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March 22, 2011
Enslaved - For XBox, PS3

The game, while overtly selling sex, covertly tries to sell something else: political philosophy...

Yes, perhaps it’s a bizarre shock to see an image from the cover of a video game on a blog about politics.  And what’s more, with a headline other than “Video Games Too Violent, Son Jimmy Slaughters House Pet”.  Maybe it’s because I’m a huge Andy Serkis fan and I don’t want to see his developer, a company called Ninja Theory, go under (Andy Serkis, for those of us who aren’t nerds, is the man who played Smeagol in the Lord of the Rings movies).  Because the game didn’t sell very well, albeit a fun, addictive game with plenty of style and fantastic production values.  But in the interest in keeping focused on political philosophy, let’s stay away from any qualitative evaluations of the game content itself (sorry nerds)…

Enslaved is a game based on the old Chinese novel Journey to the West, published hundreds of years ago and since read by probably no one.  The game, however, is a modern, post-apocalyptic twist on the story; set in the future world, ravaged by war, virtually all human survivors of the robotic “mech” attacks have been enslaved by essentially the one company still left, Pyramid.  You play “Monkey”, one of three survivors to escape enslavement.  Originally a slave of Pyramid, after breaking free, Monkey plummets out of a ship back to earth, and… while unconscious, another escapee puts a headband on Monkey which makes him obey her every command.

This all may seem like digression, but at the very least, all this talk of slavery ought to perk your ears (eyes?) up a bit.  Anyway, the first I noticed all the covertly inserted political philosophy is when as Monkey, I inadvertently walked into a “glitch”, little objects placed throughout the game world which trigger vivid images in Monkey’s mind through the headband.  What I saw was basically a man at a computer, in an office, seemingly before the robot-induced genocide of the human race.  Now maybe it’s just me, but this was just too much a breaking-down of the fourth wall; instantly I got the impression that this man in the office was, essentially, one of the game’s programmers, or writers, and my mind was blown…

In his Second Treatise of Government, chapter five, John Locke writes, “[The] freedom from absolute, arbitrary power, is so necessary to, and closely joined with a man’s preservation, that he cannot part with it, but by what forfeits his preservation and life altogether.”  In his entire life, no one ever taught him how to properly use commas.  But the point I want to make here is in what regards Locke holds slavery; it is a negative pact, as by signing away the rights (and fruits) of your labor, you, by extension, sign away your right to life, and such a pact cannot be willingly made by an independent entity.  But in this very game, we have multiple layers of slavery; there’s the company Pyramid who owns virtually every living soul, there’s the girl protagonist (Trixie) who enslaves the main character to protect her and do her bidding, and there is the one presented very briefly by this glitch, the programmer who has entrapped Monkey and Trixie in this fascinating game world where they are literally slaves to the will of the gamer.  And that, John Locke, is how you use commas.

The protagonists’ lives are literally forfeit to the gamer’s whim, too; they are his for the killing, if he so desires, or for the saving.  Heck the glowing orange blobs Monkey collects throughout the levels are yours to spend on upgrades.  But Locke isn’t necessarily the only philosopher at work in this game.  For instance, Rousseau believes something very similar about slavery, that maintaining one’s natural right to will is so integral to the substance and meaning of life, it cannot be parted with.  From On the Social Contract part one, chapter four: “To say that a man gives himself gratuitously is to say something absurd and inconceivable.  Such an act is illegitimate and null, if only for the fact that he who commits it does not have his wits about him.”

Enslaved - For XBox, PS3

Monkey (foreground) enrolled in the service of protecting and aiding Trixie (background)

And of course, the game’s initial “glitch” which broke down the fourth wall and gave me a window into the nature of the beast recalled another political philosopher I’ve discussed before; Machiavelli.  Oh yes, it all comes back to Machiavelli… In life, I have to imagine that Machiavelli did, in fact, strongly resemble Smeagol from Lord of the Rings.  But in discussion for my Political Science class, we discussed Machiavellian ideas using the analogy of video game play; that in essence, subjects to the sovereign of a principality are simply abstract game characters, and that the accomplishments of the principality (and of the sovereign) may gamble with these subjects as collateral.  It is a lonely, solipsistic view which gives no weight to individual rights or perspective, but hey… when I’m playing a game, neither do I.  And again, the analogy works on multiple levels; Trixie seemingly has no regard for Monkey’s individual rights, and the programmer (and by extension gamer) has no regard for the rights of either.

Finally, there is Hobbes, who says that persons only enter into social contract for their own protection – from each other, and that, “… the difference between man, and man, is not so considerable, as that one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit, to which another may not pretend, as well as he.  For as to the strength of the body, the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest…” (Leviathan, chapter thirteen).  I would not begin to call the relationship between Trixie and Monkey a commonwealth (not with regards to its original intent, at least), but rather a violent encounter occurring after a return to the state of nature.  Trixie, considerably weaker, effectively claims the life of the stronger Monkey, and so fulfills Hobbes’ theorized natural tendency to dominate, murder and steal the resources of another human.

This is all the political philosophy in Enslaved that I picked-up on, and all this just after a rushed 12-hour play-through (it’s how I spent one entire day during spring break – the game is like a good novel, you just can’t put it down).  I can tell you, without spoiling the ending, that Andy Serkis (one of the game’s directors and important voice actors) does make an appearance at the end of the game, as the president of the fictitious company Pyramid.  That, coupled with the writers’ choice to call the in-game objects “glitches” suggests a level of comfort with self-reference that indicates that my reading of the game may not be an entirely unintended pathos on the writers’ part.  Perhaps, being so addicted to the game, I was for a time a slave to Andy Serkis, just as Monkey, Trixie, and all the subjects of Pyramid were slaves to the developer (Andy Serkis and crew).

[*Ker-SPLOOSH!*]  That was the sound of my brain exploding…

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