A Survival Economy: Odyssey to the West
Titles in games usually speak to a main theme. But what if the characters and certain game subplots undermine that main theme in the game? In Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, the game is undermined by the main antagonists, the mechs, by how Monkey and Trip, the main characters, develop a relationship over the course of the game, which has an effect on the game’s central plot twist, and finally by how Trip and Monkey develop as characters through their interactions with each other and the environment. In the game, these issues about how the enslavement theme is undermined occur between Monkey, a brawler-like main character, and Trip, a rogue-like, computer savvy companion.
In the opening scene, the game sets up the enslavement theme in two ways, through an escape scene set on a crashing ship and then a confrontation between Monkey and Trip. In the opening scene, Monkey is trapped inside what looks like a holding cell on a slave ship set to deliver him to Pyramid, the enslaver. Across from him, Trip is in a similar holding cell, yet she manages to free herself and overload the ship’s systems, forcing the ship to crash. While aboard the crashing ship, the game firmly states the enslavement theme by guiding Monkey towards an NPC, Slave 6B58, who is wearing a headband with a glowing red bauble in it. When Monkey attacks 6B58 and demands to know where his confiscated gear is, 6B58 tells Monkey. In response to 6B58 telling Monkey where his confiscated gear is, a voice over the intercom declares Slave 6B58 to be “assisting escaping prisoner.” Slave 6B58 then yells out in pain and crumples to the floor dead. Slave 6B58’s actions are monitored, controlled and have severe repercussions if directives are not followed. This sets up the initial slavery concept in the game. A few short scenes later, the game reinforces the enslavement theme with a confrontation between Trip and Monkey.
The game reintroduces slavery through the confrontation they have with one another after Monkey wakes up from being knocked out. While Monkey was passed out, Trip attached an enslavement headband to Monkey, like the one Slave 6B58 was wearing. She had modified the headband so that it accepted her voice commands. After Monkey regains consciousness and comments that his “head feels like it’s ripped open,” Trip replies “It’s the headband.” Monkey understands immediately what this means and protests what she has done. Trip commands Monkey to stop and to walk. Monkey rigidly complies due to the headband. This scene, like the previous one with Slave 6B58, establishes the slavery theme. However, the way that the game firmly introduced the slavery theme doesn’t remain as strong. It begins to deviate significantly from the enslavement theme just as the mechs are introduced.
The mechs are the main antagonists. They are leftover relicts from past wars and now carry out their outdated programming. The mechs to focus on, however, are not the ones roaming the environment, but the ones on Pyramid’s slave ship, and the mech-dragonfly Trip reprograms. The mechs aboard Pyramid’s slave ship have been captured and reprogrammed to serve Pyramid. They no longer have the outdated code from the old wars, but now carry out the directives given by Pyramid. The mech-dragonfly Trip captures and reprograms is similar, as it carries out Trip’s needs. Both these mechs, the ones on Pyramid’s ship and Trip’s, are tools.
Trip and Pyramid repurposed old tools for new endeavors. They chose to recycle the mechs a and then employ them to ensure they had an advantage. In this sense, the mechs’ enslavement is the same as what happens in computer CPUs. Multiple processors (the slaves) are commanded by one main processor (the master) that busses data to the slave processors and synchronizes all the slave processors together. The purpose for the master/slave dichotomy is computer efficiency and effectiveness. Without the master processor commanding all the slave processors, you’d lose all the processors’ efficiency and effectiveness, keeping them from acting as a cohesive whole. The master is then the primary processor as it gets the data first, then busses it to the secondary processors. The master/slave dichotomy in CPUs then is really about preserving efficiency and effectiveness. So, if the master/slave dichotomy was instead called the primary/secondary processors, it would help distinguish how the CPUs are organized to process data to improve efficiency and effectiveness.
The primary/secondary rhetoric surrounding efficiency and effectiveness seen in CPU architectures can translate to the mechs that augment Pyramid’s influence as well as the mech-dragonfly that assists Trip. The mechs and the mech-dragonfly then become secondaries to Pyramid and Trip. Their secondary nature helps express something about both Trip and Pyramid; without the mechs both Trip and Pyramid would be less effective at navigating the world. Pyramid would not be able to ensure its future plans to save humanity from the chaos of a fallen society, and Trip wouldn’t be able to spy and evade the old-world mechs. The previous master/slave dichotomy that we changed to primary/secondary isn’t as simple as enslaving something against its will. The old-world mechs’ wills are like unlinked CPUs processing whatever randomly comes their ways. Trip’s and Pyramid’s repurposing those mechs is like a primary CPU helping organize the chaos of unlinked CPUs. The unified mechs then become more effective in the world and in the individual lives of Trip and Pyramid.
Another way to look at the unification between the primary and secondary is from an economic standpoint, one where cooperation means higher chances of survival. What was pure mech enslavement now becomes a survival economy. Trip and Pyramid “purchase” survival based on how many resources they can allocate and repurpose. The repurposing Trip and Pyramid do can sounds like forced change on the mech’s side, but it is important to remember that the game characterizes the world as vicious and a place where the fittest survive.
To survive the world of Enslaved, you have to elude or reprogram old-world mechs that are bent on eviscerating humans from the face of the earth. The old-world programming that commands the mechs is like ineffectiveness and inefficiency run amok. The old-world mechs force the survival economy into Enslaved’s world due to their unkempt old-world coding to exterminate humans. At this point, enslavement is no longer enslavement, but instead actions taken to allocate resources and repurpose materials to “purchase” better survivability in the world.
Survivability is key when understanding the world of Enslaved.
If we take the survival economy and the primary/secondary dichotomy and apply them to Trip’s and Monkey’s relationship, we will better understand their forced union as well. Their forced union begins with a confrontation between them about Trip putting the “enslavement” headband on Monkey. The opening conversation between Trip and Monkey shows Trip verbally commanding Monkey, who robotically follows along under the headband’s influence. In the first scene, the game states clearly through action, commentary, and visual description that Trip has command of Monkey. Yet the game reveals that Trip’s command over Monkey is limited because she lacks the knowledge on how to direct Monkey strategically in a battle.
Trip ultimately doesn’t employ Monkey’s skills well, and so she becomes ineffective and inefficient in regards to controlling Monkey. This is revealed in a pivotal scene later in the game when Monkey reverses the commands’ directions back onto Trip, who then begins to follow what he says. The reason for this switch is because Monkey is a trained, battle savvy brawler and Trip is ignorant in how to command Monkey’s abilities. Her ignorance stems from how she grew up.
Trip’s inability to control Monkey’s physical abilities expresses that she has very low survivability in the world of Enslaved, and so she requires Monkey to have autonomy to protect and support her. Her requiring Monkey is what demands she “purchase” Monkey’s abilities. To purchase Monkey’s abilities, Trip attempts to trap Monkey with the headband to give her control over what he does. Yet, Trip’s lack of physical knowledge in how to navigate the dangers in Enslaved becomes clear when the game upends Trip’s command over Monkey when Monkey commands Trip to do what he says until they reach her home.
The scene where Monkey and Trip switch roles occurs as they make their way through the devastated New York landscape. Suddenly Trip shouts and runs frantically for cover. A mech attacks them from the rear. Monkey screams for Trip to listen to him and to stop panicking. Trip doesn’t listen and dashes into the open, which forces Monkey to protect her. After Monkey destroys the mechs he races over to Trip and yells at her, “if we’re gonna get through this, then when I ask you to do something, you need to do it, immediately!” Trip agrees quickly, still panicking from her encounter. Trip’s acceptance of Monkey’s command comes at the cost of Trip losing her primary state, just like a primary CPU being overtaken by a faster, more effective secondary CPU. Monkey acts like a faster and more effective secondary CPU because he has a higher value in the survival economy and because he understands the environment. Because of Monkey’s effectiveness and efficiency in the world of Enslaved, he takes over the primary role, while Trip steps into the secondary role. Their switch places Monkey in the primary state for the remainder of the game.
With Monkey in the primary position and Trip in the secondary the game then defines the two characters within their new roles.
The best place to start with understanding the dynamics about Trip’s and Monkey’s roles and relationship, and how it goes against the enslavement theme is at the game’s end when Trip asks “Did I do the right thing?” Trip’s ending question further supports how her command over Monkey weakens, which was initialized at the game’s beginning when Monkey gave her a command to follow. The end and beginning of the game tie together to express the transaction Trip and Monkey enter in order to combat the game’s survival economy.
Survivability in Enslaved shouldn’t be viewed as simple bodily survival, but also as emotional and affirmational survival. Trip and Monkey require emotional and affirmative support on their actions, but as with all those traditional love stories they don’t know it yet. Trip requires confirmation about her actions, like when she asks if she did the correct thing by killing Pyramid, and affirmation on her emotional responses from Monkey, like when she loses her village to mechs and “Slavers.” Monkey requires this confirmation and affirmation as well. Trip congratulates him for accomplishing her plan or affirming his importance to her, like all the times she warns Monkey to be careful. The emotional support and affirmations Trip and Monkey give to each other are needed in the world of Enslaved. The need for these emotional affirmations and confirmations arises because the world of Enslaved punishes hesitation and doubt, as the mechs attack regardless of what a person does or feels.
The survival economy, emotional support, and affirmation become united first through how Trip needs to purchase more “survivability” when she acts out emotionally by charging fearfully into enemies or breaking down due to the stresses in her environment, like when a mech continues to pursue them. The second way they become united is through Monkey, who begins to seek an end to his lonely trek and invite Trip into his journey.
Some issues seem to arise in the first example because it treats Trip like a meek character. This plays into the video game trope that women are weak and need big burly men to save them. However, the game does a good job setting up why the characters, especially Trip, act the way they do. To keep the claim that the game weakens Trip would overlook the survival economy and also dismiss the origin lore the game sets up around Trip. Trip gets special treatment in the game’s lore since we get backstory on where she originated from and how.
Enslaved pieces together origin stories about Trip and Monkey as they travel to Trip’s village. Over the course of their journey, we learn Monkey doesn’t remember much of his childhood other than having to survive. Monkey’s origin story occurs over patchwork conversations between Trip and him. Overall, we get the impression that Monkey is a loner. For Trip, the game provides much more. Trip discusses her village with Monkey and then they visit the village. While in the village, Trip expands on the different features the village has.
The game integrates gameplay into what Trip is explaining by having Monkey turn on generators, lower bridges, and disengage electric fencing. The lore Trip adds to her character and her village doesn’t remain auditory, backfilling lore, but interactive lore that provides context on what was important to the village-people and how they integrated security into their daily lives. We become familiar with Trip and where she came from through her dialogue and Monkey’s exploration and manipulation of the village’s security features.
While the game introduces Trip’s past, it simultaneously establishes character traits in Trip and Monkey through how they respond to the environment. Monkey’s ability to scale massive wind turbines and jump between distant platforms alludes to a dexterity gained from living a nomadic, arboreal life. Trip’s traits are gleaned in how she responds to certain features in the village. She shows interest in all technological mechanisms in the village and provides context on how Monkey should go about fixing them.
The game establishing characters by traits allows the game to control how the player views the characters. The characters are constructed piecemeal stories rather than a main trait communicating their personality. All the different traits unite to help form a complex character who, like in Trip’s case, might be fearful and impractical in a fight, but, when confronted with a technological issue, becomes a decisive and focused tinkerer. The game does this throughout, dialing up or dialing down a player’s feelings about a character. The first character the game does this with is Trip.
The scene from the beginning of the game when Trip and Monkey speak about the headband constructs Trip as a selfish and ruthless person. A person willing to survive by any means. The game continues to reinforce this perspective on Trip by having her do questionable actions. At multiple points she nearly kills Monkey by trying to escape enemies only to be put in an even worse position which forces Monkey to fight on multiple fronts. But Trip doesn’t remain entirely selfish and ruthless the entire game. She becomes more encouraging towards Monkey, seeking to keep him safe, guiding him along routes she’s picked to solve puzzles that the world presents, or allowing Monkey to tap into her video feed so he can become more effective in battle. Even though Trip shows kindness, her selfish tendencies still put Monkey into difficult fights, like with the mech-dog that tracks them. Trip makes these selfish decisions to keep herself safe, yet they draw unneeded enemy attention towards Monkey. Sometimes the attention is not always towards Monkey but sometimes demanded from Monkey. Players will remember that Trip demands Monkey’s attention quite often since she puts herself into strategically disadvantageous situations because her ability to fight is substantially low compared to Monkey’s.
Trip demanding Monkey’s attention functions as a game mechanic to reintroducing Trip’s place in the survival economy. The mechanic also elicits Trip’s purchasing power in that economy. Trip might be poor in the survival economy, but her purchasing power is considerably high due to her knowledge about the tech world. Her tech powers are important because they portray Trip as the intellectual in the game and the one removed from nature. Trip has no survival skills other than being able to hack and command mechs and security doors. Her skills originated from her village where she learned to build and reuse tech systems to better fortify the walls and village-people. The fortifications Trip set up around and in her town highlights why Trip acts the way she does. She has grown up behind safety walls in her village. Being surrounded by walls has influenced her toward a protectivist mindset. Her mindset is visible in how she runs from trouble, yelling for Monkey to handle the mechs. Her inability to handle the mechs doesn’t come from any implicit weakness in Trip, instead it comes from Trip having been surrounded by walls. Trip is a byproduct of her environment where that environment was protected at all times by walls.
Trip was never forced to deal with mechs head on. She was able to approach them from a secure place behind walls and dispatch them safely from afar. The way walls are integrated into Trip’s character is ingenious. With all Trip’s yelling, she might be perceived as annoying and always needing help. Yet viewing her actions as an overzealous game designer trying to shove challenge into the game is missing the point. When you hear Trip calling out for help, this is a game mechanic filling out her personality. This mechanic that develops Trip has an impact on her character creation and on Monkey.
Monkey is introduced as a loner, happier being left alone than being with others. When Monkey enters the story we see him trying to catch Trip’s attention to help him escape from the escape pod and the crashing ship. Trip refuses all of his advances, choosing her own safety over his. Her action falls in line with her walled-off, security focused childhood. Oppositely, Monkey’s action shows he is open to cooperation, working together to solve problems. His cooperation-centered perspective is an assistive force that causes Trip and Monkey to switch primary and secondary roles. Their switch allows Trip to become more effective because she is able to benefit both of them with her aptitude in technological problems. Trip’s benefit to the group first reveals itself because, after Monkey is forced to help Trip, he then chooses, a few scenes later, to cooperate with her.
When Monkey moves from being forced to cooperate to choosing to cooperate, Monkey willingly becomes Trip’s security wall. This is an important move for both of them, especially for Trip. Trip needs walls and she is intimate with walls. Her childhood was lived behind them. Her interactions with walls are not only hiding behind them but getting Monkey and herself past them. She gives Monkey directions for how to solve puzzles to open walls. She unlocks doors, which are arguably walls themselves, that block her and Monkey’s progression. With all of Trip’s ability to dismantle and use walls, viewing Trip through where she came from, is necessary if any critique is brought against Trip’s character traits and the game’s portrayal of her.
The primary and secondary positions that Monkey and Trip inhabit respectively is a way to interpret how Trip and Monkey develop their relationship. As stated, Trip and Monkey make a switch near the beginning of the game when Trip recognizes that Monkey has more potential to handle the mechs and the world of Enslaved than she does, since Monkey has dealt with the world without walls. This has made Monkey have a high value in the survival economy. Conversely, Trip has grown up behind walls which has limited her value in the survival economy, yet it has provided her with a high purchasing power in the economy. Due to her low value, Trip steps back from commanding Monkey and instead follows Monkey’s commands. The first impression the game creates is one of slavery, which is quickly undone when the switch between the main characters occurs. Because of this quick switch, Enslaved’s title doesn’t support its theme of a robust survival economy. This, however, isn’t a fault with the game, just a fault in its title.
Preston Johnston is the co-host of the Ludonarrative Podcast, which airs at the beginning of each month and is available on iTunes. If you want to find more of Preston’s writing, check out his other Epilogue work, where his essays on games as literature and ludonarrative can be found. If you appreciate Epilogue Gaming’s work and would like to support it, you can subscribe for as little as $1 a month on our Patreon page.