Video games are no longer about dots on the screen and beeps coming from your speaker. Game developers can now tell dynamic stories with stunning graphics, stellar voice acting and true to life motion capture. Enslaved: Odyssey to the West from Namco Bandai is a game that captures all of these qualities to make for a beautiful action packed experience, which should stack up alongside ‘game of the year’ selections for 2010.
Enslaved was developed by Ninja Theory and written by Tameem Antoniades (Chief Creative Ninja) and Alex Garland (writer Sunshine/28 Days Later). The lead character of Monkey was brilliantly voice acted and motion captured by Andy Serkis (Gollum in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy).
The following is an interview with Tameem Antoniades touching on the writing aspects of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West.
SCRIPT: Enslaved opens with a spaceship damaged and on a crash course to a post apocalyptic New York City – how did you go about establishing the two main characters of Monkey and Trip and their motivations in the opening act?
TAMEEM ANTONIADES: We already had the backgrounds for the characters and the world fleshed out and we wanted to start the game with a bang. It is more important in games to do this – to hook and motivate the player to keep playing. In Enslaved, the opening level just establishes the character archetypes, with Monkey being the brute and Trip being the weak female. Once the archetype is set, there is plenty of space later in the story to subvert expectations.
The motivations are simple: she wants to escape, he wants to escape, she needs an escape pod, he needs one and thus an immediate tension is established. Once they crash land, she enslaves him with a slave headband and orders him to take her home and the set up for the rest of the story is complete. Simplicity is always on our minds as you have to keep the player involved as much as possible and so having long scenes runs against that.
SCRIPT: Enslaved is based on an old Chinese novel called Journey to the West – what challenges did you face adapting the story into a future/science fiction setting?
ANTONIADES: We were very liberal with our interpretation so we didn’t find it difficult at all. We simply replaced the demons with mechs, the magic with technology and built on the sense of adventure and companionship you had in the novel.
SCRIPT: The character Trip is the emotional backbone of the story – she commands Monkey and drives the story yet we never get to play as her in the game. Was Trip always so determined and technically savvy and did your development team ever want to make her playable in the game?
ANTONIADES: No, we never wanted her to be playable. To make her playable would mean making her an action hero. It was far more interesting to us to explore the relationship between Monkey (you) and a non-playable character. Can you have a complex emotional bond with someone who to all intents and purposes, is artificial? It’s been done in movies but not really believably in games.
SCRIPT: The game has been praised for its story – yet an outsider may perceive Enslaved as simply: ‘get Monkey & Trip from point A to point B’. How did you structure the chapters or ‘acts’ to convey an engaging tale in such a minimal approach?
ANTONIADES: We invested a lot in performance capture, that is, capturing the facial expressions, voice and body motions of multiple actors on set simultaneously. This is no different to shooting a film – it stands or falls on the performance of the actors. That’s what the game is really about: what you can see in the faces and eyes of the characters rather than what they are saying. I personally think storytelling works best in games when the plot is simple and the depth is invested in the characters.
SCRIPT: Monkey is brutal in a fight yet tender around Trip who is beautiful. He becomes her protector and savior but always keeps his distance – there must have been debates back and forth as to their dynamics in the story – can you give us a sampling of what things were most debated in the writing process?
ANTONIADES: Well, Monkey is meant to be brutally tough and pragmatic to the point where he is almost inhuman. We originally had him punching slaves in order to reach his escape pod. Alex Garland (co-writer) thought this just made him unlikeable and he was right. So we talked it through and decided that at his heart, he has to be a good person if we are to empathise with him.
We also had him throwing a screaming fit once he was enslaved. Again, Alex suggested that a character of real strength, a real Alpha male, would be more calculating and calm, that throwing a fit would be a sign of weakness, not strength. These kinds of debates happened all the way through the story.
SCRIPT: Monkey and Trip have to fight robots and transverse difficult landscape until finally facing the antagonist of the story. Since we don’t really ‘see’ the bad guy until the end – what conventions did you use in the story to engage the player to continue on through to the end of the game?
ANTONIADES: The story follows the traditional three-act structure. The chapters themselves were also designed with their own three-act structure in mind. In fact, my advice to Alex was always to write the script as if it were an action movie and we’d figure out which parts would be interactive and which would be cut-scenes. The genre we followed was that of a road movie, where the relationship drives the story forward. The physical journey is secondary to that and almost irrelevant.
It felt wrong to cut-away from the main characters to show the villain. As a player, you shouldn’t have more knowledge of the enemy than Monkey himself otherwise you would feel disconnected with his ID and that would take you out of the immersion.
SCRIPT: What advice would you give someone who is trying to break into the video game industry writing for video games?
ANTONIADES: It’s tough to break in. I think realistically, finding a way in as a designer and getting involved in writing as you develop as a designer is probably the right way. There is not a lot of respect for story and writing in general in video games but that is starting to change.
However, there is still mistrust from both the gaming and writing communities of each other’s craft and so I think it pays to try and get involved from both angles. The only reason Alex worked for us was because he had already proven himself in movies and novels, had a passion for video games and was prepared to work hands on with us for two years. Along the way, he earned himself a designer credit due to his deep involvement and willingness to learn.
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