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A Complex Journey: Ninja Theory's Enslaved

September 17, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

Cambridge studio Ninja Theory made a splash early on in the PlayStation 3's lifespan with Heavenly Sword, a game published by Sony that blended melee combat and surprisingly deep characterization.

With its next game -- the first since that title -- the studio co-founder and chief designer Tameem Antoniades hopes to amp up the drama, which he sees as integral to the game as its core gameplay. To this end, he's brought in Alex Garland, writer of the tense zombie flick 28 Days Later.

Here Antoniades discusses the process integrating the writer with the game team, as well as how to strike the correct gameplay between balance and story, adapting the Chinese Journey to the West myth into a contemporary game story for a Western audience, and how the current generation, emerging technology, and the state of the independent studio landscape is affecting game development.

What was the creative process for this IP? Obviously, it's based on the Monkey King stories that have inspired a lot of media, but how did you arrive at this?

Tameem Antoniades: It's partly the relationship we set up between Nariko and Kai in Heavenly Sword. I read the forums, and a lot of players really responded to that. They really care about this secondary character, which was great.

One of my favorite games of old was on the Amiga, Another World, also known as Out of this World, yeah. In fact, I spoke briefly to Fumito Ueda once during a conference, and he said it was that game that inspired him to make Ico.

And so I actually quite like the idea of having a secondary character and to see how it would affect gameplay and story. I see those as equals, story and gameplay. They're both as important as each other. They both support each other.

Relationships between characters can really bring games to life, in a way. Just one solo person going through an adventure, it can feel very canned. It doesn't have a sense of realism.

TA: Yes. And I think that's partly why in movies you have all these secondary actors to play off. Otherwise you've just got this lone guy, and the only way he can really tell you what he's thinking is by actually saying it. That's not believable for a guy to run around just talking.

So, yeah, I think dramatically it's really important to have that secondary character, especially like a game Enslaved where the Monkey character, he's actually a loner. He doesn't like people. He doesn't speak much, so he needs someone to kind of bring it out of him.

Did you look at any of the other adaptations? There's everything from Dragon Ball to what Damon Albarn did. There's a huge variety of adaptations for this material. Did you look at any, or did you just go straight from the legend?

TA: I read the original book, and there's this one particular version, the Arthur Waley version. That's the one that's actually considered the best. I was just blown away by how cool it was, like so much imagination -- a 400 year-old book, and so rich.

In the UK, there was a TV series of Monkey, a Japanese TV series that was aired. Everyone over 30, say, remembers this show, and there's a real cult following behind it. In fact, we had the monkey character in our first game, Kung Fu Chaos, as one of the characters. [laughs]

And I did go to see the Damon Albarn show as well, which I thought was just phenomenal, really phenomenal. It's interesting that when it gets adapted; it never gets adapted closely to the source, so I wasn't that concerned with staying true to the source. It's more loosely based on it.

It's interesting because very often with Western developers, people concentrate on Western myths, not Eastern myths, so it does add a difference. Do you find that that allowed you to be freer because people aren't maybe as familiar with the source material?

TA: Yeah. Basically, it seems like we're treading old ground. I'm talking collectively we as an industry. A lot of our games are based on the same mythos and influences that we grew up with -- Blade Runner, Aliens, Lord of the Rings. You can pretty much count them on a hand, and that will cover about 80 percent of games out there.

I do like Eastern cinema, Eastern movies, because they've just got a totally different perspective on it, which I find refreshing. I would never have read Journey to the West if it wasn't for the fact that we were doing Heavenly Sword and I was doing research and finding out about the mythical Chinese world. Yeah, I loved the fresh perspective.

Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

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Robert Ericksen
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"It's hard to think of an action-adventure game that used Unreal really effectively"


Tadhg Kelly
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While I admire the creative spirit of Tameem and the crew at Ninja Theory, and respect that as one of the last independent studios in the UK they have to act as standard bearers, this idea that story is all that matters is very dangerous if it actually interferes with whether the game is playable and fun or not. Time will tell, and I look forward to seeing the results, but - as I have said several times recently throughout this site - it is a mistake to pin your game on that story donkey.

Because games are not a storytelling medium. I know some of the regular posters on here may roll their eyes at this because I say it verbatim each time, and it appears dogmatic, but I'm just being blunt. Alex Garland is an awesome writer and good film producer. Ninja Theory is an interesting studio that produces interesting games. Both of these things are true.

But games are not a storytelling medium. This means that while the fiction of the game is extremely important in setting the scene and delivering the artistic mise en scene of the piece, the actual story/quest/hero arc and etc don't matter that much. Telling Alex to write a story like that for the game doesn't really matter either. Sorry guys, but players play as themselves and respond to whether the gameplay interaction of the game is fun/rewarding or not. See God of War and numerous other successful action adventure games for reference. The combat is largely the point.

Because games are not a storytelling medium.

Christopher Braithwaite
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With respect to Tameem's quote, I believe he's speaking in reference to his game in particular and not all games in general. An adventure game by definition *is* a story game, so Tameem is absolutely right to say that story (as in the mechanics of narrative, not necessarily cutscenes or dialog) is the most important thing for this kind of game.

Tadhg Kelly
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Ah yes, the "mechanics of narrative". That self-reinforcing argument of interactive narrative fans which has no real existence in reality, but which sounds awesome.

Sorry if I'm sounding a bit snippy but it's only because "narrative of mechanics" is a particular kind of defence that gets brought up in this kind of argument and which is essentially a fallacy.

It's one of several concepts that form a perfect logical circle (another being the player-tells-themselves-a-story idea) which have an internal consistence, but which have no verifiable existence in the real world.

Wolf Wozniak
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It's hard for me to take this seriously:

"Because games are not a storytelling medium."

When you work at a social game company.

Also, you should consider taking this argument to Tale of Tales, Kojima-san, Tim Schafer, Fumito Ueda, etc... to see if they'll jump on your cowclicker bandwagon.

Tadhog, I'm sorry but when "The Movies" and other such nonsense are things you're interested in making, then you can't really have a way to unbiasedly comment on that.



Tadhg Kelly
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What nonsense is this about my work history and etc?

Ad hominem is truly the lowest of low defences/attacks in any discussion. I have nothing to hide about who I am or where I come from, and the implication that I have some agenda behind all this is properly pathetic.

David Patton
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You say that that in order to be a successful action adventure game combat plays a large part. This is true for the games you mentioned. However you see all games categorized and labeled instead of different levels of genre mesh. Games these days can include many elements of several genres. This gives them the ability to give the players great combat while serving up a nice storyline that motivates. Yes the actions great but the storyline enriches the game play. Take Fable for instances some categorize it as Action, RPG, and itís definitely an adventure. The combat itself is very simplistic and with a great story no one would have even touched that game. I know you will debate Fable having anything to do with the discussion at hand or state that it could have been more fun without a storyline. So, letís face it, you have your mind made up about games that try to tell a story. So with that said there are always going to be people who play games that enjoy the story and the gameplay and there are going to be people who say it takes a lot away from the game.

Wolf Wozniak
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Fable is really relevant to bring up.

It seems Tadhog was working at Lionhead at one point (not on fable of course, "Because games are not a storytelling medium.").

Saul Alexander
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Perhaps games aren't ideally a "storytelling medium", at least not in the same way that static art-forms are, but they are certainly a story-making medium. I think that "story is all that matters" is rather a misrepresentation of what Taheem said.

Direct quote:

"... everything, including the gameplay, which has to be solid -- the sounds, the cinematics, the cameras, and the action -- all of those things are part of the story."

In other words, the "gameplay" aspects of the game are as important as the words that Mr Garland has written for it. Whether writing it with a filmic structure is a good idea or not, integrating a writer into the design process from the early stages is a wonderful idea that I wish other studios would learn from.

Saul Alexander
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As an added note on where my biases lie, "story" is the major reason I play games, and my main interest in them is the different approaches they are trying in their attempt to find their own voice, as distinct from books or film.

Wolf Wozniak
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"I know some of the regular posters on here may roll their eyes at this because I say it verbatim each time, and it appears dogmatic..."

"...implication that I have some agenda behind all this is properly pathetic."

You actually said it yourself.

And, yea, your work history is important if you say "Because games are not a storytelling medium". I had to look you up to see

A) If you're important

B) What you've done

I find your social media games advocacy and work on past titles extremely pertinent information. Especially considering how belligerently wrong you are.

"Because games are not a storytelling medium."

Because repeating it 3 times in your post makes it a fact.

Tadhg Kelly
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As I said, that is pathetic.

Megan Fox
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Ad hominems are irrelevant, folks. Yes, he works on social games, yes, he might even prefer social games, but at the root that's all it is - a preference. Are the people that work at Obsidian or Bethesda to be called out as shills if they happen to say they think games ARE story-telling mediums? Can only unemployed or unhappily employed people hold valid opinions? ;)

That isn't to say I agree with his position, but hey, disagreements are fun, they're the beginnings of... my goodness, a discussion? Huzzah!

Tadhg, I'm not convinced. Consider a game like The Witcher. It was an absolute break-out success, despite the "game" itself honestly being somewhat iffy. The combat was less than ideal, the magic system was odd, etc, yet it sold - because it is in fact a very good interactive story.

I think that's where I would attack your conclusion, in that games are indeed a story telling medium... but only where that story is in fact gameplay itself, which is to say that it is directed by the player to some degree. Taken to the n'th degree, that gets you reactive sandbox environments wherein the player tells the story. Ignored, and you get a long cutscene. Most games sit somewhere between the two extremes.

I would argue that the importance of your story, and how well it can act as a central focus to your game, is entirely dependent on where you sit in that spectrum. If the story is entirely scripted and barely interacted with, then I would agree with you - and in this case I would agree that Ninja Theory's games involve enough heavy plot that the gameplay systems are indeed critical. That isn't to say that the story can be dropped anymore than an action movie can be just an hour and a half of explosions, you need some narrative glue to give some sense of pacing, but I agree that it can't be "the" focal point. On the other hand, a game like Alpha Protocol, Mass Effect, Fable, etc... now there the story begins to involve some gameplay, and games become a story telling device of some worth. There are also the edge cases like Ico or Shadow of the Colossus, where despite the lack of player determination, the player's direct involvement gives the story more impact and resonance than it might otherwise have had.

Personally, I'm most interested in interactive/living environments, wherein the "story" is told by the environment and by the player's interactions with the world, with only minimal plotting to drive the player along. I'd argue that Bethesda games are a relatively good example of this, as were the Ultima games back before they jumped the shark. I'd argue that they're the sweet spot of games-as-stories, at least until we can develop "drama AI" that scripts a new plot around the player as they change things.

I'm uncertain as to your own opinions in that realm, or if your opinions are more as to the potential profit of that style of game vs others - you could certainly argue that the kind of game I outline is more niche than God of War, for instance. Still, the market clearly exists, and the interest is there. Calling games out as not a medium for story telling seems unfair as a result - some genres aren't, but some are.

Martin Oddy
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I can't believe no one has mentioned MMOs to this 'discussion'. It's much the same a what Megan is saying about sandbox/openworld games like Bethesda's, except online.

I challenge any game developer to rival the story of my guild's server-first kill of boss XYZ, or beating [insert rival] in arena dispite all the odds being against you.

Those are the gaming stories I'll remember. They involve real people, real drama and a shared experience the likes of which books and film will never be able to rival.

Aaron Truehitt
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"This means that while the fiction of the game is extremely important in setting the scene and delivering the artistic mise en scene of the piece, the actual story/quest/hero arc and etc don't matter that much."

There are certainly a lot of people who could care less about stories in videogames. There are also people who would much rather play a game with a story than one without. Ico and Shadow of the Colossus are a good example for me. These games weren't million dollar sellers, but they certainly would be nothing to a lot of people if they didn't have stories woven in. I could of cared less wandering around a desert finding these giants things to slay. Those people that don't care about stories would have certainly gave up within an hour. Personally, I don't play those types of games without stories anymore that don't have any drive. Maybe Tetris...but that's just when I'm bored and with my cellphone some place and want something quick to play.

So...perhaps mainstream wise games are not a storytelling medium. Farmville doesn't require a story. However, I would consider Harvert Moon 64 a million times better than Farmville. Why? Story and such (Of course gameplay as well).

If you said, "Stories aren't required" for games, I would certainly agree. Not a storytelling medium? Maybe just as a story, but then it's not a game anymore anywhere. Just someone reading to your or text on a screen Theres plenty of games I've talked about the story with plenty of times so to say that is pretty invalid.

Jonathan Gilmore
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Anyway, referencing someones curriculum vitae in challenging their claims isn't really "ad hominem." In this case it appears to be highly relevant to explain Tadhg's bias-it appears he does have an agenda related to promoting social games, which typically have absolutely zero narrative.

It's not like saying you are saying Tadhg smells bad or is obese or a greasy 30 year old in a basement wearing a Metallica t-shirt.

Tadhg Kelly
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Again, that's utter rubbish.

It's a disgrace to the debate and the community to sink so low. You should be ashamed of yourself.

Tadhg Kelly
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PS: Anyone who is interested in learning about what I think of social games would do well to go back and read a number of blogs that I've written on this very site on the subject which argue that they really need a lot more depth. Similarly, anyone who wants to read about what I think/thought back in the days when I worked in other studios should do a search for my old blog "particleblog". I've been making these and other arguments for a long time.

Tadhg Kelly
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Too right (on the "shills" part). This is gama folks, not your favourite trolls forum.

Ok, back on topic...

I would contend with your argument that the Witcher was a breakout success. It is to all purposes just another complex-interface RPG with a whole lot of various things to do, all of them badly, but the sum of the parts sort of kind of makes up for it.

There is something about it, and many other WRPGs and JRPGs, that invokes something of a selection bias among the devotees of the genre - a want to believe that what they are spending such a vast amount of time in is a quality experience. In short, like anime fans eternally protesting that anime films can be good if you just give them a chance, hard RPG fans as an audience are actively buying into the myth that what they're doing is in some way great storyish art.

It's a position that I think comes from Hollywood envy and a whole lot of tabletop roleplaying game theory from circa 1988-1993. It has so existed for a long time, but the whole idea of it has never really stacked up to reality: Even in the bestest tabletop campaigns they always end up striving more toward "game" because the core of the activity is a game activity. An example is Vampire: The Masquerade (arguably the most successful of all the storytelling games) which - while adopting the language of storytelling - is actually about clans, generations, disciplines and blood points. Just as D+D is about classes, levels, magic items and hit points.

Whereas even more story-oriented games have basically failed to take off. Games like My Life with Master, Over the Edge and so on are extremely niche undertakings which nobody plays. The game/story conjunction even in tabletop roleplaying games was only ever an expression of exciting moments. Exciting moments happen in all good games as a result of emergence and some guidance (level design, GM, whatever) but it's the world that creates the actual appeal.

However I actually don't mean to diss the RPG itself. Not at all. I am a child of that whole era myself and I have my whole sense of games-can-be-art from that era too. I just think that, like any artistic movement, storytelling games has long since shown its limits and has in many ways stuck around too long. Modern rpgs are not really doing anything different to what they were doing 15 years ago. Instead, like anime, they are locked in a timewarp of a circular argument.

My argument is that games aren't a storytelling medium. Instead they're a worldmaking medium. I think the Cthulhu Mythos is art. I think the World of Darkness was art. And Planescape, the Forgotten Realms, Shadowrun etc, These places are art. I think that all games are possessed of "world", the place you play. Even if that world is as simple as a Chessboard or as rich as the setting of Bioshock, it's all basically a place.

Because it's a place and the fun of the place is the art itself, this lets us off the hook of the ugliness of why the storytelling argument doesn't work: It doesn't actually matter. You could build a Liberty City with lots of interesting things to see and do, only barely held together by threads of mission links, and it would be every bit as much art as they version with the story of Niko. More so, it would have focus about the place rather than a misplaced and often not-completed narrative element that users just do not care about.

And the same is true for the RPG. The most successful RPG movement in games in the last few years is the MMO: The endless world of levelling mechanics that are an end in themselves and merely show a place to play in. (and, on a related note, Mafia Wars etc as well - even though I have big issues with that minimalist kind of Facebook RPG). The place, the levelling and the defeating of enemies is what RPGs are actually about. The excitement comes from that, not the heavy handed "story" that has never been anything other than an imposition.

Like the RPG GM who tries to force his players to follow a quest as written in the scenario (and they inevitably rebel) the RPG videogame developer has been trying for years to make players play in a certain way to experience their story. It's just egotism. Players want to play and it's the game's job to set the rules and get out of the way. The art is in what they see and do, not what the game tells them is the art.

Jonathan Lawn
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Half Life 2 contained interesting weapons and enemies, and varied, well-designed levels, and that was enough in Doom/Quake. But the reason it is so loved, and so many people completed it, has a lot to do with the story. Players wanted to complete a level to find out what happens next, and most can remember the story for years afterwards.

Now the story was relatively simple, compared to a film say, and if you had a film-sized story you wanted to tell, you wouldn't make a game to tell it, but I think you can say that the story was a successful and important element of the game.

What is rare, but I don't think is impossible, is to make the game enhance the story in a way other media couldn't. For instance, fighting enemies made the Half Life world feel real and dangerous, but slowed the story. A film director in 20 years time, with access to many more tricks than just 3D to make his Half Life film feel visceral, will not use the same pacing that a video of a game play-through has, or even that the player remembers subjectively. He'll find a better way to convey the story.

However, I think there will be games that successfully merge simulation with story, allowing the player to explore the plot (e.g. options available to the protagonist) more in the way a book reader might, giving a better understanding of the whole story than purple prose or 3D SFX can.

(I haven't played it, but I think this is what Super Columbine Massacre was praised for: getting the player into the murderers' heads, bypassing the part of the players mind that says "I can't imagine thinking that - I'm not that sort of person" in a way that print and video cannot.)

P.S. I think your contention that games are art smacks of a selection bias, Tadhg ;-) Sorry, just stirring. Personally I believe art is an element of games, as it is an element of architecture. But that's a discussion for a different thread.

Chris Daniel
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David Patton
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@ Tadhg Kelly

You state:

Ah yes, the "mechanics of narrative". That self-reinforcing argument of interactive narrative fans which has no real existence in reality, but which sounds awesome.

Sorry if I'm sounding a bit snippy but it's only because "narrative of mechanics" is a particular kind of defense that gets brought up in this kind of argument and which is essentially a fallacy.

It's one of several concepts that form a perfect logical circle (another being the player-tells-themselves-a-story idea) which have an internal consistence, but which have no verifiable existence in the real world.

To me this feels as if this pertains to more than just video games. If someone looks at a model or painting the can derive a story from said work. You look at Van Gogh's Starry Night and you can feel emotion from the work through hues of color, balance, and even shape and form. It is said that each painting tells the viewer a story. This is considered not only acceptable but very plausible. This is also very true for music as many people have very different interpretations of the same song. This in MY opinion is kind of like the listener "telling themselves a story." I mean is that not what we do when we have lack of information in any situation. However, interpretations are based on what we see visual or what we hear if pertaining to music that is.

But if this is true to all these different forms of ART then is it not plausible that video games take all of these key elements to tell a story through visuals and music as well as gameplay?

Jerome Beland
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''Calling games out as not a medium for story telling seems unfair as a result - some genres aren't, but some are.''

Yes and no. What I mean is, Tadhg only said that games weren't a storytelling medium and the way I see it is that it is not at all. You do not make a game to tell a story, you make a game to entertain/provide fun to players. So in a simple way, a game is only a ''fun provider'' medium. But, having a great/epic/well written story is very fundamental to most games. Even if the story is not a big part of the game in the way that you do not have to listen to 10 minutes of narration every 10 minutes of gameplay, But the story stay very important because it can be the factor that makes you want to stay and play. Some games do requires the story to be big part of the game because the gameplay is by default ''limited'' if you look at any RPG or at least JPRGs. If the Final Fantasy series did not have such an involving and epic stories you would not want to do ''attack/fire/cure/summon'' for 40+ hours lets be honest. And btw the story of FF7 made me buy a Playstation back in the days. But sometime I do believe that storytelling is taking too much space in a game (having a 15 years-old boy crying every 10 minutes made me quit FF13 at some point, but the new battle system did not help I must add). If you look at the Metal Gear Solid series for instance, I believe the first one had a perfect storytelling/gameplay balance. But the more the series evolved the ''worst'' it got. I mean, MGS4 is an incredible ''PRODUCT'', an excellent ''MOVIE'', but only a good ''GAME''. I did not calculate, but I'm sure theres more cutscene then gameplay time which I believe is not a good move. Yes it sold a lot and it was a great product as I said but, a game by definition is something you PLAY.

So it only depends of what you mean by storytelling medium. In my opinion, games are not. That said even if they are not, the story is fundamental to this kind of game, as long as there is a good storyteling/gameplay time balance and that it does not prevent the game from having more gameplay time (putting more budget on making cutscenes).

Jerome Beland
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Oh, and by the way, for your interest I'm a future game/level design student starting in January. I had to do this quick introduction because this discussion made me want to create an account here.

So, hello everybody!

Justin Nichols
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Articles on story and gameplay always generate some passionate comments, rightfully so.

However, I think some people commenting got the wrong impression from Tameem Antoniades. I've never heard of the guy before, but I really liked this article, and I agree with a lot of his points.

I don't believe he is pushing story over gameplay, but more of a unison.

"And everything, including the gameplay, which has to be solid -- the sounds, the cinematics, the cameras, and the action -- all of those things are part of the story. And if you manage to integrate all of those layers together, you get this kind of transcendental experiences that you remember from gaming yore that you get in games like Ico, Out of this World,"

He also mentions how much time was put into stress testing the mechanics. I was amazed to hear the idea of a year+ pre-production cycle. Planning is key. I know plans often change, but the more precise the game is laid out and defined in the begging the more precise the development phase will run.

Yes, one of the main selling features for this game is it's story, but that doesn't mean the mechanics will suffer. As he said, good game storytelling is mostly in-game, not cut-scenes. I think most agree, they would rather play a game than watch it, and it sounds like Tameem knows this.

And hello Jerome, I liked your comment. I agree - games (at their core) are not a storytelling medium, as we all know a game can exist without any story at all.

But they can be a storytelling medium, and (whether people like it or not) there is a market for it . . . Uncharted, Mass Effect. This is definitely a plus when competing against films, tv, comics, novels, etc.

Hopefully Enslaved will live up to Ninja Theory's goals.

Now if you will excuse me, it is getting late and I must fortify my mine before the explosive zombies come out - (minecraft, look it up if you still don't know it)

Arjen Meijer
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As long this won't include button bashing it might be a good title ;)

I could finish Heavenly Sword with my eyes closed just ramming those buttons!

Jerome Beland
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After playing the demo I found the gameplay mechanics to be fairly simple, linear but actually it seems very promising later in the game. And I liked the fact that the demo ended with a gameplay trailer instead of a picture with some features of the game, very nice addition to a demo, I hope to see this more often.