Interview: Ninja Theory’s Tameem Antoniades on Enslaved

Before calling Ninja Theory’s offices in Cambridge, England to speak with studio co-founder and self-proclaimed Chief Creative Ninja Tameem Antoniades, I did my research.

It’s something I almost always do before an interview, given the time, and this was no different. Having just finished its upcoming Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 game Enslaved just a few days prior, I go back to play its PS3-exclusive, Heavenly Sword. I read articles on and interviews with studio heads dating back to when it was called Just Add Monsters, and had released a game called Kung Fu Chaos for the original Xbox. At this point, I’d say I know a few things about Ninja Theory.

But I still have a concern — I’m afraid I’m going to butcher Antoniades’ name when I call the studio. So I ask Namco Bandai’s public relations to clarify. “Tuh-meeem’ Ann-tone-yaw-deez,” I’m told. Okay, got it. So I call the offices. The studio’s operator, a sweet-voiced female with a British accent, answers the phone.

“Good afternoon, Ninja Theory,” she says, the pitch of her voice raising on the last syllable of “theory,” almost as if it’s a question. It throws me off.

“Hi,” I say, “Can you please transfer me to Tameem… Anto… uh, Tameem?”

“Hi, Nick. Okay, just one moment.”

So much for being prepared.

So Enslaved is “loosely” based on Journey to the West. I’m familiar with the story, but in the UK you guys had the show Monkey, which I think a lot of our UK readers sort of know. So right away they picked up on that. I do know the story of Journey to the West although, embarrassingly, I’ve never read it myself. Can you talk a little bit about where the influence from that begins and where it ends, because obviously there’s a lot of changes.

Yeah, I mean, I guess the… I must say, it’s a loose, loose interpretation of it. So the things that I liked, or the things that we wanted to take out of it was the Monkey character and his relationship with Tripitaka, the monk. The fact that he was enslaved by her and they’re on this journey together, and that without the slave headband and Trip’s influence, [he is] this kind of anarchic brute. Basically he goes on his personal journey and she goes on her own journey of discovery, and it’s just this big old adventure really.

So things like the headband, the cloud, the staff, it’s all from the original story. Even the color scheme. Although in the original, Tripitaka was this weak male monk, and that didn’t really sit right with us. We grew up with the TV show, Trip was a woman, and it was never really explained why. So at first it was just natural to make Trip a woman. And then there’s the character Pigsy, he was in it.

And there’s all these small references like, for example, they’re very small though… like when Monkey’s fighting the Rhino, it’s in the palm of a giant hand. And in the original story, Monkey he flies into Buddha’s hand and urinates against one of the fingers and pisses off Buddha. There’s a giant mech that’s underwater, that’s kind of inspired by the water demon that comes out of the water in the story. So there’s very loose references, but they’re kind of there, if you look for them.

The action/comedy Monkey, based on Journey to the West, aired in the late 70s and early 80s

Yeah, I think I’m going to have to go back and watch the UK show Monkey or read the book and then go back and play Enslaved again. So I think there’s a lot of stuff that I may have missed, although I think you guys did a pretty good job of creating an experience that is mostly explained by the game’s narrative. You’re giving me some culture, I guess, while playing a big sci-fi action game.

[Laughing] Yeah.

So there was a bit of a sci-fi element in Enslaved, which is a bit of a departure in direction form the original tale. Can you talk about some other inspirations?

Yeah, I mean I guess we wanted to do a sci-fi game after Heavenly Sword because we had just done this kind of medieval Chinese-themed game, and we felt like just doing something different. And when you’re creating your own property, your own original game, you get to do that. Like, Monkey’s been adapted so many times in so many different mediums, it’s always been quite different in the adaptation.

I guess our influences that we liked, I liked for example a lot of [Hayao] Miyazaki stuff, we loved. We love that kind of weird combination of nature and steam punk, I guess, and futurism and things. Actually, when we originally came up with the concept, it wasn’t even on Earth. It was just on an alternate world, [another] planet, like a Miyazaki fantasy world. But about that time as well, A Life After People came out, which is that Discovery Channel documentary about what the world would look like without people?

Yeah, yeah.

That had quite a big impact on us, because it was just really cool the way stuff that we recognize — like cities and things — just totally transform. When we did decide to kind of place Monkey on Earth, like the whole world on Earth, we took that as an inspiration.

Even things like, there’s a Japanese movie called Casshern, which is kind of a futuristic guy against robots. It’s kind of a weird Soviet futurism, and we kind of liked the action in that, with the guy fighting the robots. So I think there were lots of influences from all of those, really.

The action and feel of the 2004 Japanese flick Casshern influenced Ninja Theory’s work

I was actually going to ask why you decided to make Trip a female, but you kind of answered that for me; I wasn’t aware that the character was female on the Monkey show. I think the dynamic between the male and the female, it almost seems like a given, especially in games. You look at games where you have a non-playable female character, and then sort of the “male lead”…

Yeah, you don’t want to be helping a weak-willed, kind of a weaker man throughout the level. You want that tension, that kind of cross-sex tension that goes on, that mystery that goes on between man and woman, I guess.

Right. So there are games like the Prince of Persia reboot from 2008 and ICO, those are obvious examples, but not quite the same thing you guys are doing. Sill, a little bit similar in that you have that second non-playable character. Did you learn anything or take anything away from those titles or any others that have a similar dynamic?

Not Prince of Persia, because I haven’t actually played that version, the 2008 one. For me, Sands of Time was the definitive remake of Prince of Persia, and I adored that. ICO I adored. Like most gamers that played it, I just adored it; I thought it was fantastic. It actually proved that you can do an escort game, if you like, without it feeling like one.

Eric Chahi’s 1991 platformer, Another World

But one of my earliest games that I really, really loved was Another World — I think it was called Out of this World in the States. It was that guy who I guess transports to an alien planet and he’s helped by this weird alien that’s also a prisoner, and they escape together, and they try to break free from this world, and they help each other. You form this emotional bond with this weird alien that’s kind of helping you, and you’re helping him, and you can’t speak the same language.

I discovered that Famito Ueda who created ICO was heavily influenced by that game when he created it. So in a way, both of those games have that kind of secondary character that you form an emotional bond with. But nobody actually tried to do it like dramatically, like real up close and personal, like you would a TV drama.

Actually, this is showing my age… Moonlighting with Cybil Sheppard [and Bruce Willis], I actually used that as a bit of an influence as well.

Wow. I wouldn’t have guessed that one.


Finally, an excuse to post a promotional shot from the 80s television series, Moonlighting

So sort of the idea of the escort mission, as you say, when you had first shown me Enslaved, I think before even E3, the stuff that you were showing was sort of the escort-y kind of Trip stuff. Like the mechanic where she draws fire and you’re kind of almost commanding her to do certain things, and that was kind of what you were focusing on at the time. I mean there was combat in it, but that was almost secondary.

I think a lot of people were kind of concerned that there would be a lot of that almost hand-holding throughout the game. But playing the game, I realize that it’s pretty broad, there’s a lot of different things going on. You can almost make a list of things you do — combat, platforming, even the stuff on the hoverboard-like cloud. So you’re not just doing one thing. Was that kind of intentional to spread that out?

Yeah, I mean I guess because of Heavenly Sword we just focused on combat. And it’s actually really really tough to carry an entire game with just one kind of mechanic. So we did definitely want to broaden it into more of an action adventure, not a melee combat adventure. So platforming and puzzle solving and all of that becomes part of the mix.

When it comes to Trip, when we were kind of working through the story and stuff, we just wrote what makes sense. Just because there’s a secondary character, that doesn’t mean you have to be with them all the time. You know, there’s parts where Monkey goes away and comes back and stuff, where it makes sense for the story. You’re not chained to her all the way through. But to be honest, because I’m a fan of Another World and ICO, it never really occurred to be throughout development that “Oh crap, we’re making an escort game.” Because for me, there are games that have proven that [you can make those work]. Even Uncharted 2, it doesn’t have to have those frustrations, those “escort missions” do have.

I think there’s still kind of a stigma with those. Just based on some of the past experiences with games. I think a lot of people point to Resident Evil 4, there are those long stretches where you have to escort Ashley, and it was the biggest pain in the ass. When people think escort missions, that’s kind of what they’re thinking. So it’s kind of a naughty word, almost.

Yeah, I agree, and I think it’s because it usually happens in games that weren’t designed with it in mind. Typically when you’re designing a game and when you’re designing a level you’re thinking, “what’s the theme of this level?” And people will say “Okay, this is almost like a time trial section, and this is the escort section.” And the mechanics of the game don’t support that escort mission, so it feels forced and it feels frustrating. [With Enslaved] it was designed [like that] from the start. It’s a “buddy game” or a “buddy movie,” where each character is part of a team, and that without each other you can’t accomplish the mission. So it’s not some useless character that’s dragging you down, it’s someone you need to survive.

Trip was always designed to feel like Monkey’s partner, never a “useless character that’s dragging you down”

Going back, you sort of mentioned that the gameplay is designed to fit the story. So I want to talk about the story for a bit. Was Heavenly Sword written internally?

Yeah, yeah. So that one I wrote the initial draft of the script, and then we brought Rhianna Pratchet on board to spend time in the studio and did subsequent drafts and worked with me closely. And then Andy [Serkis] was also heavily involved in it, so it was kind of a three way things on that one.

So how did you end up hooking up with Alex Garland for Enslaved?

At the beginning of the project, we wanted it to feel like you were playing through a movie. What I mean by that is not that you’ve compromised the gameplay for the cut scenes, the idea was “How do we use cinematographical techniques — how you play a camera, sound, the dialogue, the editing — how do we incorporate that as much as possible into the cut scenes and into the game?” So I felt like we needed to get a screenwriter, so we put word out through an agency, and we got a list of people we could talk to that were interested in talking to us. Not many people from the film industry are actually interested in talking to game developers, but Alex was one of them.

So I met up with him — he lives in London, so I just had to go down to London from Cambridge; it’s an hour. I met up with him for coffee and he just asked me what I liked in terms of movies and games and stuff. I realized he was a massive gamer, because we were talking a lot about games and their strengths and their weaknesses. He was just curious, he just wanted to know what it was like to make a game. He’s always been a gamer and he just needed to get involved from a personal level, to kind of see if his skills as a screenwriter, novelist, and producer actually have a relevance in games.

Enslaved writer Alex Garland, best known for penning 28 Days Later (pictured above), is also a huge gamer; Ninja Theory has already discussed working with him again on another title

So I told him, my promise was that he has open access to the studio, that he could come in any time, get stuck here, and that I didn’t know how the relationship should work, but the more we collaborate and work together, the more we’d be able to figure it out. He was fine with that. He spent two years working with us, the first year or so just going through the script and writing a script and then working with the level designers on every chapter of the game, trying to figure out how together we could incorporate the storytelling into gameplay and cut-scenes. He’s got a design credit, by the way, just because of the amount of design input he’s put in.

Then on the later part of the game [development] it was more like looking at a first cut of a movie, how do we use sound, the music, the cameras, editing… if we’re mixing lines, how can we insert new lines into the story and just clarify. It’s something that movies do all of the time, like movie makers do all of the time, and game makers rarely do. They just kind of create the cut scenes, put them in the game and then the games out the door. Whereas in the movies, you do a first cut and then you work for months and months and months on just tuning it, refining the story, just making sure every story beat lands and make sense. So that was new. [Alex] wasn’t expected to do that, he just volunteered to do that, and he put himself through that process. So that was really great.

It almost sounds like that you guys ended up learning a lot from him in terms of storytelling and even game making, in a sense, as much as he learned from you in how games are made.

Yeah, I mean I definitely learned [a lot]. In terms of learning about storytellling in general, like I learned massive amounts from him. I couldn’t ask for a better mentor, really. I thought I had a pretty good grasp on it, or that we had a pretty good grasp on it in the studio with Heavenly Sword. But it was very quickly working with Alex I realized we had no idea [or real] grasp of it, and we just sucked in everything he taught us. The same for him, he learned a lot about the process of making games. For him it was an adventure as well, and in some ways he said that process of making games has also changed the way he thinks about making movies.

So you guys have worked with Andy Serkis on Heavenly Sword and Enslaved, and you’ve worked with the same composer on both games. That’s right?

Yeah, that’s right, Nitin Sawnhey.

So it seems like you guys like to work with the same people, kind of bring people into the fold, stick with what works. Do you think you’d work with Alex Garland again?

Yeah, I would absolutely love to, and he would love to.

Is it something you guys have discussed?

Well, it’s kind of early. He’s currently working on the new Judge Dredd movie which is a pet project of his; it’s been a passion for years, he’s always wanted to do a Judge Dredd movie. So he’s busy on that in South Africa. But we have an intention to somehow, show-when, somewhere work together again.

Additional content for Enslaved will feature side-character Pigsy, and is said to be “meaty” and “an entirely new experience”

I don’t know how much you can talk about it. I know you’ve made mention to the DLC for the game. And it sounds like you already have something in the can or you’re near completion on something that’s not going to interfere with the story. I think I read somewhere that it’s going to be a side-story involving Pigsy, is that correct?

I can’t say for sure… [Laughs]

I don’t know where I got that from. But I did read it on the Internet, so it has to be true.

Oh really? So it has to be true, yeah. [Laughs]

So when are you going to be ready to really talk about that? Do you know?

Not really. The DLC’s a funny one, because we started just before we finished Enslaved, we put a small team on the DLC. From the beginning, the main game was meant to be a start, middle, and end — a complete story — and the DLC was meant to be an extra. So like from an internal point of view, the DLC is a new project. If it wasn’t for DLC, those people wouldn’t be working on that content. It’s not something that would have gone on the disc.

Because when people read about DLC, they complain, don’t they? They say “Well it was going to be there anyway, and now you’re charging us for it.” And it’s totally not like that. It’s like we’ve finished the game, we used up our time and budget and now we’ve got a little extra time and budget for something totally extra, which is totally optional.

I think actually, I’ve played through it start to finish just the other day and it’s pretty meaty, it’s not an extra few levels kind of thing. It’s an entirely new experience.

Playing through Enslaved, it does answer a lot of questions, but it does leave a lot of things open, as well. I guess I can’t ask too much about the DLC, since you’re going to shut me down on it. [Laughs] But I’m very curious, I’ll say that. I’m very interested to see what you guys come up with.

Yeah, it’s the first time we’ve done a DLC as well.

So I recognized while I was playing the game, obviously Andy Serkis voices Monkey and he does other things in the game as well. And in Heavenly Sword I recognized the actresses Anna Torv [Fringe], and you sort of based the Nariko character on her features. So I recognize Monkey as Serkis. Should I recognize Trip and Pigsy?

Yes, Pigsy is Richard Ridings, and he was the actor behind Roach in Heavenly Sword. In Heavenly Sword he was King Bohan’s son, the big guy.

He’s unrecognizable!

Yeah, yeah. [Laughs] And the actress behind Trip is Lindsay Shaw, and she’s in a show in the States called 10 Things I Hate About You. Which is, I think it’s more of a teen show?


Enslaved‘s Trip and her voice and motion capture actress Lindsay Shaw; dozens of actresses, including Shaw, showed up to auditions wearing Trip-like costumes

I mean, when we cast her she was 19, so she’s really young. I went through a casting process. Actually, you know we had an original actress from the UK to play Trip and she pulled out like two weeks before we were supposed to start shooting. So I had to go out there to the States to LA and do a casting session with about 50 [or] 60 young American actresses, and Lindsay Shaw just came out on top. She achieved it through just sheer ability and talent. That was a hard day there. [Laughs]

I can imagine. How do you pick the perfect Trip from 50 actresses? I mean, what are you looking for?

Well, you prepare a scene and you brief them on a scene, and it’s quite a detailed process. I feel sorry for actors and actresses. Like you pick out a scene, and they’ve got 10 minutes to play it out on camera, and they turn up… and for some reason, I cannot fathom why, the casting agent told them all to dress as the character. We sent concept art of the character, and they all came dressed up and I was totally baffled as to why everyone was dressed so weirdly. [Laughs]

They’ve got ten minutes to play out the scene, and what you look for is an honest acting impression of the character. You just have to believe it’s that character when you’re watching her. And that’s through the facial expression, that’s from the voice as well. And I also look at the body, like how they move. Because it’s not like live TV where you’ve got a lot of close ups. You see a lot of the motion of the body, and it if looks clumsy in real life, it’s gonna look clumsy in the game. Because we don’t just capture [and] use voice, we do full performance capture, just like they did with Avatar. We capture the body, the voice, the face simultaneously for multiple actors and they play it in a room, and it’s just like theater. So you get kind of a natural banter between them that you wouldn’t if you just used voice actors in a studio.

In fact, my pet peeve is the fact that a lot of games still insist on capturing one actor for the body, one actor for the voice in a booth, and then either hand animating or capturing the face separately, I just think that’s the most insane way to get drama out of people. It doesn’t make any sense to me.

Yeah, it doesn’t really seem to work either. You look at the games that do it the way you guys did it, and it’s obviously a step up. You figure everybody would sort of gravitate towards that. I don’t know, is it… do you find it’s more difficult to direct actors like that? Why would someone not do that? 

I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s a cost thing, because I think it’s actually more expensive to do it all separately. You know, we’ve had probably two or three animators working for two [or] three months working on faces, just making sure that they were right. On some other projects, they have 30 animators working on that. That can’t be cheaper.

I think it’s because it might be approached as a technical exercise rather… I’m guessing that, I think it’s because we had Andy on board, he’s like the motion capture guru. And we worked with WETA on our last game, who are a movie crew and they know how to shoot scenes. So they basically told us “this is the way you do it.” And then, on Enslaved we went to those motion capture studios, we went to House of Moves for Enslaved and we said “This is how we’re going to shoot it. So please set up everything the way we want it. Not the way we normally do it.”

So I think it’s more that, that they haven’t been involved with film people that know how it should be done. It sounds a bit arrogant, but I think it’s true.

Ninja Theory was interested in an Enslaved CG film, but it never panned out

Before Enslaved was announced, I think Nina had mentioned something about a CG movie going alongside your next game, which turned out to be Enslaved. What’s the status of that?

We actually really went for that. We were serious about it. We went to all the big studios in Hollywood and pitched the idea. The two stumbling blocks — one, they have no idea what real time is. They have no concept at all of what real time means. So once you come across that barrier, they just care about how good it looks. Then the fact that you say you can do this for cheap has no interest to studios whatsoever, because they don’t want to do it for cheap, they want the PIXARs and higher ends to do it for 100 million dollars or 60 million dollars because that’s what their model is. To do it any other way is considered a huge risk. So it just didn’t wash. It just didn’t go with the model that’s established in movies.

Did you guys consider any sort of method of getting it done, like doing it internally and releasing it as an extra or anything like that?

Well know, we were actually going to get good support and backing from the beginning. It’s hard enough doing a new IP from scratch and doing it in an industry you’re not familiar with, with no supporters is too much.

Enslaved hits stores next week in North America and Europe.

Nick Chester