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Can to can’t – The story of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West

Monday, 31 October 2011 09:29 GMT By Brenna Hillier

They say it’s the journey that matters, not the destination. We follow Enslaved: Odyssey to the West from Ninja Theory’s concept through to the recent shelving of sequel plans.

Ninja Theory

A Cambridge-based independent founded in 2000 as Just Add Monsters by Nina Kristensen, Mike Ball, Tameem Antoniades and Jez San; the team features veterans from Sony’s Cambridge studio and Virgin, among others.

Debut title, Xbox exclusive Kung Fu Chaos, was not well received, and the studio was threatened by the collapse of San’s Argonaut Games.

A deal with Sony Europe made Ninja Theory’s next title, Heavenly Sword, a PlayStation 3 exclusive and secured the developer’s future.

Ninja Theory is now working on the fifth core title in the Devil May Cry series, titled DmC, under close supervision from Capcom Japan and America. The creator-approved revamp has drawn ire from series fans.

On the back of a successful new IP, Heavenly Sword, Ninja Theory was living the developer dream – it had the chance to win backing for a passion project. That passion shows through in every aspect of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West’s production.

It’s a game everyone expected to succeed. It combines jaw-dropping graphical prowess with a satisfyingly tactical AI-buddy combat system, features stellar character performances and lush cinematics, and lets you play as a bad-ass who almost has a tail. While its strangely-concluded sci-fi narrative didn’t please everyone, it defied medium convention to depict a genuinely moving non-romantic relationship.

When the game also defied expectation and lingered on store shelves unduly long, both Ninja Theory and Namco Bandai gently dismissed franchise hopes and moved on. We look back on the game’s path from can to can’t.

Where did I come from?
Having been responsible for early PlayStation 3 breakout Heavenly Sword, Ninja Theory could have been forgiven for taking the sequel track, but although Heavenly Sword 2 is probably never going to happen, Enslaved is, in some ways, a product of Heavenly Sword’s success.

“We felt it had been really interesting having the main character Nariko accompanied by a sidekick called Kai,” chief technical director Mike Ball said.

“We had received a lot of good feedback about the relationship between the two characters and it was nice to have some gameplay unique to both of them.”

Creative director Tameem Antoniades latched onto the buddy-system of differing but strategically combinatory gameplay, although the team was initially reluctant.

“On the face of it, it naturally felt like an escort mission and let’s face it, escort missions are difficult to love,” Ball said.

Perhaps what was needed was a strongly identifiable core relationship, something more than the two-oddball-partners cop show theme.

“Ultimately that inspiration came from the original story of Monkey in Journey to the West, a 400 year-old Chinese novel which had spawned a TV series that was really popular in the UK when we were kids,” Ball said, noting that the game idea “snowballed” from there.

The start of it all.

Monkey, or Monkey Magic, a cult-favourite BBC dub of a 1970′s Japanese serial, was particularly notable for its casting of the delicately beautiful Masako Natsume as the monk Tripitaka, gender swap being a traditional method of expressing spiritual beauty among male religious figures. The strangely antagonistic but increasingly devoted relationship between Triptaka and the captured Monkey, played by comedian Masaaki Sakai, influenced a generation of viewers.

With this iconic and compelling dynamic as the heart, Ninja Theory had its work cut out to create a unique and distinct aesthetic while still invoking the source material.

The intensely colourful post-apocalypse of the finished game seems cut from whole cloth, a natural and appealing setting in which players familiar with Monkey are constantly delighted by both the gentle nods to the myth and Ninja Theory’s departures. But getting there wasn’t easy, involving a period of wild experimentation and design dead-ends.

“At one point, Monkey was completely white haired based upon a picture of an albino gorilla that Alex Taini, our art director had found,” Ball remembered.

Pitching it thick
Once it had a solid concept under its belt, it was time for Ninja Theory to take Enslaved on the road – with cinematic pitch in tow.

“When we create a new IP we actively take it to a number of publishers to find the right fit for that product, and the cinematic is a fundamental of that pitching process,” Ball said, explaining the developer’s decision to go “bigger and better” with Enslaved than ever before.

“We spent months creating the cinematic whilst also working on a very detailed design document,” he continued.

“We took the pitch on a tour of publishers in the States and in just a couple of weeks we had garnered a lot of interest. When we showed it to Namco Bandai, they understood it straight away and so a deal followed quickly.”

Work in progress: Monkey free-run.

Oliver Comte, Namco Bandai Partners’ senior VP of marketing, sales and publishing, said Enslaved had “all the right ingredients” to win the publisher over.

“Essentially when you greenlight a product it’s always because you feel strongly about the concept, the studio and the people. Enslaved is a perfect example of this,” he said.

Comte said Namco Bandai doesn’t have a dedicated budget but does set a target number for externally developed games, in order to round out its offering.

“We look for things that are different to what we already have so we end up with a portfolio that’s as complete as possible,” he said.

It was love at first sight, apparently, and while Namco Bandai took a close interest in the game’s progress, it also took steps to try and relinquish control.

“The publisher is paying and so naturally wants to be involved in making key decisions. On the other hand, the developer feels, and rightly so, that the game is their baby and they know it better than anyone,” Comte said.

“The relationship that we had with Ninja Theory was excellent, and the quality of the game is the proof. It’s impossible to release a big game unless everyone’s pulling in the same direction.”

World Building
With funding secured, Ninja Theory could get on with fleshing out the world of Enslaved. It reached out once more to one of its key creative partners: Andy Serkis, the veteran voice and motion capture artist whose iconic performance as The Lord of the Rings’ Gollum made him a geek culture byword.

Monkey’s attack sound test.

“We built a great relationship with Andy whilst we were working on Heavenly Sword. It was such a good experience that it was only natural that we teamed up with Andy again and as soon as we had a concept for the character we showed it to him,” Ball reminisced.

“I just can’t imagine anyone else playing Monkey.”

Ninja Theory runs its motion capture sessions in a similar fashion to Naughty Dog’s work with Uncharted, explaining why both developers have drawn massive critical acclaim for their realistic animation and character performances.

“We treat the whole process like a stage play,” Ball explained.

“The actors have a few days prior to the shoot to get to know each other and to explore the characters that they are going to be playing. This process really helps to shape the performance and allows the actors to add a little of themselves to the characters also.

“When we get the footage back from the shoot, I’m convinced that the performance totally changes the whole team’s expectations of the characters.

“Some new stuff gets created ad hoc on the performance stage too, so all in all, it actually allows us to go back into some of the levels and add more to the gameplay based on the performance.”

Monkey, Trip, and Pigsy share star billing with another major character: the lush and beautifully colourful environments, which Ball said were a reaction against the blobbity-blob grey mud of modern game design.

“Just say ‘no’ to boring, drab game levels.”

“That’s one of the things that we are really proud of. Just say ‘no’ to boring, drab game levels,” Ball commented.

“It’s also the case that Alex’s favourite colour is red, so you’ll notice a lot of red in the levels.”

Highlighting the ruinous metropolis which was once New York as a favourite, Ball said the team were inspired by The History Channel’s Life After People documentary series, but also sacrificed realism when it suited the flow of player experience.

“There was a constant argument in the design team about whether or not it would be acceptable or not to play with the metrics of the city and move some of the landmarks to make it work from a gameplay point of view,” Ball said.

“I’ve never seen any complaints about the liberties that we took so I guess we got away with it.”

Nevertheless, there are a number of small details of Ninja Theory’s design which did not go unnoticed.

“There’s one really simple element of the game that a lot of people love and that is a tiny robot with a big eye in one of the junkyards. As you walk by, it turns to follow you – a little piece of life left in the barren world. Really, really simple to implement but everyone loved it,” the developer said.

“There’s also a big robot hand in a later level that is a reference to Buddha’s fingers in the original Journey to the West book that inspired us.”

Pigsy Style test.

Expectations unmet
Enslaved launched in early October 2010, within weeks of Civilization V, FIFA 11, Medal of Honor, Fallout: New Vegas and Rock Band 3 – among others – and just ahead of the end of year release flood. It managed a respectable Metacritic in the low 80s, but more importantly than the numbers attached to those reviews was the acknowledgement that, despite its flaws, it was one of the most important games of the years.

But consumers were not so kind. By February, Enslaved had failed to crack 500,000 sales, and at the of Namco Bandai’s financial year, had managed just 750,000.

While the game isn’t a failure – Namco Bandai has said longer term sales are good – its relatively lacklustre performance means Ninja Theory has had to put aside its hopes of developing the franchise, and can plans to spin off a second team for now.

Namco Bandai put the under-performance down to timing, blaming the holiday season and expressing satisfaction with its quality and review scores.

There’s another likely culprit, though – Enslaved’s opening sequences fail it, refusing to communicate the depth of gameplay to be expected in later levels. This opening was delivered as a demo as well as the hands-on build shown at events, presenting what appeared frighteningly like a button-mashing brawler with some set-piece platforming. In an era when metrics demonstrate just how infrequently gamers push to the end of single-player campaigns, Enslaved had little chance to build word of mouth buzz.

“We spent a long time building up to the more strategic combat and looking back, that was a mistake.”

“We never wanted to be seen as a competitor to God of War and the like, so we had derived a concept of strategic combat. In our minds we wanted the player to evaluate a combat scenario ahead of them, make plans about how Monkey and Trip were going to work together to get through the combat and then launch into executing their plan,” Ball said of Ninja Theory’s intentions.

“It’s difficult to get the balance of abilities versus progression. I guess in our case we spent a long time building up to the point where you could really explore the more strategic nature of the combat and looking back, that was a mistake.”

Please sir, more?
“We would love to do a sequel to the game,” Ball said, echoing a sentiment strongly voiced by Enslaved fans.

“We had made a beautiful and vibrant, if totally ravaged, world that would be great to spend some time in again.

“The whole journey to the west was a metaphor not only for the physical journey that Trip and Monkey make from the east coast of America to the west, but the characters in the game followed their own journey that saw their relationships and characters evolve over time.

“There’s not only the world to continue exploring but the characters as well. There are lots of ideas and possibilities.”

But making a loss on one beloved game is one thing, and funding a whole series is another. In his business role, Comte must, of course, be cagey on the subject.

“You always end up having the same discussion between the head and the heart.”

“There are lots of factors to take into account, such as the publisher’s portfolio, the success of the first one, the studio’s capacity, the timing and, of course, the investment. Making games is a complicated business.

“All these ingredients need to come together at the same time, which doesn’t always happen,” he said, before throwing a slender bone of hope.

“You always end up having the same discussion between the head and the heart. Personally I would be sad if Enslaved stopped here, and I’m certainly not alone in wanting to see the next episode in the adventure, so we’ll just have to see what happens.”

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18 Comments

  1. Anders

    Interesting read, would love more articles like this on VG247.

    #1 4 years ago
  2. Patrick Garratt

    They’re coming. Journalism is the future. We’re going to kill it next year.

    #2 4 years ago
  3. tenthousandgothsonacid

    Surely “We didn’t sell enough copies to cover development costs” would have covered it ;)

    I know everyone holds up this game as a tragic story of modern day development etc but it is a business and nothing more (sadly). We want more on people properly screwed over by their publishers like Black Rock.

    #3 4 years ago
  4. Wardotron

    I can pinpoint two reasons why this game struggled at retail.

    Firstly, the game’s title is poor. The words “Enslaved” and “Odyssey” are both trite; putting them together evokes the trash science fiction paperbacks that poured out during the 1970s. What is the game actually about? Who knows. Thus the story, actually one of Enslaved’s stronger aspects, is hugely undersold.

    Secondly, at least in the UK market, the box art was poor. Featuring a hotchpotch of characters and a giant robot (incidentally one of the weaker character designs from the game), the artwork suggests a cheap, grungy Rachett and Clank rip off. In a game where the environment is the star, where are the lush colours and the awed sense that comes with exploration?

    The result was a game box that stayed glued to the shelf. A better marketing team might have addressed these points with Ninja Theory at an earlier point, which is a shame, as the game itself is quite brilliant.

    #4 4 years ago
  5. Clupula

    Personally, I never bought it because the gameplay sucked. I remember purposely trying to die in the demo from missing jumps and I couldn’t. It felt like it was holding my hand each time. I later played the full retail version at a friend’s place and way later in the game, it still felt too simplistic. Ninja Theory always think of storyline first and gameplay third (with graphics being second). While I am very much into a game having a story to motivate me to keep playing, if the gameplay isn’t fun and challenging, I have no urge to continue. It’s the same reason I always felt the PS2 Legacy of Kain games (the PS1 Legacy of Kain: Blood Omen is the one exception) were more fun to watch someone else play than to play yourself.

    #5 4 years ago
  6. Deacon

    IMO, it had more to do with the complete lack of marketing and promotion than the box-art or the title.

    I don’t think the demo (whilst being very pretty) did much to entice people in. The demo lets you ‘play’ through the extremely linear opening to the game, and to be fair, it remains very linear throughout (I’m about 3/4 through).

    I love the setting, I love the characters. The gameplay, though simple, is pretty solid. Graphical annoyances I found were the regularly disjointed lip animation and framerate stutters.

    As #5 said, you simply can’t go wrong with large sections of the game. It plays the platform / climbing sections FOR you, and allows no room for experimentation or error.

    I think the main thing separating this, and the hugely successful Uncharted series, is POLISH. That, and guns. We all know how much gamers these days go hard at the thought of shooting someone with bullets.

    I think I’ve ranted enough..

    #6 4 years ago
  7. Freek

    The buzz around the game wasn’t verry positive. “Nice looking game, cool story, but the gameplay isn’t verry interesting” same thing that was said about Heavenly Sword, wich I did play and diden’t think much of either.

    That’s what stopped me from buying it and probaly all future Ninja Theory games, they’re style of games just doesn’t apeal to me at all.

    #7 4 years ago
  8. silkvg247

    They should have called it Monkey Trip :D

    Seriously though, one of the best games I’ve seen in a while. It deserved to do so much better.

    #8 4 years ago
  9. majicship

    I bought this because I really wanted to play something colourful, but only managed to get about a third of the way through before boredom got the better of me. I didn’t mind the ‘on rails’ climbing aspect, but having to carry and throw Trip about simply got on my nerves. But I also thought this about Batman Arkham Asylum – the same lame repetitive button bashing combat drove me mad.

    #9 4 years ago
  10. DaMan

    I’ve always wondered why does it matter if it’s on the rails when the jumpy climby sections in these games are automated anyway. If anything, that’s only less of a chore.

    That made perfect sense, perhaps they should’ve dropped the combat entirely.

    #10 4 years ago
  11. bluemanrule

    I enjoyed Enslaved and own it for both the PS3 and 360. Combat becomes more hectic as the game progresses. I wish more polish would have been added to the environmental textures and a fail opportunity for platforming but otherwise, it was a great game.

    As for DMC, I’ve enjoyed NT combat. DMC is my third favorite gaming series and I am confident that, with Capcom’s direction, NT will do it justice. We just need to see Vergil.

    #11 4 years ago
  12. Machinetti

    the first Game flopped but do not know why Probably had something to Do With EActivision and so did Vanquish and both games were better than Medal of Crapper but i guess they are simply reaching out to the kids when it comes to shooters while enslaved reached out for Real Players.

    #12 4 years ago
  13. bluemanrule

    Vanquish was made by Platinum Games though, as was Bayonetta and Mad World.

    #13 4 years ago
  14. Killerbee

    Great article – I’d definitely like to see more of this sort of thing on the site.

    As for Enslaved, I did buy it on release (the “Talent pack”, no less) and that was largely off the back of having enjoyed Heavenly Sword. Sadly, I did feel let down by the game (I did complete it though) and even if a sequel were made, I can’t honestly say I’d be in any rush to buy.

    For all the things it got right – the art, the setting, the character performances – I think it was the fundamental aspects of gameplay that let it down.

    For starters, the game engine really seemed to struggle with the size and scope of the developers’ ambitions – the still shots looked great, but in motion it never really felt smooth and the camera was terrible for zooming in too close behind Monkey when in combat, so you’d end up trying to battle enemies you couldn’t see.

    Then there was the melee combat – next to Batman: Arkham Asylum, God of War 3 or Assassin’s Creed II it just felt undercooked and lacked involvement or tactics. I get that they tried to move away from Heavenly Sword’s system to something more accessible, but I think it was a step too far.

    The platforming, as others have noted, was probably the worst aspect because it was impossible to fail at – you were just pressing buttons to move in a totally linear fashion and again, next to Uncharted or Assassin’s Creed, it just felt dull. The need to paint all your climbable surfaces with flashing indicators also points at a lack of confidence in your art or level design or both.

    Then the story and script, for all the Hollywood values, didn’t really do justice to the concept. The actors all did a fine job, but until Pigsy arrives, the game feels very empty and humourless. Again, it’s no Uncharted 2.

    For me, that was the problem with Enslaved – it’s by no means a bad game, it’s just that so many other games do pretty much every aspect, every “hook” it sought to offer, better in some way shape or form.

    And in today’s gaming market you just can’t afford to launch a new IP and not be up to scratch…

    #14 4 years ago
  15. monty12345

    I remember the ending of that game to be really good, better than most uncharted endings at least. Wrapped up the story nicely and made me give a shit about the characters towards the end.

    I really did adore this game, the combat, the graphics (most of the time)
    The characters is what I enjoyed the most though: They were very well realised and easily likeable.

    It would be awesome if they made another one, but then again, this industry has too many “franchises” it might be nice to just leave it as is..

    A stand-alone near-classic in my eyes.

    #15 4 years ago
  16. triggerhappy

    Stupidly triangular main character is a HUGE off put for me.

    #16 4 years ago
  17. YoungZer0

    I loved the game. It so sad to see this game not being as successful as it should be. Maybe i’m just ignorant, but i think there wasn’t enough advertisement for the game. I think that’s the real reason why it wasn’t as successful as it should be.

    The game had of course it’s problems. The engine wasn’t optimized, the controls were pretty bad and the fighting lacked in depth. But i could see past all that, discover one of the best art-direction in the history of videogames, enjoy a fantastic and well-told story with beautiful and fleshed-out characters, well-performed by the actors.

    It was worth the full price, because after i finished it, i felt that warm fuzzy feeling i only get when i see a good, deep and smart film.

    #17 4 years ago
  18. MoePa

    http://blog.eu.playstation.com/2013/02/14/playstation-plus-what-sort-of-content-do-you-want/comment-page-9/#comment-357023

    Please request this game as part of instant game collection. I feel it will give the game the much needed attention, may make developers consider a sequel, a guy can dream

    #18 2 years ago

Comments are now closed on this article.

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