We recently got a chance to sit down with Ninja Theory's Nina Kristensen to have a chat about the very intriguing and promising third-person adventure, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West.
About Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
More than 150 years in the future, the world has transformed into an unrecognizable state, where all that remains are a dwindling human population and merciless robots left over from wars long past. In Enslaved, players take on the role of Monkey, a strong and brutish loner, and his partner Trip, a technologically savvy but sheltered young woman from a peaceful community. Trip realizes quickly that Monkey, with his raw strength and power, is the only hope she has of making the perilous journey back home. She hacks into a slave headband to enslave Monkey, before linking them together. Her journey has now become his.
Interview with Ninja Theory's Nina Kristensen
MMGN: Enslaved is based on a 400-year-old novel called Journey to the West. How much inspiration does the game take from that story; does it branch off to become it’s own story or does it borrow much from the Chinese novel?
Nina: We’ve used the novel as an inspiration point. The original story is beautiful; it’s rich, it’s complex, it’s fantastic. And yet it makes logical sense, with the characters being really interesting within the complex relationship. It’s also really, really funny. So we’ve used a lot of the ideas in it, but we haven’t stuck to the story. We’ve taken the elements that we want to do and reinterpreted them. So magic is technology and demons are robots. It’s definitely an inspiration point and not a complete retelling of the original.
Can we expect a massive story arch with a number of different directions in the narrative, or is there one decisive, direct approach with the story?
There’s a lot of story in there and some pretty big twists in there as well.
The relationship between Monkey and Trip seems a lot like the one between Ico and Yorda in Ico on the PS2. Can we expect the same sort of emotional attachment between the characters? I thought the relationship between Ico and Yorda was very imperative to the overall experience.
The relationship starts very tense for obvious reasons, so that’s a pretty tense way to start a relationship. But Trip is not a horrible person. She’s actually a good person in a horrible situation, and she’s really scared. She’s doing the only thing she can think of to get herself home. So over the course of the story their relationship changes. She’s from this community where the people are all about looking after each other and that sort of thing. Whereas Monkey is different; he’s a survivalist, a feral wild man that has lost his parents. So you really couldn’t get two more different people and force them together. So they learn from each other and come to rely on one another, so that whole relationship evolves over the course of the game, and they come to recognize good things in each other.
Do you get to play as Trip at all?
Well, Monkey is probably the more exciting of the two anyway, right?
Well, yeah. Monkey can do all the cool stuff. That’s the character you want to be able to play, isn’t it?
How much drama and progression did Alex Garland bring to the game? Did his story differ much from the original idea for the game?
Not really. The massive difference is about what the script is like, and how embedded in the gameplay it actually is. The dialogue in the script is quite short and to the point, because we rely on facial expressions quite often. It’s only writers of Alex’s caliber that can write three words that are in view with such meaning. And having the kind of actions that we had, we’re actually telling the story without being really wordy. And I think that was really, really cool. And in terms of the story tying in with the level design, Alex is very much a Ninja. We were very lucky to have him up in Cambridge (Ninja Theory HQ). He was coming up to the office once a week for several months, and he’d spend an entire day with the designers, working through the story at the same time, so everything is really meshed together.
So we should expect the game to be a lot like a movie – built up with tension and music right up to that big, epic conclusion?
Tell us a little about the gameplay. What can we expect? Puzzles, third-person action, dual-combat etc.
There are puzzles scattered throughout the game. In terms of the fighting components, there is third-person melee and a projectile weapon. There’s quite a bit of cool stuff where you’re in a scenario where you have to get from one place to another, and pass through the environment and rely on one another. So as a player you can either barrel in, or take the situation in and use Monkey and Trip to your advantage. Whether that’s getting around some bits and sneaking around, or using the enemy weaknesses, which Trip can determine by scanning them. You have the decoy as well. Trip normally handles herself really well and never does anything foolish. But when you want her to do specific things, like use the decoy to distract enemies, you can get closer.
Can Trip do more than just activate the decoy?
So there is the decoy, she can identify weaknesses and she can hack technology as well. She has a last line of defense with the MP, so if a mech does get to her, she does have a line of defense. So you do have an opportunity to get to her to save her.
Can we expect a demo?
Yes. No date confirmed yet though.
What can you tell us about the planned DLC?
We’re not really talking about that at the minute.
Britain is quite prominent in the gaming industry. Where do you see Ninja Theory at the moment, and how do things look for the future?
We’re going great guns at the moment. Expanded to 97 people, wrapping up Enslaved and we’re really close to the end of that, which is exciting. As a studio we can now do two projects at once, but I can’t talk about the other one.
You’re using motion capturing in Enslaved. Is this a technique you feel should be used more in games? Do you think it’s taking off?
Right tools for the right job as far as we’re concerned. All the movement and combat is hand animated because it needs to be very specific so it’s responsive and it hits all those sorts of marks. For all of the scenes where we’re talking about performance and the emotional story telling, that’s what we performance capture. So we capture body, face and voice all at the same time on a sound stage with multiple actors. We shoot it like we would shoot a film. Exactly the same but obviously in a special type of costume. We do that because to get a great performance you need a great actor, and it’s literally the performance we’re capturing. That’s crucial to us. Motion capturing is pretty cheap, whereas performance capturing is much more expensive. Faces are very expensive and hard, but we developed some new face technology. We have a small department dedicated to this and on Heavenly Sword we did some really cool, groundbreaking stuff. No one else is doing face capturing in that caliber so we thought we’d do it ourselves. We hired a mathematician. It’s very hardcore math within our technology. But we’re really pleased with the result, so we’ll always be pushing the technology.
What sort of direction is Ninja Theory taking with the current generation of consoles? How do you see this current generation? And what are your thoughts on Kinect and Move?
I don’t know much about Kinect and Move as we haven’t really had a chance to look at them yet, but I am very interested to have a look and see what we can do with them. I think games are pretty exciting at the moment. There’s a lot of good stuff coming out. The fact that games are so broad now is very interesting. Whether you’re playing on your iPhone or your console or a handheld or whether you’re downloading on PSN, there are so many different types of games out there. So whatever type of game you’re into, there’s going to be something for you. And from a development perspective, I think it’s great, because if you’re new and starting out, if you’re one person or two people or twenty people, there are platforms that you can genuinely develop for, and I think that will give us plenty of new and interesting IP and ways to play games. So I think it’s a really great time in the industry.
What about 3D? Do you think it’s going to change the gaming and movie industries as much as people say it is? Microsoft recently said that in three years time it’s going to be mainstream.
We’ve seen the evolution – black-and-white, no sound films, then you get sound, then colour, then 3D. And you know, those old movies are still proper movies. They’re still great movies. 3D is just another aspect, another view. It’s enhancing what you’re viewing, so getting the quality of the 3D up and right has got to be the key for it. Not many people have got 3D televisions at the moment, so it’s not like it’s a massive install base, but I can definitely see us playing around with it.
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is coming to XBOX 360 and Playstation 3 later this year.