A rush of anger and indignation followed my every death in Enslaved. With widened eyes and quivering jaw, I would glare at the screen and think, How. Dare. You. There was a slim chance that the offending sequence would enjoy a reprieve as I reloaded to try again, but otherwise my response was to eject the disc from my PS3 with such force that it buzz-sawed through two walls and into the next apartment. The awkward scenes that followed were just another strike against the game, as I leaned through the growing porthole into my neighbors' bedroom and said with a sheepish smile, "Ahm, sorry, but you haven't by chance seen a DVD come through here, have you?"
"It's a Blu-Ray," was Mr. Sharif's frosty response as he passed it back to me.
I won't pretend games don't frustrate me, but even "Green Grass & High Tides" never caused me to tomahawk a Rock Band controller through my television. Enslaved, however, has a special sort of problem. It has gone to such extraordinary lengths to shield players from any mistake or test of skill that the few moments where it does recollect that it's a video game seem more like bipolar caprice.
Protagonists Monkey and Trip hurl themselves across bottomless chasms, smash waves of robots, and climb colossal towers, and yet nobody is ever at risk of falling, or getting so much as a scratch. They are so capable, and Enslaved is so intolerant of human fallibility, that there is no possibility of these characters coming to harm under your control unless you are felled by a sudden coma. Which actually happened to me during the part of the game where you have to defeat like thirty waves of robots by pressing X and triangle repeatedly. You know, that part that happened between the opening titles and the end credits.
Enslaved is barely a game at all, and that is why defeat and death are so infuriating. Having excised most of the agency and skill that comprise most video games, it is outrageous when Enslaved attempts to punish you like one.
It did, however, make me appreciate the accomplishments of that elite line of action-adventures that began with The Sands of Time and Beyond Good & Evil. I have always been suspicious of how much they take out of my hands in the name of cinematic action set-pieces, but Enslaved shows just how risky it is to make a game that gives players so little control and confronts them with such simple challenges. The writing and characters of Enslaved certainly deserve a place alongside Jade, Drake, or Arkham Asylum's Batman, but they are doomed by the game that surrounds them.
Enslaved, like the exemplars it attempts to emulate, attempts to turn players loose on a cinematic adventure full of close calls, clever dialogue, and incredible sights. Games like this are at their best when players enjoy a long chain of successes in battle and exploration. It narrows the gap between player and character: We're experiencing the same victories and hairs'-breadth survival, and so I don't feel separated from a story depicting the same.
Death undercuts the effectiveness of the heavily scripted action, but ease eliminates suspense and eventually any reason to care about your own participation. Games like this have to be easy, but maintain a sense of peril. On some level players have to feel like they are playing for their characters' lives, but without actually having the game remind them of that fact. It's a tough balance to strike, and I only realized how tough when I saw it done poorly.
The two key ingredients seem to be strong characters and a lot of variety to prevent players from noticing how easy each individual action sequence really is, and Enslaved only gets half of the formula. Had there been more variety, more chances to be the characters rather than just control them, I might have been able to put up with the occasional frustration. Beyond Good & Evil didn't save Jade for the cutscenes. Players participated in her life as a photographer and member of a community. Her adventures were contextualized by everyday activities and surroundings.
They also included a rotating set of challenges: puzzles, stealth sequences, chases, battles, escapes... . I was happy to repeat Jade's hell-for-leather escape across city rooftops from the game's big villain, because it was such a sudden and exciting shift. Enslaved, on the other hand, has button-mashing combat and jumping non-puzzles. The repetition is so frustrating, because there is so little that is actually worth playing once, much less repeating.
Enslaved's characters deserved a better game than the one I finished out of a sense of obligation to them. Monkey's world-weariness and Trip's sheltered optimism hinted at interesting experiences in a wider world, and I was dying to see how their cooperation would change them. Yet the game never gave them room to really grow, or to give me a chance to identify with them. Monkey smashed and Trip hacked through one formulaic encounter after another, leaving their journey west perpetually motionlessness.