Game Ecology: Enslaved's Fish Tank Scene
(Enslaved: Odyssey to the West's fish tank scene occurs at the end of Chapter Two, but in some ways it's worth discovering for yourself, so consider yourself warned if sensitive to spoilers.)
The scene: Monkey and Trip come across something beautiful and incredible. A large fish tank is still thriving after approximately two hundred years in the ruins of New York. Trip explains that it's working as a perfect closed system. The sunlight feeds the plants, the small fish eat the plants, and the big fish eat the small fish.
I'm not going to attack that scenario, even if it does seem pretty unlikely. Enslaved is hyper-real in general, with its oversaturated greenery and picturesque ruins. I'll hand wave a little for the sake of fantasy, or perhaps assume they had some pretty amazing fish tanks before the apocalypse hit, to deal with ongoing oxygenation, decomposition, and so on. Nothing in Enslaved is grimy, and the fish tank is effectively a miracle – survival against the odds.
Two hundred years is an interesting figure to me, because it's also around the time since European settlement of Australia. And a couple of hundred years is really short in this context. Changes might seem dramatic but, like Australian cities, Enslaved's landscape is still new and changing.
On that short time scale many things do persist. There's a simple graph to estimate how many species are likely to occur per area of habitat. New cities like those in Australia are likely to have more species than you would predict for the area of habitat available. Many things are still just hanging on, like long-lived trees or small populations surviving in scattered reserves.
That is how I think of Enslaved's fish tank, and Monkey seems to agree with me. Trip explains that her own colony functions in a similar way – a self-sustaining community cut off from the rest of the world. Monkey says it's only a matter of time before the slavers attack again, while I doubt their ability to persist for other reasons, including the risk of disease outbreak or long-term inbreeding. Small, isolated populations are vulnerable for a whole bunch of reasons.
You can probably guess what happens next. The boss fight, followed by Trip crying over fish flopping uselessly on the ground. And can't you just smell the forshadowing? All the subtlety of a brick.
Ecology is perhaps an awkward thing to depict in media. On a simple level many people already understand it. It's basic ideas like plants capturing sunlight and animals eating each other. It's watching a pair of birds hatch and raise their young.
It's a deceptive simplicity, which hides the countless variables and interactions complicating natural systems. The happy medium between simple observations of nature and the complex reality is hard enough to get my head around while working with it regularly. I don't exactly expect to see it in a more informal setting.
Still, somehow I can't help but feel there's room for just a touch more complexity and subtlety. I'm also looking at you, Hayao Miyazaki.