I don’t know what it is about 2012– something the Mayans said, apparently– but I’ve been playing a lot of post-apocalypse games lately. Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, Bastion, Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon… you name it and it’s got “end of the world” plastered all over it. Of course, a big part of this is just me playing catch-up– Bastion came out last year while Enslaved and Fragile Dreams were both released in 2010– but playing these three titles in particular (all in fairly quick succession too) has been quite the education. Despite all tackling the same basic premise– a mysterious calamity has wiped out 99% of the human population– each game’s interpretation of it couldn’t be more different. From the art style to the finer nuances of the plot and story structure, about the only thing these three have in common are their small casts of characters. So I’m going to do something a little different today and see how each of these games introduce us to their own respective worlds and whether any lessons can be learned along the way. I know Bastion and Enslaved are both on Other Platforms, but hey, it’s not every day that one of Wii’s most underappreciated titles gets to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with such critical heavy-weights, so let’s put aside our format rivalry for a moment and get right on down to the good stuff.
In Fragile Dreams, you play as Seto, a young boy who’s just learned the old man he lives with has died, and you begin your journey in the pitch black observatory. Guided by nothing more than the evanescent glow of a firefly, you’re prompted to crank open the observatory roof to let the moonlight in.
Suddenly the cavernous room is awash with the dark tones of midnight, but you soon discover it’s a very simple place. Clothes hang to dry by a rusty, old stove and a stack of firewood lies close to the door. Boxes line the walls with the odd star-chart here and there mapping out the phases of the moon, but just before the room veers off into the archives, you see a handful of markings scored onto the chipped paintwork. It’s a record of Seto’s height from the ages of 5 to 15, although Seto tells us he doesn’t really remember the old man doing it every year.
Further round, there’s a tousled pile of blankets on the floor, presumably where Seto slept, accompanied by a worn-out lamp and a tin can of kerosene; the old man has a proper Western bed on the first floor, but the small ladder leading up to it has snapped. There’s also a broken, old TV set sitting opposite a surprisingly new-looking sofa, but Seto has no idea what it is. He says it looks a bit like a mirror, but he’s not so sure. He doesn’t really even know what the big telescope is for.
“I think you use this to look at the stars, but it doesn’t work anymore,” he says. No wonder the old man has a smaller telescope upstairs then.
Eventually you find a flashlight, but then you hear the faint call of a cat coming from the archives, beckoning you to investigate. Inside is a low-ceilinged room crammed full of book shelves, and you spy the creature that led you here. It flees as you draw closer, but you’re too busy following the path through the maze of books to register where it’s gone. You probably don’t notice the crude stick figure family and gaggle of faces drawn on the wall either, but when you catch sight of a desk hidden away in the corner you can’t help but take a look. Yet before you can see what treasures it holds, an ominous, robotic voice cuts into the silence.
So begins Fragile Dreams. It’s a very quiet game, one that’s light on combat and even lighter on its dialogue– a whole world away from the big, brash introduction of Enslaved and the jaunty, mouse-clicking fury of Bastion. Here there are no desperate escapes off exploding slave ships or narrators guiding us along in their deep, Western-style drawl; there’s just Seto and his flashlight illuminating the broken world left behind after humanity’s checked out of existence.
Before he died, the old man wrote Seto a letter telling him to head east towards a tower where he might find other survivors.
You don’t know why the world’s in such disarray, but as you wander through the game’s ruined environments, all the pieces start slotting into place. Whether it’s a dirty, old banner congratulating the local high school for reaching the baseball finals or the faded graffiti on the shopping mall walls, you begin to feel like you’re viewing a world that’s been interrupted. Whatever it was that happened, it doesn’t seem like it was planned; life just simply ceased to exist one day and this is all that’s left. Yet the memory items that Seto finds appear to tell a very different tale indeed, and it’s the way these two strands of game design disturb and unsettle each other that really brings out the game’s fascination with its subject matter. You might not come across many of them on your journey– it all depends on how hard you look– but these small, discarded items flesh out the main story with little anecdotes from their owners, and the memory from an old dictionary that Seto finds early on is perhaps one of the most haunting items in the entire game:
“I flip hundreds of pages to no avail. Oh, how do I possibly express this feeling of remorse? Nothing fitting comes to mind. It seems no word in this book could possibly do it justice. No, it’s something more than that… These familiar pages only offer empty promises. Words themselves hold no true meaning anymore… much like my unfulfilled dreams. I no longer have any need for impressive words. This simple one will do. ‘Tomorrow’ …doesn’t even exist.”
Did they know that the apocalypse was coming? If this cell phone memory is anything to go by, it sure seems like it:
“Oops, it’s already recording! Okay, um… I’m on my way out to say goodbye to this world. I might not make it very far, but even if I only make it one step, so long as time permits me, I want to see this world with my own two eyes. I want to leave proof here that I existed in the world. So, if there’s anybody listening to this, please remember me. Remember that I was alive.”
But even these memory items aren’t quite telling the same story. While the cell phone owner seems almost certain of their imminent demise, I think the dictionary’s memory hints at something more. Tomorrow may not exist anymore, but those who have played the game will know that words and the need for words play a very important role in the game’s story. Without spoiling what happens, the question I think he’s really asking is what does “tomorrow” necessarily mean if words themselves no longer mean anything? Does it mean the end of the world, or the beginning of a new one? If it’s a new one, then something’s clearly gone horribly wrong– but what? That’s the beauty of Fragile Dreams– it never really answers its own questions. It merely hints and suggests, never really telling you outright what’s happened or why– just that it did, and now it’s Seto’s turn to piece everything together so he can find the solace and companionship he so dearly longs for.
The Kid also goes out in search of survivors, but the fate of mankind never seems quite as desperate.
Bastion and Enslaved, on the other hand, are much bolder in their beginnings, throwing you straight into the action and letting the ensuing chaos draw you into the story rather than their own respective solemnity. With Bastion, for instance, we’re put in control of a boy simply known as “the Kid”– or at least that’s what Rucks, the narrator, calls him– “whose whole world got all twisted, leaving him stranded on a rock in the sky.” We may be left wondering why every step causes the ground to form beneath the Kid’s feet, but Rucks quickly tells us that something called “The Calamity” is responsible for all of the destruction we see around us, and we’re barely a minute into the game before we come across our first enemy. From there on out, it’s a battle of survival as the Kid makes his way to the Bastion– “the place where everyone agreed to go in case of trouble”– and the opportunity to absorb the world around us is somewhat stunted due to our acute focus on what might be happening to us rather than what’s actually happened.
Enslaved has a very similar opening, immediately introducing us to our hero Monkey and the danger that surrounds him. He’s trapped on a slave ship that’s heavily guarded by Mech soldiers, but when another prisoner, Trip, manages to free herself and bring the whole ship down, he too must fight his way to an escape route before he’s caught up in the charred wreckage. We’re only given a fleeting glimpse into the game’s more sinister undertones when one of the slave ship operators reluctantly talks to Monkey and pays with it for his life; after that, it’s all about scrambling over a crumbling airship and beating up the Mechs that stand in our way, and it’s only after you make it to safety, when you’re finally given a chance to breathe, that you suddenly realise what kind of world you’re in. For Enslaved, it’s the beautifully overgrown ruins of a crumbling New York; for Bastion, it’s the ravaged wasteland of Caelondia, a once vast empire where strange creatures called squirts and gasfellas have now risen up and taken mankind’s place in the world. Both hold their own unique kind of beauty, dazzling the player with bright and vivid colours that draw the eye to the farthest corners of the screen, yet neither of them feel quite as intricately detailed as the dark and dingy Fragile Dreams. They simply provide a platform for the game to take place; they don’t really form part of its wider narrative.
Of course, that’s not to say either game is worse than Fragile Dreams. Far from it– because while Bastion isn’t quite as meditative in terms of visual story-telling, it more than makes up for it with its oral story-telling. Rucks may be the game’s narrator, for instance, but he certainly isn’t a very reliable one, and by the end of the game, Bastion also leaves you with the same kind of unanswered questions that make its approach to the apocalypse stick in your head. Just how did the Calamity happen? Did Rucks have something to do with it? Do we want to make a new world, or would we rather go back to the old one? These questions are just as big and important as those posed by Fragile Dreams, but it’s all done via the game’s dialogue instead.
For Monkey and Trip, their main concern isn’t finding those left behind– it’s about getting back home.
Enslaved, however, eschews those kinds of big, important questions for a much more personal and intimate tale of survival. Monkey may find mysterious masks scattered around the game filled with brief glimpses of the past, but the main narrative is always squarely focused on the relationship between him and Trip, the slaver and the enslaved, the brains and the brawn. It’s about the two of them working together to overcome the obstacles in front of them, and how this pair of strangers come to completely trust and rely on each other regardless of the “business” arrangements they made at the beginning of their journey. The dying world around them is merely the backdrop to their intricate drama, and the game’s A.I. and sophisticated motion-capture technology is what really binds it all together. It may not have as much dialogue as Bastion, but in some respects it says much, much more simply through the nuances of the characters’ facial expressions.
But even though Enslaved isn’t quite as fixated on the actual apocalypse of mankind, that doesn’t necessarily mean the game would function just as well without it. It may be a backdrop, but it’s one that’s vital to the game’s story structure and the circumstances that Trip and Monkey find themselves in. For example, if the Mechs weren’t rounding up all the last survivors and turning them into slaves, Trip’s enslavement of Monkey would lose all of its impact. Likewise, now that the world’s a new frontier again, that bond is brought into even sharper view due to the ever-present threat of death and danger around them, because when Trip dies, you die too– and considering we don’t know whether there are any other survivors left out there, Trip’s death could even signify the fall of the entire human race. Does that make her enslavement of Monkey any less wrong or right? I’m not sure, but that’s precisely what a backdrop like the apocalypse can do. By placing everything else in the extreme fringes of existence, these kinds of questions immediately become much more pertinent, and consequently it makes us think that bit deeper about what we’re playing.
So where does that leave us when all’s said and done? With Fragile Dreams, we have an apocalypse which emphasises both Seto’s loneliness and the sorrow of those caught in the crossfire; with Bastion, it makes us doubt the faithful narrator guiding us through the turmoil; and with Enslaved, it’s used as a frame to talk about the distinction between slavery and survival. In each case, we see it supporting and enhancing its core themes, as any piece of good game design should, but can any lessons be learned here? Personally, I think both Enslaved and Bastion could learn a thing or two from Fragile Dreams, especially in the way it gets players to really take a closer look at the world around them, but at the same time, Fragile Dreams could really be improved if it made more of its combat and didn’t make every enemy encounter a bit of a chore. Ultimately though, I think each of them excels in their own unique way, precisely due to the reasons I’ve outlined above. They don’t just simply talk about the apocalypse; they use it to further the debate in their own respective fields, and at the end of the day, nothing can be more important than that.