the artistry and psychology of gaming


Enslaved vs. Hegel

Enslaved vs. Hegel

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is one of the best games of not only 2010, but all time, which unfortunately met with much less praise than it really deserved. Although it received positive reviews, the critics stood short of recognizing the true value of the game. The game was also a commercial flop, and it sold only 460,000 copies, while the company was hoping to sell a million. At the end of the year many great games were praised for their achievements, but no one seemed to talk about this one. Of course, games like Red Dead Redemption, Heavy Rain, and to a (far) lesser extent Mass Effect 2 deserved to be in the spot light, but they stole the light of this gem which is a stunning masterpiece and deserves equal attention.

In this article, I’m going to analyze the content of the game, and talk about the possible interpretation of the story.  Then I’m going to compare the game with the original source material and see if comparing the game with the novel can help interpreting the game. Finally, I’m going to analyze the game using some help from Hegel’s philosophy.

Plot Summary

Enslaved is a modern adaptation of the ancient Chinese story Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en, one of the Four Great Classical Novels of China. The novel is a fictionalized account of the legendary pilgrimage to India of the Buddhist monk Xuanzang. The monk is sent to a mission by Buddha to travel to the west to find the sacred texts of sūtra. This adventure tale is very readable, and also an allegory in which the archetypal symbol of journey as representative of one’s life and redemption is presented.

This unpretentious and humble approach towards gameplay is matched with a seemingly straight-forward plot. I usually don’t like summarizing the story of the games that I want to analyze, but this time I’ll make an exception as plot points are important. So be warned, spoilers below.

A rather beautiful apocalyptic atmosphere

The story of the game takes place 150 years in the future. A world war has destroyed much of the human race and leaving the world to be plagued trying to completely destroy humanity. The protagonist, Monkey (voiced by the famous Andy Serkis), is trapped in a slave ship. The ship is about to crash. He meets a woman called Trip. Trip panics and escapes and Monkey chases her. She reaches an escape pod and mounts it but Monkey desperately clings to it. The pod ejects and hits the ground. The compact knocks him out, and he wakes up to discover that she has placed a slave headband on him, which forces him to follow her orders and that if Trip dies, so does he. Now Monkey is her slave. Trip explains that she wants to return to her village, and she wants Monkey to help her reach there, and she promises to set him free after that. They set on and travel until they reach Trip’s village, only to find out that the place is deserted and everybody is dead. Trip breaks her promise and refuses to remove Monkey’s headband, and gives him a new mission, to kill the person responsible. Trip takes Monkey to a place to add another one to the group, a friend of her father’s named Pigsy. Pigsy agrees to help. They venture to steal an enormous and powerful weapon called the Leviathan. Along the way, Trip apologizes to Monkey for breaking her promise and deactivates the headband, but Monkey asks her to turn it back on. They steal the Leviathan, and head towards the Pyramid, where the slaves are controlled. There the Pyramid shows Monkey the world he has created for the slaves, which is a pleasant illusion of living in the times before apocalypse. Monkey is tempted to submit to Pyramid but Trip destroys the connection between Pyramid and the rest of the slaves, leaving everyone to an uncertain future.

The Game vs. the Novel

Can we compare the game to the novel? There are many similarities in the plot of the two, for example, Monkey is based on a Buddhist figure called Sun Wukong who is nicknamed Monkey, and the second disciple who appears in the novel is called Zhu Bajie which translates to Eight-precepts Pig, who is the inspiration source of Pigsby. Xuanzang is the main hero, he abandoned his family to become a monk and his ceremonious name is Tripitaka which is clearly similar to Trip. In addition to that, many of the landmarks and location in the game and novel are the same, and there’s even similarity in their weapons; Sun Wukong’s main weapon is called “will-following golden-banded staff,” which he can shrink down to the size of a needle and keep behind his ear, as well as expand it to an enormous size. As you can see, this weapon appears in the game almost identically, a staff which can change size. Also, Sun is controlled by Xuanzang. Xuanzang has placed a band around Sun’s head which cannot be removed by Sun himself until the journey’s end. Xuanzang can tighten this band by chanting the “Tightening-Crown spell” (taught to him by Guan Yin) whenever he needs to chastise him. As you can see, parallels are obvious.

An illustration of the novel

So can we claim that the game is merely a digital retelling of the same story and therefore shares the same theme and subtext? If that’s the case, then the game must be an allegorical tale of some people who seek redemption and they find it at the end of their journey. But that’s not the theme of the game at all, and I’ll show you that the game not only changes the time and the setting of the game into modern times, it tells a completely different story with the materials shared by the two.

One must first look at the obvious differences between the two. First of all, the characters of the game are anything but holy monks who seek spiritual enlightenment. Monkey is rough, foul-mouthed, violent and brutish, Pigsby is gluttonous, sleazy, and greedy, and Trip is deceptive and cunning. This wouldn’t matter if the characters went through transformation and became good citizens at the end of the game, but they don’t. They change, but their personality as a whole remains pretty much the same. Although the characterization is great in this game, the characters are not the material for spiritual journeys. Furthermore, they all have earthly motives behind this journey. The motives which cause them to set upon this journey is home-sickness and later revenge for Trip, self preservation and later romantic feelings (or friendly feelings) for Monkey, and a history of friendship for Pigsy.

Secondly, in the novel the center of attention is focused on the journey itself and the journey is the main allegorical force behind the plot but in the game the journey is incidental and of less importance. Plus, the journey is not even successful in the game. The goal of Trip is to return to her home village and reunite with her family but she arrives only to find them dead, and the next journey is motivated by revenge which is irrelevant to the journey of the novel.

Thirdly, the difference in the destinations of the novel and game are also very important. Xuanzang leaves his family in order to travel to India but Trip is going to her family. One deserts the family and the other seeks it, one walks away from home, the other towards it.

Finally the game focuses on the bounding of Monkey a lot, so far that even it is named after this fact (enslaved) while in the novel Sun is willingly controlled by Xuanzang and the issue of slavery is of no importance. Monkey turns into a willing slave as well at the end of the game (and this is the most important development that the game leads to) but at the beginning he is merely a slave, unwilling and angry at his captor.

The truth is in the game the journey, the revenge and all the rest are merely excuses to put Trip and Monkey in a weird unique relationship and this relationship is the main focus and the main artistic drive of the game. The chemistry between Trip and Monkey is what distinguishes this and gives it value, and it’s also the main theme of the game.

There are two aspects to Monkey’s and Trip’s relationship. The first aspect is the master/slave relationship between the two, and the second one is the romantic relationship. If one looks at the master/slave aspect of their relationship, one can be reminded of Hegel’s theory of Master/Slave dialectic, and since this would explain the main theme of the game rather nicely, I’d like to begin with it.

Hegel and Kojeve

Friedrich Hegel was a German philosopher who revolutionized European philosophy and was an influence on many philosophers. He was a historicist and an idealist. Specifically, his definition of dialectic is very important. There are three stages of development in dialectic. An Abstract (called by other philosophers a thesis), gives rise to its reaction, a Negative (antithesis), which negates the Abstract, and the tension between the two will be resolved and this will result in a Concrete (synthesis). For example, existence is initially pure Being; but pure Being is contradicted by Nothing. What is being created is dealing with nothingness at the same time and therefore both Being and Nothing are united as Becoming. Becoming is the concrete, the synthesis which reunites the both opposites. You might ask yourself what this has to do with Enslaved. Well, first of all we must take a look at how this applies to two other opposites, master and slave.

Friedrich Hegel

The Master/Slave dialectic is found in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. It is one of the most important notions in Hegel’s philosophical system, and it has influenced many philosophers. It describes the encounter between two self-conscious beings, who fight each other until one enslaves the other but later it’s evident that he doesn’t enjoy the control that he wanted. Two abstract, self-conscious beings meet each other. Each finds the other a threat to its existence, and they engage in a struggle. One of them loses the fight. The loser, out of the fear of death, agrees to be enslaved by the winner. But after that, both depend on each other. The Slave depends on the master for his life, and the Master depends on the Slave for recognition and sense of power.

We can say that one possible interpretation of Master/Slave dialectic is to point out that there’s a mutual need between the two. We usually think of Master as the dominant one and Slave as the submissive party, but the bondage goes both ways. The Master enslaves the Slave by controlling him and the Slave enslaves the Master by forcing him to be on his guard and control him. Think of it as a prison. Although the prisoner is behind the bars and the guard is supposed to watch him, they both are trapped in the prison, as the guard has to watch the prisoner and cannot go where he wants while he’s on duty, and therefore he’s being controlled by the prisoner without his knowledge. The same can be said about a dictatorship. The dictator controls his people by brute force, but he’s also being controlled by his people as he has to watch out for them and make sure to suppress their every move. The point is, we usually think of Master/Guard/Dictator as the free subject and we consider Slave/Prisoner/People party the chained object, while both parties are not free and are chained, it’s a mutual chaining.

There are many interpretation of Master/Slave dialectic, and here I’d like to introduce one of them to you, Kojeve’s. Alexandre Kojeve was a Russian-born French philosopher and politician who held seminars which had a vast influence on his contemporary philosophers. He’s particularly noted for his rereading of Hegel and integrating Hegelian concepts into continental philosophy. About Master/Slave dialectic, Kojeve argued that Hegel wanted to demonstrate that history began with the first struggle, which resulted in the first masters and slaves. A person is always either master or slave; and there are no actual humans where there are no masters and slaves. History comes to an end when there are no more masters or slaves.

Alexandre Kojeve

Master/Slave Morality and Enslaved

But Enslaved doesn’t deal with the subject of Master/Slave dialectic in a grand scale I’ve just explained, but it deals with it on a personal level, only between two people. We can trace this in their relationship clearly. At first these two people confront each other in fear and mistrust, as two conscious egos facing each other. When Trip meets Monkey for the first time, she runs in horror, and this is the start of their struggle. Monkey chases her and he tries to get into the escape pod she’s mounting, but she closes the door and therefore putting his life in danger. Monkey fights back by clinging to the pod with all his might, but he passes out when the pod crashes. Trip uses this opportunity and puts the Slave Headband on his head. This is the first phase of the Master/Slave dialectic, the struggle, which ends with Trip as the winner and Monkey as the loser.

The second stage is enslavement. Monkey wakes up and when he finds out that he has been chained by the headband he threatens Trip to physical violence but Trip stops him and explains to him that he will die if she dies. Therefore Monkey agrees, out of the fear of his own death, to be enslaved by Trip. Up until now the Hegel’s story has been exactly the same.

This mutual dependence of Master/Slave is also visible in the relationship between the two. The most obvious point is their survival. None can survive without the other. If Trip dies, the headband will automatically kill Monkey as well, and if Monkey dies, Trip cannot fight the crazy robots and she will be killed as well. You can see that not only Monkey is chained to Trip but also Trip is chained to Monkey. At the beginning their relationship is mutual enslavement and none of them are free.

But the game doesn’t end that way. Throughout the game the two depend upon each other and they get closer. The initial fear and mistrust is gone and it’s replaced with kindness and love. This does not happen in one dramatic cutscene and therefore it’s gradual and subtle. One of the points that make this game a true masterpiece is the subtlety and lack of exaggeration in the chemistry between the two. As they continue their journey, they learn about each other bit by bit (so do we), watch each other’s pain and share it, and this builds up to a relationship based on love.

The subtlety can be seen in the romantic feelings as well. There are no mushy love confessions, actually, there’s no proposal at all. They never say “I love you” to each other, we just feel it in their new behavior. One scene which is clearly evident of Monkey’s love for Trip is when Pigsby tries to hit on Trip, Monkey acts jealous and angry and complains to Pigsby that it’s wrong to hit on a girl who has recently lost her family. This is a clue to us as why Monkey doesn’t approach Trip himself.

Although Enslaved uses the same thesis and antithesis as Hegel, it finally ends up with a different synthesis. Finally, when they are approaching the climax of the game and the ultimate fight, Trip apologizes to Monkey and sets him free, and therefore ends the Master/Slave dialectic. Monkey asks him to put the headband back. It appears that the Master/Slave relationship is back, but actually it’s not. This time, the parties agree to depend upon each other out of love and not fear, and they have the ability to walk away but they don’t. This time this is a romantic or friendly dialectic, and therefore it’s the ultimate toppling of an inhuman relationship.

If we have to go by Kojeve’s word, the history ends at the end of Enslaved. They finally reach the pyramid, the house to the person who controls the slavery headband. The person doesn’t fight them and instead invites Monkey to look at the illusion he has created for these slaves, and Monkey is enthralled by this scene. Trip who sees that Monkey is being taken away violently smashes the connection between Monkey and the Pyramid, and the game ends.

This enigmatic ending of Enslaved is loaded with meanings, and it shows an entirely new aspect of Master/Slave relationship, that of a willing slave. Are the supporters of corrupt dictatorship regimes, the followers of terrorist groups, free solely because they have chosen their captors? Certainly they’re not, they’re in cages without knowing it, they’re enslaved not out of the fear of their own life but because of an illusion they’re chasing. Trip sets Monkey free for the second time by shattering his delusion. The future of the slaves that are just freed by Trip is uncertain, so is the future of Monkey. We say goodbye to Trip and Monkey without seeing them reaching any destination, without kissing each other passionately on lips, without even truly avenging their dead ones. They are alone, against a cruel, corrupt, unloving world. But we leave them in happiness, because we know they have achieved what is to be achieved in the world that we live in, freedom and love.

Both Kojeve and Hegel were pretty deterministic about Master/Slave dialectic. But Enslaved ultimately keeps its faith in humanity. While to Hegel and Kojeve Master/Slave dialectic is how history and humanity works, Enslaved shows that we have a chance of breaking the vicious circle and achieve freedom- through mutual understating and love.

And as for my own two cents- I believe Enslaved wins this fights against this great genius and gigantic philosopher. Hegel was wise and he has changed the face of not only philosophy but the whole world, however in the case of Trip and Monkey, he was wrong. Dead wrong.


  1. Wonderful article. I just finished this game tonight and was taken aback at the level of fluidity and reason between game world and character actions, and the remarkable restraint of the storytelling and character building. It saddens me that such a labor of love was misunderstood/overlooked/neglected. I think it is one of the best games of this generation and another benchmark for the progression of interactive media towards mature, thoughtful and organic storytelling. Your points about Hegel and the Master/Slave dynamic gave me much food for thought. I believe gaming journalism needs to trend towards more of this sort of aesthetic analysis if the art form is to grow, and I thank you for doing your part.


  2. All of your amazon links are messed up and show as source.

    • Fixed! Thanks for the heads up.

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