Prince of Persia: A Semi-Retraction

Prince of Persia

When I started this blog, games were supposed to be one of the main things I talked about. There’s even a picture of video game character in my fancer banner – this very Prince of Persia! Can you believe it? I got off to a fairly okay start – there’s a good amount of end-of-year retrospectives in the Things of 2008 feature – but since then, there’s been precisely one post about games. But for the most part, I’ve been writing about all sorts of things, like Ryan Smith and Hulk Hogan and Eurovision. I’m not doing my inner (or outer, for that matter) nerd justice. I need to talk about games for a bit. So: three consecutive posts in a row shall discuss nothing but PC gaming, and I’ll tip my glasses back to the top of my nose in a salute to computer geeks all across the superformation interwebs. To begin with: a long, rambling apology.

I mis-spoke before. I know – it’s hard to believe, isn’t it. But I was wrong. In the aforementioned Things of 2008 feature, I gave a fairly sterling review of Prince of Persia, all unbridled enthusiasm and flapping, overzealous gums. And in many ways, it deserved it: I still think it’s a strong contender in the Most Beauti-Pretty-Licious Game Ever Made category. I still think the focus on one-on-one duels was a good choice, and the incredibly huge locations you vault and propel yourself through are wonderfully realised. And, damn it all, I still don’t dislike the Prince, as much as my brain tells me to. So what if he’s a jerk who ends up ruining the entire experience for you, the person who controlled him for the previous five hours, by being a big, ugly idiot for the last ten minutes of the game – he just doesn’t know any better, okay?

But I’m here to admit that I was perhaps a little generous to the game in my previous appraisal, and to rethink my stance on the game, for a number of reasons. Not insignificant among these is a strong, foul-tasting bitterness towards Ubi Soft due to the upcoming PoP: Epilogue downloadable chapter not being scheduled for release on the PC – my disgust about that may have caused me to cast a less forgiving eye on the game as I played through it again last week. But mainly, I found the game leaving me cold on its own merits. To understand my reasons, you’ll need to know why I loved PoP: The Sands of Time so much, so I’ll be talking about that too. Oh, and there’s likely going to be spoilers for anyone who hasn’t played those two games.

Pop:SoT, as I’ll be annoyingly abbreviating it to from now on, was perfect, in most ways. It’s to this day the most brilliantly realised vision of gameplay, story and asthetics in a game I’ve ever witnessed. The story’s lovely, warm, fairy tale tone is mirrored in the graphics, bursting with glowing, incandescent yellow and orange hues, and pale, damp greens. The story also effortlessly gives context and reason to the gameplay: the dagger that unleashes the cataclysm is also the very tool you use to undo it, the girl that you’ve captured is also the girl you need to work with, and the friends and family that were witness to your unleashing of the sands are the newly-zombified foes you’ll have to fight. The game takes place in one sprawling, crumbling palace, which gives a magnificent unity to the gameplay elements: of course I have to run along this wall – the stairwell collapsed when I freed the sands.

The story was also perfectly pitched to increase your impetus to play through the game: you’re responsible for this monstrous misdeed, so clearly you’ll have to undo it. And hey, you get to know a beautiful girl as you do it, and it’s all to take down the evil mastermind who persuaded you to free the sands in the first place. You’re righting your own wrong – it’s a classic tale of redemption. Then, it only goes and tops it off with a brilliant twist at the end which all but forces you to play through the game again: the Prince narrates his own story throughout the game (if you die, he charmingly notes that “no, that’s not how it happened.”) but only at the end, do you realise that he was relating the game to his companion, Farah, the entire time: you were playing his story as he told it to her. It was a brilliant use of story to justify in-game tropes – as you quit, the Prince enquires if you wish him to leave before finishing his story. Which means he’s asking Farah if she wants him to get out of her bedroom. Awesome.

Unfortunately, the two immediate sequels to PoP:SoT, Warrior Within and The Two Thrones, horribly misjudged things, which left me pinning all my hopes on this new reimagining of the franchise, fittingly bereft of any explanatory subtitle. Compared to those two misfires, it’s a wonderfully coherent, bright adventure game. Excitement about that is probably what compelled me to give that over-enthusiastic review previously. But I’ve come to realise that, compared to PoP:SoT, the new PoP made a fairly embarrassing mess of things. And it’s all due to not-quite-understanding why the other game was so fantastic.

While the graphics are back to being bright and dream-like and reminiscent of a fairy tale, there’s no cohesiveness to it. It’s four disjointed environments, with little or no explanation or connection to justify them. There’s no Arabian Nights atmosphere to speak of, and certainly no sense that the environments and textures are part of a grander vision. The story, while not bad in and of itself, has none of the nuance or cleverness or subtlety of PoP:SoT’s. In fact, this might be its biggest failing, and I’ll explain why… now.

As I said, in PoP:SoT, you have a reason to care. You’re redeeming yourself. In PoP, there’s no such drive. You’re just doing a favour for a pretty lady, and eventually you might feel compelled to see things through because of the bond that forms between the Prince and Elika. You’re undoing someone else’s mistake: you’re a reluctant, lusty problem solver, not an emerging hero. Which might have been okay – I do understand that not many games reach the singular, wonderful vision PoP:SoT accomplished – but they went and ballsed it all up at the end by forcing you to do a very silly thing.

In PoP:SoT, you’re pressured into making a mistake at the start because you don’t know the terror you’re about to unleash. You spend the rest of the game undoing that. In PoP, you’ve just finished tucking Ahriman back into his eternal bed, when you go and unleash him all over again, yourself. It’s a good narrative in reverse: you fix things, then get forced by the game to break them again. Hello?!?! It’s like if Indiana Jones had got the Ark of the Covenant back to America after seeing the Nazis being melted alive, and deciding it’d be a bit of a lark to open it again anyway. Y’know – flabbergastingly stupid.

But the big thing that separates PoP from the glory of PoP:SoT is the gameplay – or rather, how the gameplay ties into the greater picture of the narrative. Where PoP:SoT was all about how you worked with and against the crumbling environs of the palace to create a path to your goal, the new PoP just creates a bunch of unlikely rooms for you to work your way through, with perfectly placed power plates and poles your you to play with. I realise that both games use the exact same technique of prescribing a route through a room using some advantageously-placed masonry – it’s just that PoP:SoT did it so much better. As the palace fell apart, you jumped to pillars because the walkways were destoyed by the sands. You felt like you were improvising, using the environment to beat the game. In PoP, you jump to pillars because the rooms appear to be have designed like that – you’re just taking the route everyone would have taken. It’s like the palace in the newer game was owned by an abstract, idiotic modern artist with no regard for human safety. Or some rich game designers, I guess. It leaves the game with very little of PoP:SoT‘s replay value – collecting some poxy lights seeds isn’t quite as attractive as experiencing the game with a whole new perspective.

I argued briefly today that Chris Cornell’s Scream – while awful in and of itself – is all the more galling because you listen to it in the context of Cornell’s entire back catalogue – that everything has to be judged in the context of the creators’ previous accomplishments. And in that respect, I have to conclude that Prince of Persia is a step backwards, but still good. Or, more specifically, PoP, while by no means a bad game, fails entirely to be better than the six-year old game it’s aping.

Which is more than likely down to the absence of Jordan Mechner‘s influence. Worship him, kids – he invented fun.


One Response to Prince of Persia: A Semi-Retraction

  1. Pingback: Free Running: Mirror’s Edge 2D « Mister Hands

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