Enslaved Interview: With Ninja Theory’s Nina Kristensen

You might’ve been wondering what the hell happened to Ninja Theory. You know, those guys behind the sexsational Heavenly Sword. Well, they’ve been toiling long and hard on their new project, Enslaved. In simplest terms, it’s a revamped version of 16th century novel Journey to the West, though you’d be more familiar with the TV show it spawned, Monkey. A mix of platforming, brutal combat, and motion capture that permeates its every pore, how can you not get excited? After a hands-on session, we cornered Nina to get the lowdown on Monkey, Trip(itaka) and how they work together.

First off, we noticed your face among the “missing” posters in the abandoned city. Do the rest of the development team have a place there?

Absolutely, we are all there.

Thought so, very cool stuff. Also thank you for making the lead an actual chick, rather than a chick pretending to be a monk (as seen in the classic Monkey TV series) so gamers won’t have to question their sexuality growing up. It’s a very positive step. Who on the development team has the fascination with longhaired red heads?

That would be our visual arts director, Alessandro Taini. He loves women, and that really comes through in the way he draws them, so, yes, he is indeed a big redhead fan.

Is the actress playing Trip the same one who brought Nariko to life in Heavenly Sword?

Actually, no. Anna Torv moved onwards and upwards since our collaboration together. She now plays the lead in the TV show Fringe. (laughs) It’s actually hard for me to watch Fringe now, I keep seeing her as FBI agent Nariko. In Enslaved, Trip is played by Lindsey Shaw an up and coming actress from America.

Even with the small hands-on we just had the “Monkey” mythos is very strong, both in character movement and story. Is your plan to take the classic story and put it in a futuristic Sci-fi setting or just take elements?

We are using the classic tale as more of an inspiration. It’s a very rich story that is incredibly cohesive and the interaction between the characters is very interesting, very fun. So it’s the perfect source material to draw from, but we are not going to follow the story.

The opening sequence was just insane! It was very Die Hard 2 with all the sections running along the wings and taking out bad guys. You have really incorporated a lot of different play styles, from hardcore combat to Ico-like puzzle sections. Does it stay that varied throughout the whole game?

The mix is strong the entire way through the game. As you get further along and into the larger sections, you’ll start getting the choice of how you want to play it. To either run in headlong into combat or try to be strategic, by taking down larger enemies and turning their weapons on their comrades.

Speaking of running headlong into combat, is it mainly hand-to-hand or do you get access to projectile weapons?

Monkey’s staff shoots projectiles later in the game, you’ll have to get to it first.

We loved what we’ve seen, it really took us by surprise. Was it your plan to stay low key and sneak up on the world?

Ha! It has been quite good to be under the radar, it’s helped us to stay focused on the game-making process. But it’s nice now that we are close to game’s completion to finally be out talking about it.

We were really impressed with how little aggravation Trip’s character adds to the experience. Was this where you started out when you were creating the game?

Absolutely. It was very important from the word go. We wanted Trip to be a companion you wanted to be with. She has to be helpful and she has to be intelligent. Her character is smart enough not to run straight into combat. Instead, she’ll find cover and decide what to do from there, plus she can defend herself if she has to.

Just how good is her AI? Is she self-sufficient or is there a lot of guiding and handholding involved?

Her character is smart enough to avoid combat. We haven’t left her defenseless either. She has an EMP as a last resort, which she can use if she needs to get away. She can take care of herself, she just isn’t powerful enough to get home, and that’s what she needs you for.

The control system is really innovative, and it gives a nod to some of the best current schemes. Was it important for you to make it instantly accessible?

It’s vital that you can just pick up and play, as the game does get very challenging later on when you start taking on multiple enemies of different types. So it will still challenge you… unless you play on easy (laughs).

People still play on easy? So, you have the mo-cap master Andy Serkis back, and Enslaved feels like you guys are pushing it to the next level. How “hands on” is he with the project? Do you need to give him much direction or do you just sit back and let him do his thing?

Working with Andy is just a brilliant experience. He’s so deeply invested in what he is working on. He and Lindsey really breathe life into their characters and he really gives his (and everyone’s) performance a level that only comes with experience. Another thing that really helps is the writing. We’re lucky to have Alex Garland on board (The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine). He’s an integral part of the team. He lives in London and our offices are in Cambridge, which is only an hour away. While the script was being written, he was at the studio at least one day a week, just working with the level designers. He’d take in the locations and level design and the team would, in turn, read selections of the story. So the whole thing really moved forward cohesively.

Do you feel that this is where gaming is headed? With people like Richard Morgan beefing up the story for Crysis 2, plus a huge calling for Sci-fi and comic book writers in games, with a lack of story always a major criticism. Are we looking at a new standard for the future?

If story is a major component of your game, then you should want the best script you can possibly get. More developers should invest in that.

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