adventure story, their initially antagonistic relationship eventually grows into a genuine relationship.
Near the end, right before the final boss, Trip deactivates the collar. Almost instantly, Monkey tells her to “Turn it back on.” She resists, he insists, and that’s the extent of their conversation. Their budding romance doesn’t climax with a declaration of love, but of submission. It’s a moment that digs deep into the game’s larger themes of enslavement—of why we might choose to be enslaved. Monkey chooses to submit himself to Trip in a way that ensures that he’ll always put her well-being above his own, but it’s interesting that this submission stems from a command. He doesn’t ask her to turn the collar on, he tells her to turn it on. She submits to him just as he does to her.
But what’s truly great about this moment is that game explores this idea of enslavement and submission through implication only. Neither character explicitly declares their feelings. They don’t question one another nor themselves. They don’t look for meaning in their situation. They just act.
The game doesn’t try to explain itself, rather it lets its characters act as they naturally would and leaves it up to the player to glean a greater meaning from the interactions of teh characters. Monkey is a classic man-of-few-words, so any declaration more explicit than “Turn it back on.” would be out of character. The script is concise and naturalistic. As a good cut scene should be.
“You have no schools.”
Pyramid (a.k.a the floating head of Andy Serkis) says this to Trip and Monkey when they finally discover the secret of the Slavers: the people don’t realize what they’re doing, and they don’t see the post-apocalyptic world as it is. They’re trapped in a virtual world based on a memory of what the world was like “before the war.”
At this point, most other games would get into the technical details of this massive Matrix-like alternate reality: how it was built, when, by who, etc. But Enslaved ignores all that to instead focus on the emotional side of this revelation. Is their fake, peaceful world better than the real, violent world? Pyramid justifies the deception, “They take their children to school; you have no schools”. It’s those last four words that really drive the point home and emphasize how hopeless the real world is. A lack of schools implies a lack of a functioning society, no little clan of survivors is big enough to warrant a building dedicated to education; it implies a lack of safety, everyone is so busy trying to survive that they don’t have time for education; or at the very worst, it implies a lack of children and an inevitable extinction for humanity. There’s no long monologue about why the virtual world is better, just a few pointed words.
These are examples of video game writing at its finest: concise, yet dense. Characters don’t have much time to establish themselves in games, between having to establish the plot and having to explain narrative justifications for gameplay mechanics, so both traits are extremely important. That’s why these moments work so well. They say very little, but they imply a lot.
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