“I think relationships are what makes us who we are. It’s relationships that drive us to do amazing, or terrible, things. I think it’s a brilliant subject to explore,” Nina Kristensen told me. We’re talking about Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, one of my favorite games of last year, and the second game from Ninja Theory that focused on a relationship between two very different characters. The first game, Heavenly Sword, was one of the PlayStation 3’s early hits.
Kristensen holds the title of “Chief Development Ninja,” which is rather brilliant thing to be as an adult. After talking to her and Mike Ball, the “Chief Technology Ninja,” it’s clear that Ninja Theory is not like most developers in terms of tone and personality. This is a very good thing for the future of the Devil May Cry franchise.
The world was mapped out
The world of Enslaved looked like a painting, but one that was filled with sleeping technological terrors that came to life and fought you as you crossed the landscape. I asked how much of this world they had mapped out, and how much they knew about its history before development began.
“Masses!” Kristensen explained. “We did a complete history of the world, all sorts of plagues and financial crises, massive wars. We made up all sorts of stuff just to give us a back story. There are different types of mechs, some from wars that happened 50 years ago, some from wars that happened 100 years ago, there’s an evolution of those things sitting in the world.” She likens it to a beautiful landscape that has been filled with landmines, hinting at the social commentary under the surface of the title.
“Landmines currently maim or kill 10,000 people every year long after the wars that spawned them,” Ninja Theory co-founder Tameem Antoniades told Eurogamer in a 2009 interview. “In places like Afghanistan, where I originally come from, millions of colorful ‘butterfly’ landmines dropped by the Soviet forces continue to maim and kill children who mistake them for toys. Today we are witnessing the advent of drone warfare, the rise of despot nuclear nations and the possibilities of large-scale casualties in bio-terrorism. In the comfort of our privileged Western world, post-apocalypse equates to fantasy. In places like Afghanistan, people are living day-to-day in a post-apocalyptic nightmare.”
The story’s undercurrents and subtexts are interesting, and they help to explain the game’s grip on those that have played it. But the characters are what is truly exceptional, and that was due to how the game was put together.
Acting in person
The game was written by Alex Garland, the novelist who wrote The Beach, as well as the screenplays for 28 Days Later and Sunshine. It was brought to life by the actor Andy Serkis, who is perhaps best known for the voice and physical performance behind Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. When Hollywood and gaming mix, the results can be terrible; in this case, both men used their talents for the good of the medium.
“When you look at a lot of projects, you can tell the few that got the actors together to work, there are relatively few that do that,” Mike Ball told me, pointing out that Serkis also has a long history in theater. All the scenes in the game were workshopped with all the actors together in one room, and then shot that way. The performances were just that: performances.
This resulted in nuanced acting that is rare in the world of adventure games. In many games, the voice actors never meet each other, much less get to act together directly. It pays off.
The ending was also a major left turn, and I won’t ruin it for those that have yet to play the game—which should definitely be on your to-do list if you haven’t already. Kristensen said that they batted around a number of ideas on what should happen at the end. “As satisfying as a Hollywood ending can be, it’s only satisfying in that moment, it doesn’t give you anything to think about,” she told Ars. “The best movies have a somewhat ambiguous ending.”
Some people hated the ending, others loved it, but it was definitely something people discussed. It was also a major departure from the expected major boss encounter followed by the game wrapping itself up in a tight bow.
I asked if they were happy with the game’s sales performance. “Obviously not,” Kristensen said.
“I think the timing wasn’t awesome for a brand new IP, if you think about everything that came out in the last quarter of last year, we were up against every other big gun,” she explained. “Launching a big IP is hard, and you need it to be in the public’s eye and so forth, and you need a big push to get what you have out to people. I think getting lost in the mix was a bit of a shame.”
Enslaved is out now, and Ninja Theory is now hard at work on the Devil May Cry reboot.