A Muddled Fountainhead

Some of the greatest works of art were inspired by mythology. Michelangelo’s David and the entire complex of Angkor Wat were both inspired by legends, stories and religious teachings. Nothing resonates like stories divined from a culture’s pantheon. They’re great because these stories and motifs are built on foundations made over generations.  What isn’t great is when deviations from source material cause it to lose its original flair.  Remakes and remakes are fine in their own right but when they tacked on another work as veneer, it feels a little cheap. In comes Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. Enslaved is based on the Chinese epic, Journey to the West. Enslaved falls a little flat, because none of the motifs or themes are carried through. All Enslaved did was take the names from Journey to the West and nothing more, causing me to think the developers added it just for some eastern flair.  It’s kind of like when you add some Chinese Five Spice to your chicken nuggets and declare it Asian inspired cuisine.  

The Story

Journey to the West is a 16th century epic about the monkey king, Sun Wukong, but let’s call him Monkey. Said Monkey starts out as a stone, nurtured by the Five Elements. Eventually, he learns to speak and becomes the apprentice of a powerful mage, Bodhi. After being expelled by his teacher, Monkey runs around stealing magic objects including a staff that held up the seafloor, magic chain mail and flying boots. Fearing his growing power, the Jade Emperor calls a blood hunt on Monkey. Being so badass, Monkey defeats them all. Buddha, who apparently is the size of the sun, is then summoned. He challenges Monkey to fly from the palm of his hand to the end of the universe. Monkey does so only to find out that he’s never left Buddha’s hand. Failing the challenge, Monkey is imprisoned, trapped beneath a mountain for five centuries. Then the goddess of mercy, Guanyin, releases Monkey in order to help the Buddhist monk Xuanzang go to India on a pilgrimage. To keep him in line, Monkey is forced to wear a headband that crushes his skull if Xuanzang recites an incantation. And so the epic goes.

But that’s not how Enslaved: Odyssey to the West goes. I have to admit that I’m a little biased. I grew up on this story and it’s painful to see adaptions that don’t jive with my preconceptions. For example, the main character is called Monkey but he’s not an ape, he’s a dude with spiky blonde hair and no shirt. The monk is now a woman named Trip. There’s still a headband, only now if you walk more than two feet away from Trip your head explodes. You also still have the staff and spend a lot of time smacking robots around. Enslaved boasts excellent graphics, bright and colorful when most modern games are going for mud brown and gun metal gray. However, the invokes none of feeling of the source material and pays its fountainhead little homage.

The Characters

I guess it irked me that all the main characters in Enslaved were Caucasian. Some of you might say that I didn’t bat an eye when Hogun the Grim was played by an Asian in the movie Thor. Or when Ving Rhames played the titular character in 2005’s Kojak.  Now, I’m all up in arms (but not really) when it’s the other way around. I could argue that what I want is more minority representation in media, especially when the media is derived from a non-Western origin. If a re-imagining doesn’t capture the themes of its source, why not drop it and make something new? It’s not like the target market of Enslaved are going to be swayed one way or the other on what the game is based. It’s kind of like the supposed Akira live action remake will probably be a whitewash remake set in Neo-Manhattan. That in itself is not bad, but much of the theme and feel of Akira is intertwined with the post atomic bombing of Japan. Aside from the Manhattan project it’s hard to capture that vibe in New York save maybe when there’s a tainted hot dog stand at Yankee Stadium.

Mainstream game developers pursue industry more than they go after art form.  It’s just like their Big Six counter parts in the book publishing world. They both got to make money, that’s the bottom line. Changing ethnicity to fit your target demographics is a cost effective way to foster sympathy and recognition.  That to me, accounts for the main reason remakes would deviate wildly from their predecessors.  Monkey looks like your stereotypical action hero. Along with his blonde spiky hair, he’s basically a super aryan…I mean saiyan running around. And Trip is a feisty red head who dresses very un-monk like. The dialogue in this game isn’t all that bad. It was written by the same guy who wrote the movie Sunshine, one of my favorite science fiction films, but none of the golden quotes are there, not even variations. Still, this game is based on the story that has redemption as central them. Monkey is supposed to going on this journey to the west in order to atone for hubris when he rebelled against Heaven. Along the way he meets other people in the need for redemption. They included a cannibal demon and a pig-man who was once a god but got kicked out because he tried to rape one of his fellow deities. Enslaved is about…being enslaved. Monkey in this version starts off on a slave ship, then he becomes a slave of Trip where he destroys robots who are basically slaves to their programming. Which is fine in its own right but why not just make a new character and a new story set in New York?

Outside and In

When I was first writing this article I did a little research. There’s been a little storm about Asian representation in the media. One arm of that storm was the Hollywood green light to turn the Japanese novel All You Need Is Kill into a movie, possibly starring Tom Cruise. It was going to be made in the vein of The Departed and The Lake House, both also remakes of Asian films and books. It got me thinking about the video game world. Does this happen a lot too? I suppose. Glancing through comments sections of forums discussing this, Japanese games were brought up. There are few character of color in Western made games but there are just as few explicitly Caucasians and even black people in Japanese games. For example, Final Fantasy XIII and its predecessors had only one black character. Well, you have to admit that’s probably representational of the Afro-Japanese population as a whole. America and other Western European nations are more diverse than that. Asian-Americans represent about five percent of the US’ population but only about .1% of commercial media. That’s some food for thought. I think The Departed worked because crammed the best bits of the Infernal Affairs movies into the plot as well as having the same gritty dark feel.

As discussed, Enslaved doesn’t have the outward appearance of Journey, but it also lacks the internal substance.  Journey to the West was a story about redemption.  In the original, a cannibal needs to reclaim his humanity, a pig-man works to regain his godhead, and Monkey has to atone for rebelling against Heaven.  Enslaved is about… being enslaved.  Monkey in this version is introduced aboard a slave ship.  The enemies in the game are primarily robots, slaves to their programing.  The plot revolves around Monkey and Trip working to free a group of people enslaved to a virtual world.  This major change of theme is what provides the biggest disconnect between the original and the remake.  Stephen King wrote in his book On Writing that theme arises when a story is complete.  It rises up and then sinks back down into the heart of the narrative.  It’s like when you change the skins on a character.  The stats, the handling, and everything else stays the same.  And isn’t that’s what’s important?         

That brings us back full circle to my original claim of capture the themes of the fountainhead. Are there any games that do this well? American McGee’s Alice and American McGee’s Alice: The Madness Returns do this pretty well; they capture the ‘am I in an acid trip?’ vibe of the original story while placing it in a dark room festooned with blood and doll faces.  They both foster in us admiration for Alice in a weird way.  Not in the weird way of Lewis Carroll, but of a girl who’s lost in a crazy world.  The games’ soundtrack even invoke a sense of child-like wonderment and dread. It seems to have the right balance of grittiness, fanaticism, and innocence to make it work.

The Future

Video game are susceptible to the same pitfalls as major motion pictures. As developers look for new ground to cover they will go back well trodden earth. They will turn over rocks to find things with brand recognition. They might even try to form a symbiotic relationship that the movie studios tried to create with book publishers. Like Journey to the West, they might pick up your favorite childhood story. The characters and settings might look different but I when I play a remake, I want it to feel the same. It sounds like a subjective need, but it’s easy to achieve. It comes down to capturing the theme of old works. A house stands most firm when it stands on a sound foundation.