The Politics of Submission: The Romance of ‘Enslaved’

This discussion of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West contains major plot spoilers.

Quite a number of games in recent years have dealt with the curious exchange that occurs in gaming between player freedom and the submission to authority required by following a game’s rules. The most obvious example, of course, is Bioshock with its evident concern with considering how a player blindly submits to the will of the game in order to advance in it. The infamous “Would you kindly?” twist suggests that player freedom is frequently an illusion in a game, as submission to and trust in the direction given by the game is taken for granted by the player who all too quickly assumes that the game’s “direction” exists to merely help the player learn the ropes, but it doesn’t decide for us along the way what is the right and wrong path.

A similarly unsettling revelation of just how authoritarian “the computer” is in directing the player can be found in Portal, in which that voice that we essentially take for granted, the voice of the tutorial, eventually morphs into the antagonist of the game. While initially GlaDOS is that familiar teacher who explains how to play the game to the player, the series of test chambers that seem to serve as a tutorial for learning how to solve puzzles through the use of a portal gun soon become deadly traps set by a sadistic AI. The irony of Portal is that this intimate antagonism between the player and the programming of the game is really not unfamiliar at all. Portal, both figuratively and literally, exposes what is behind the scenes in most video game experiences, a voice that first wants to support us by teaching us the ropes but then just as quickly wants to stymie our efforts to succeed in completing the game by attempting to “kill” us.

I have written before about the strange intimacy that the player has with GlaDOS, an intimacy that is promoted through the authoritarian and submissive relationship that they share (”An Intimate Moment With the Computer”, PopMatters, 31 March 2010). However, Alexander Ocias’s Loved takes the metaphor a few steps further by creating a game solely predicated on submitting to or defying the authority of a bodiless “tutor” and allowing this exchange to become a metaphor for being “loved.” In the universe of Loved, love becomes a concept that is based on power relationships. The more that the player submits, the more that the game grows easier to deal with. However, the exchange for this form of “care” is to give up one’s own will to that of the AI.

Ninja Theory’s Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is by no means breaking new ground by once again using a submission to authority (in this case, as the game’s title implies as a form of “enslavement”) as a way of defining the player’s relationship to the game, as well as using the concept as a way defining relationships between characters in its plot. However, unlike the grim visions and manipulations of the previously mentioned games, Enslaved wishes to posit a few questions about the nature of submission and how it works in relationships for ill and possibly even for good.

Enslaved dominantly tells the story of two characters, the game’s protagonist Monkey and his enslaver Trip, as the two travel across a post-apocalyptic American wasteland to return Trip to her home. When the player is first introduced to both characters, it is on a slave ship on which both characters are captives. As the player soon discovers, the ship is going down over the ruins of New York City. The player takes on the role of Monkey, a hulking, but lithe acrobat, who in trying to escape the doomed ship finds himself eluded by and then ultimately enslaved by a frightened young woman.

Trip has managed to procure a slaver’s headband during she and Monkey’s escape from the ship. When worn, the headband causes its wearer to have to acquiesce to the will of another or die. Trip has fitted Monkey with the band because she feels that he will serve as protection for her through a savage land. This makes some sense as Monkey appears to be quite savage in nature himself, adorned with tribal markings and other forms of scarification while also possessing a body built for optimal physical performance.

As in the aforementioned games, Monkey’s (and the player’s) relationship to Trip is, of course, submissive in quality. Trip seemingly will direct Monkey and the player by issuing orders, since failing to do so results in a lose state for, again, Monkey and the player. In addition, it is in Monkey’s and the player’s best interests to protect Trip herself, as the band is also linked to Trip’s own vitals. As she notes, “If I die, you die.”

To this brutal fact, Monkey responds with a question that concerns why he is being enslaved by Trip at all but also speaks to the basis of the relationship between the two in a more fundamental way. When Monkey asks, “Why?”, Trip responds simply, “I need your help.” That Monkey must follow Trip’s commands because his own life is contingent upon her own suggests a co-dependency. Monkey must follow her will, not simply because Trip is some sort of cruel AI, submission is support.

While helping and supporting Trip is by no means a voluntary act on Monkey’s part, the relationship between the two, while seemingly an obvious one of master and slave, is almost immediately muddled following this initial exchange when Trip asks “Do you think you could tell me what the plan is?”

In other words, despite Trip serving as the means of telling the player what he is intended to do (serve as an escort to Trip on her way home), nevertheless, Trip also acknowledges that the player is also part of defining the direction that the game will take. Unlike, for example, Bioshock‘s insistence that the design of the game and its narrative will ultimately direct the player towards its own end goal, Enslaved sees a kind of give and take between the authority of the game and the will of the player.

Indeed, this reciprocal relationship and trade off between narratorial authority and the will of the player is also embodied in Trip as a game mechanism. Again in a scene that follows the previously mentioned dialogue quite closely, Trip and Monkey are attacked by a mech that is firing on them. While Trip initially refuses to do what Monkey says in order to escape this attack, afterwards he says, “If we are gonna get through this, then when I ask you to do something . . . you need to do it immediately.” To which, Trip responds, “Okay, I understand.” This becomes literally true as the player, in the role of Monkey, is able to call up a command wheel that instructs Trip to create a distraction or set off an EMP blast that renders the mechs vulnerable for a short time. Trip becomes enslaved to the will of Monkey and the player as frequently as Monkey and the player must follow the direction of Trip. Issuing orders to her becomes a means of the player solving puzzles in the games, an agency required of the player, since the game is not going to solve these puzzles for the player.

Monkey submits to Trip. Trip submits to Monkey. In order to work to survive, submission is mutual.

Interestingly, Trip’s acquiescence to Monkey’s insistence that she do as she is told, her simple “okay,” is even more frequently spoken by Monkey when Trip instructs him. In other words, as Monkey and Trip’s relationship deepens through their dependency, Monkey resists less and becomes comfortable in simply also saying, “okay.” (On a side note: the frequency of the “okay” response is extremely reminiscent of the Father’s consistent response to the Boy in Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, a bit of dialogue left almost entirely out of the dialogue of the inferior film based on it. “Okay” becomes a way of showing caring through acquiescence throughout that story as well). In terms of the game’s mechanics, this submission is still rather ironic. As Monkey in a sense “levels up” (the player can pour points earned through exploration and combat into skills and attributes), the player finds that directing Trip to distract his opposition is much less necessary. Monkey and the player “need” Trip in a differentway than they did at the beginning of the game (as an aid and distraction) because he really becomes capable of running forward into a hail of bullets as he grows more and more resilient. Nevertheless, in the cutscenes he grows ever more comfortable with submission. Indeed, the narrative comes around to acknowledging this idea when Trip finally, a level shy of the end of the game, decides to free Monkey. That Monkey decides to remain in his submission band speaks to a commitment born of mutual dependency, a desired submission. This, then, becomes the central romantic subtext: that to submit is to love, even if submission is not in the same way as practically essential any longer.

While this resolution to Monkey and Trip’s growing bond may seem quite antithetical to the message of Ocias’s Loved, a game that seems to fear and sense an antagonism in mutual dependency, nevertheless, the game’s final seemingly unrelated conclusion complicates these questions about whether submission is vital or not.

When Monkey and Trip discover that the man running the mechs, Pyramid, is interested in “enslaving” humanity by creating a virtual paradise to escape from the postapocalyptic reality that confronts them. Admittedly, this may seem a very Matrix-esque twist, especially as Trip destroys Pyramid’s grip on those people. However, unlike Neo and Morpheus, Trip is uncertain about her final decision. The Matrix assumes this dependency is necessarily problemtic. Enslaved wants to consider the idea a bit more with less prior assumptions about the negativity of control and submission, given that its whole romantic plot is based on these same politics. Trip’s uncertain query to Monkey, “Did I do the right thing?”, seems a fair enough question to ask, especially since Monkey has just chosen to remain enslaved to Trip. When Monkey is offered a glimpse into Pyramid’s world just before Trip destroys it, he remarks, “It’s beautiful” — an unsurprising response given that a probably somewhat similar assessment of his own enslaver has driven him to his own decision to submit. He finds submission to something beautiful to be good. Or, he may find submission itself to hold the possibility to be something beautiful if it is co-operative and mutual. These possibilities merely linger in the game, as Trip’s question remains unanswered. However, that the question is being raised does suggest that those that chafe at being “screwed around” by Bioshock‘s conclusion or that our relation to a computer like GlaDOS can only be something perverse may need to reconsider why they enjoy submitting to rules and submitting to the game at all. Co-operative, mutual submission may be useful a metaphor for working relationships or for beautiful gaming. Or both.

You submit to the game. The game submits to you. In order to work in Enslaved, submission is always mutual.