Electron Dance
10Oct/10Off

Expo Man V of VI: Enslaved To The Rhythm

I knew nothing of Ninja Theory's Enslaved, because it was built in Console City on the other side of iPhone Forest. I only have one home, these days, a mortgage-free property in Windowston. The neighbours are nice and the picket fences are white.

It was another one of those WTF am I doing here moments; I'm never going to play this as I have no room in my life to flirt with a console. I attended because it appeared on the list of Laura Michet's optimistic non-brown games. As I got my seat, I had a feeling that I should've gone to The Witcher 2 presentation instead. Ninja Theory made Heavenly Sword, the demo of which I'd watched Yahtzee dismantle. Hoo boy.

Tameem Antoniades, co-founder and - I quote from the corporate site - chief design ninja of Ninja Theory is a pleasant enough speaker to listen to. He's not up there with Quinns or Michael Abbott but he probably wouldn't be bad lullabying you off to sleep if he tried.

A developer presentation was more my kind of thing. I could lean back with my free Virgin Atlantic notepad and jot down notes as I felt the urge. A passive experience like watching television or playing Metal Gear Solid 2.

Tameem opened with this trailer to kick things off.

Facepalm. I cannot stand game trailers that wrap themselves in movie trailer clothes. I've moaned along these lines before. This was not a good start Tameem.

But he turned things around as he revealed that the game was based on the Chinese novel Journey To The West which my generation would recognise as:

Faceunpalmed. A game aiming for "a buddy road movie" taking Journey to the West as a reference point sounded a shitload more interesting than Gears of War.

But as the presentation progressed, I was held in a quantum netherstate of facepalming and not facepalming because Tameem concentrated exclusively on the artistic side of the game, how that was developed and woven into a coherent tapestry for the final product. He wasn't going to let on about how it actually played. Any new mechanics or ideas.

This could well be because it doesn't have any. I browsed Eurogamer's review of Enslaved (the game has been released) which suggests that the artistic and narrative side is rather cool and brilliant, but the game offers nothing new. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; ambitious execution can be enough to lift a game from the dregs of derivative to the apex of awesome. I am reminded of my disturbing necrophiliac thing for Dead Space, a title that goes wrong in many ways, yet rises above that to be a fun ride.

I watched with strange car crash fascination at Ninja Theory's everything-and-the-kitchen-sink effort to make Enslaved look right, feel right. I thought about Matt James' Leave Home, a five minute game that took a year to make, a year of tweaking to be authentic and different. Mainstream developers throw cash at lip-synch and motion capture. If you're a committed follower of the indie scene and know how hard it is for tiny outfits to stay afloat, learning of the ostentatious spend of a headline mainstream project can fuck up your soul.

Andy Serkis for voice and direction. Nitin Sawhney for music, who I have loved since hearing what he did for Channel 4's Second Generation. Here's an example of what he did for Ninja Theory's previous, Heavenly Sword.

They've got Alex Garland on writing duty and there was some mention of how writing for a game is quite different from film. Being someone who stalks Penumbra author Tom Jubert online to the point of a restraining order being discussed, I was underwhelmed with some of the notes raised here. Jesus H Christ if only someone could send me to GDC.

Much was made of what Alex brought to the table in terms of scene direction and character acting. Some of this stuff only makes sense when you have animation ninjas to pull off fabulous motion captured scenes for you. In other words, when you're writing game-as-film.

I won't dispute that Enslaved is likely a fun game - the reviews all seem to exude a positive glow - but I didn't hear much about a game, I heard what you did with a megabudget.

I'm being way harsh, of course. Tameem's presentation was only meant to be a light stroll through the artistic life of a game project, nothing more, nothing less. Its 45 minutes just happened to reveal more about my personal perspectives and prejudices than anything about game design.

I'll conclude with what I saw of the game on the expo floor.

Next: Survey Says

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  1. I have to admit, and I know this makes me a horrible outcast from the intellectual elite of gaming, that I have always enjoyed game-as-film. Perhaps it’s my love of old point-and-click adventures, where nearly all of the joy comes from the animation and dialogue, or maybe my love of Japanese games that have never had that strong of a separation between story and mechanics, but I’ve never been the cutscene-skipping boil-it-down-to-the-play type. I figure there’s a whole wide spectrum between “watching” and “playing,” and there’s no law that says games have to be way over on the play side and the watching part can’t be rewarding.

    If games were truly all about the mechanics, pretty much everything would be geometric hitboxes moving around on screen – incidentally, that does describe my games, but only because I can’t draw.

  2. I have fond memories of games like Flashback where cutscenes were becoming established as a way to make a game… way cooler and involving. Another counterexample: NOLF’s cutscenes as well as some of the in-game scripted conversations are ace.

    Do I have any recent examples I liked? STALKER featured a number of bizarre cutscenes which supported the tense and menacing atmosphere of The Zone.

    Deus Ex cutscenes were always worth listening to, although they were short on action – it was more about dialogue.

    I’m just not a fan of the modern game/movie model, which is often caricature + bad plot; it has become a form in itself. I wouldn’t mind decent cutscenes as a sort of reward, a piece of the narrative puzzle you’ve worked for, but most of the time they’re feel more than filler or junction from plot point A to B.

    I sort of laid out my simplistic thoughts on game design as activity vs art a few months back. Games work best when their play and art work together; I feel they miss out if they stress one side over the other. I could spend a lot more rambling words on this topic and, one of these days, I will.


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