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The making of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West

But Ninja Theory isn’t stupid: it had to be aware that battling mechs often tends to be about as exciting as twiddling thumbs... “We wanted to make the bosses striking and unique, but this wasn’t to the detriment of the smaller mechs that you come across. We spent a lot of time on making sure that all mechs have their own style and characteristics. You quickly learn in Enslaved that you need to think strategically about how you take on the different mechs. If you try and pile into a group of mechs without a plan you’re more than likely going to fail.”

The boss fights would marry platforming and combat, with colossal enemies to be navigated as much as attacked. Monkey’s acrobatic skills eventually feel almost automatic as you play through, which could leave the game open to criticism for lack of a challenge – something Tameem was keen to avoid. “Some of the areas of platforming are challenging, where you have to really think about when and where you’re going to move next. But some sections are designed to be smooth flowing, fast and cinematic. I’ve never found platforming gameplay very fun in 3D (apart from Mario 64). So the platforming is mainly for Monkey finding a route that Trip cannot follow and we reward you for getting the rhythm right by making Monkey more fluid instead of punishing you by death for missing a jump.”

But the ultimate sleight-of-hand would come from making the player engage with the story and characters so deeply and naturally that the mechanics of the game become invisible – and for that, they needed a damn fine script. Screenwriter and life-long gamer Alex Garland had been pitching ideas to developers for years (starting with an attempt at a 28 Days Later spin-off), but was continually knocked back. In the end, it was Tameem who would approach Garland and complete his team.

“I was struck by their friendliness and open-mindedness,” Garland told to our sister magazine Edge. “I never felt compartmentalized by Tameem or the designers. I genuinely looked forward to the weekly trip up to Cambridge. As much for just chatting about game philosophy as anything else. As for Tameem’s script, it was structurally all there. He’s a gifted and imaginative storyteller, and would work very naturally in the film world.”

The new writer and his boss may have had a few teething problems. Alex admitted: “I have a personal hatred of boss fights. This is the kind of thing me and Tameem would sit around arguing about. The big problem games have with narrative is that if you get stuck, it stops being a story with characters and it starts being a problem-solving exercise.”

But Garland’s enthusiastic input became the game’s wildcard. “When he came in, he took the basic structure of events that we had and built it into the full cinematic story that the game now has,” says Tameem. “Alex is a film producer as well as a writer, so he brought a fresh perspective to the game. After the writing he began to get involved in level design. He’d come in every week, play the game and talk to the designers, taking a look at the gameplay from a dramatic sense, where we could build more tension or emotion.

He had such an influence on the design side of things that he ended up being credited as a designer.” With Antoniades and his team, plus Garland, Serkis and the rest of the cast bringing all their shared experience together to create an action-packed story which drew the player in sequence by sequence –every camera angle and gravelly aside tweaked to perfection – it’s little wonder that they ended up with a strong, individual game to be proud of.

“There are no big regrets. That is about as much as you can hope for,” says the Chief Ninja, adding the single caveat: “I learned lessons to be sure and will be applying them to every new project we work on – we are constantly learning and getting better and better at what we do. I don’t expect to ever stop getting better.”

Without treading on any spoiler mines, we must admit to one disappointment with Enslaved – its apparent self-contained story, which makes the promise of further installments not impossible, but less desirable. And yet there are so many more stories from the source material to retell, so many characters to meet, is Tameem tempted? “I always like to tie-up a story and make sure that nothing is left hanging. That’s not to say that we couldn’t take the story further. We absolutely could…”

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Oct 28, 2010

Storytelling, characters, and a world like no other

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