If you played the demo for Enslaved, you have already been through the sequence. On a flying prison ship of some kind, a young woman, Trip, breaks out of her cell. She sets off an explosion that accidentally frees the player’s avatar, a man named Monkey. She flees through the ship, cutting off Monkey at every turn, until he finally encounters her again just as the vehicle is about to crash. He clings to an escape pod as she ejects it, falling unconscious when they crash. While he is knocked out, Trip fits him with a headband that will kill him if he disobeys her. The sequence is exciting, visually memorable, and pretty fun to play. It is also at war with the story Enslaved seems to be trying to tell.
It’s important to note that this sequence sets up the idea of a slave society very effectively. A disembodied voice announces that the vehicle is called “Slave Ship 909” (implying there are at least 8 others). It refers to several of the men crewing the ship as slaves and implies that there is some kind of classification system. To the passengers, it promises that once they are processed, compliance will be rewarded and disobedience punished. This punishment is clearly displayed in a sequence where a slave is remotely killed (through the headband) for aiding Monkey under duress. An institutional callousness towards the well-being of the slaves is demonstrated when a gun-wielding robot barges in and kills two of them for standing in the same general area as Monkey. I recount this not because it is intrinsically interesting but because it makes no sense at all in light of the ending of the game.
Trip and Monkey’s journey to the west culminates in their infiltration of the Pyramid, the mysterious destination of the slave ship. Here, in the last moments of the game, they are confronted by a helpless human-mech hybrid that seems to be embedding the slaves in a virtual reality where they experience the world as it was before a war destroyed most of civilization. The AI insists that it is not enslaving these people, but rather saving them from a harsh world, allowing them to live happy (virtual) lives in some kind of anesthetized daydream. But if this is true, why did the ship call them slaves, call itself a slave ship? How does the presence of enslaved humans who are clearly aware of the world around them square with the legion of VR-druggies in the Pyramid? And how can one reconcile this supposed mission of mercy with the callous disregard for human life shown on the slave ship?
There is an even more troubling dimension to this last question, as later in the game mechs sent by Pyramid are shown ravaging Trip’s home village. Charred bodies litter the town, some of them laying underneath swings and slides. The clear implication is that the mechs have murdered everyone in the town, including the children. This would be an odd act even for actual slavers, who would probably recognize an advantage in leaving a renewing resource in the form of the children and some elderly people to raise them into the next generation of slaves. For a society of robots who intend to save their captives from the dangers of the wild this behavior is completely inexplicable.
In their defense, murdering dozens of people isn’t a villainy specific to the game’s antagonists. After all, Trip’s first action in the game had the effect of killing almost all of the slaves on the ship and numerous not-yet-enslaved captives. She’s very broken up about the many who die in her village, but in the opening sequence she makes no effort to free other captives, even though she implies that others from her village are among them. They died because of her, not that this casual act of mass murder is ever acknowledged or discussed. Trip’s monumental selfishness is a constant in the story; when she asks Monkey at the end whether she did the right thing it’s almost hilarious. Perhaps if she’d listened to the people burning alive in their cells in the opening chapter she’d know the answer.
Monkey eventually comes to see something in Trip, of course, and presumably we are meant to care for her too. Unfortunately, I just couldn’t bring myself to feel much pity for a person who clearly has no care for the lives or feelings of others. To care about Trip, I would have to forget everything that happened in the opening sequence, and much of what happened after. To buy into the finale, however, I would have to forget even more.
The opening chapter of Enslaved, and most of the game that follows, does a tremendously effective job of setting up an organization of violent, inhuman slavers as the main villain. But this work never pays off. The game ends with an anticlimactic fight against an irrelevant boss, and the bizarre epilogue that follows ignores practically all of the preceding developments, as if the writers simply forgot what story they’d been telling. The finale is utterly deflated by its near-total inconsistency with the preceding events. Because it forgets where it was going, Enslaved ultimately builds to nothing, and that was what I felt when the credits rolled.