Three's Company: How Pigsy stumbled in and totally ruined a great thing in Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
A good game tells the story of a lone protagonist, an archetypal hero the player relates to and guides toward success. Thanks to the immersive nature of video games, an experience doesn't need to be perfectly refined to draw the player in. After all, many player characters are essentially faceless empty shells -- digital vessels just waiting for the player to dump a few dozen hours and countless arbitrary achievements into.
And that's fine; a good game is a good game. But it's not a great game.
A great game channels something deeper, elusive, and much more delicate than simply bringing a handful of characters to life. Anybody can make a game about a person or even multiple people, but a game that empowers the player to give life to meaningful relationships between its characters -- that's the biggest creative risk you can take. That's the mark of greatness.
The Prince and Elika; Manny and Meche; Frank and The Maw; Ico and Yorda; Gordon and Alyx; Drake and Elena. They might not seem like much on the surface, but spend a few hours in their shoes and you'll understand just how potent a believable and meaningful relationship between characters in a game can be.
It's that emphasis on the relationship between two well-defined characters that drew me to Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, Ninja Theory's well-received but commercially unsuccessful action-adventure game from last year. The interplay between Monkey and Trip -- two surprisingly nuanced and very well-acted leads -- was obvious from the game's first minutes, and it carried me through the occasional frustrating combat sequence and handful of repetitive boss fights.
Things got serious. The characters face the reality of their post-apocalyptic world. They see the final remnants of society crumble. They're made to feel powerless as they're relentlessly pursued by a faceless enemy. And halfway through the game, it seems as though everything is lost. It was undoubtedly a risky scene to produce: If the animation and acting didn't make Monkey and Trip's bond believable, the game would have fallen head-first into the bottom recesses of the uncanny valley, leaving the remainder of the game to feel like a ham-fisted joke of a story, buoyed along by two plasticine leads.
But it worked. Monkey and Trip's camaraderie grew in a tenuous, uncertain, and inconsistent way, and it was eminently believable. To me, the player, it felt real, and that made all the difference. I didn't care if Enslaved wasn't the most competent platformer, and I didn't mind that the combat system was little more than adequate. I was playing for the characters' sake, and thanks to Alex Garland's expert script, I felt rewarded.
And then, like a fart wafting into a pristine forest, Pigsy waddled onto the scene.
Pigsy is the third wheel that shows up after about six hours -- just in time to fuck up a perfectly good game. Pigsy doesn't give a damn about the lush, overgrown landscapes or the tiny facial cues that build intrigue between Trip and Monkey. Pigsy exists only to disrupt something nice, and it's a job he performs with aplomb.
He is unpleasant to look at. A thin mustache and bizarre helmet barely mask a grotesque face. A stained undershirt girds his obese frame, and an oversized belt buckle in the shape of two red lips adorns his pelvis. It's never explained why Pigsy and Trip's father were good friends because there's absolutely no way that would ever happen, ever.
Pigsy is a mess on his own, but the real damage comes from how he derails the mood of the game wholesale in the game's final act. He's inexplicably jealous of Trip's affection for Monkey, and most of his contributions to conversations consist of lewd jokes and vague death threats directed at Monkey.
There's a lesson to be learned here: Not every game needs comic relief in the form of an unnecessary additional character. There was so much potential in the earlier stages of the game for Monkey and Trip to develop a relationship that was complex, unpredictable, and more real than almost any other game to date. But Pigsy's inclusion is unnecessary and damaging to the game's otherwise compelling narrative.
I was left hoping for more of Monkey and Trip after I finished the game, but after a brief epilogue, all that remains is a self-contained downloadable add-on. Monkey and Trip don't appear in it, but Pigsy's back -- in fact, he's the star. Based on the description, it sounds like he's trying to build a robot for sex, apparently.
Good luck with that, Pigsy.