January 31, 2009

Critical Thinking Compilation: Prince of Persia

The decision to completely reinvent the Prince of Persia universe, following the (mostly) widely-praised Sands of Time trilogy may have come as a surprise to many fans. Removing the time-manipulation mechanic, discarding the character of the Prince, and adopting a dreamlike, cel-shaded look all seemed like significant and perhaps inexplicable departures. Duncan Fyfe has suggested, in "Time after Time", that the franchise needs to keep rebooting itself because the simplistic core of its story and gameplay is at odds with the need to extend its stories into trilogies and series. Perhaps it was this, perhaps Ubisoft simply felt that it was time to go in a new direction. Given the great affection of many gamers and critics for Sands of Time, it was perhaps inevitable that Prince of Persia would be scrutinized extensively. Perhaps it was held to too high a standard, as Scott Juster thinks, but fairly or not several of the decisions in the new game's design have proven widely divisive.

A gentle journey upstream

Among hardcore gamers there is little doubt that Prince of Persia is easy to play, but a debate rages over whether it is too easy, whatever that might mean. The game is devoid of punishing "Game Over" screens or unforgiving platforming puzzles in the mold of Sands of Time's Tower of Dawn. The Prince's companion Elika has streamlined the experience of "death" in the game, as Richard Naik and others have pointed out. In addition, Joe Tortuga has identified an equivalence of action for the face buttons in different modes that is likely to make the control experience more sensible for the newcomer. Moreover, as a consequence of the open-world design, the difficulty curve is rather flat.

The upshot of all of this is a game in a hardcore mold that reaches out to more casual players. Michael Abbott, in "Prince of Noobs", relates that the striking visuals of the game attracted the attention of new players in his family, while the toned-down difficulty and simplified mechanics got out of the way of their enjoyment. Scott Juster believes that this approach fits with a new era of gaming, in which major titles primarily aspire to be accessible, rather than challenging. On the other hand, Jorge Albor and GSG have argued that Prince of Persia may be a bridge intended to stimulate the casual player's further interest in games. In this respect, Ubisoft may be recapitulating Nintendo's upstreaming strategy.

Gameplay as characterization

The idea that the challenge was stripped from a game in order to make room for casual players is not one that will make the hardcore crowd happy. Other writers have suggested, however, that the simplification of gameplay has aims beyond merely appealing to the pick-up-and-play crowd. Rather, the platforming and interactions with the world are designed to make the player feel a particular way. The compelling interactions with the game world grab the player's attention, according to Spitfire, while Angelo asserts that the platforming segments and interactions with Elika develop into a kind of motion poetry. Greg Tannahill argues that the fun of the game comes from experiencing the platforming, rather than overcoming it. For Thomas Cross, the exuberant movements of the Prince draw the player into his world. I go even farther to argue that the emotions the player feels while platforming are a way of characterizing the Prince himself. If these things are true, then analyzing the game as a puzzle-platformer is inappropriate because that's simply not the kind of game it is. Iroquois Pliskin understands it as more of a rhythm game than a character action title. For him, the physicality of the platforming gave rise to the romance of the story.

Haptic interactions between Elika and the Prince are an important component of the storytelling in the game. The way they touch each other while moving through the world makes the player feel like he's in control of an actual person interacting with another actual person. As Jorge Albor says, touch deepens their relationship in a way comparable to Ico. Because Elika streamlines some aspects of the game and slows down others, David Zhong views interactions with her as a mixed blessing in terms of the gameplay. In "Wait for Me!" he ponders whether this ambivalence makes her more real. For Allen Cook, her relentless helpfulness actually made Elika seem at once passive-aggressive and boring. Although Joe Tortuga liked them, he felt that the haptic interactions interrupted the flow of play to the game's detriment.

Because the feelings elicited by gameplay to a large extent depended on the flowing nature of the platforming, just about anything that brought that to a halt was viewed as a negative. Even the optional conversations, which were praised in some quarters, were criticized along these lines by Nels Anderson. Although he liked that these segments were optional, he detested the way they broke up the game and the fact that they were visually boring. I felt the combat fell flat for similar reasons. For me, the slow, halting nature of the combat was completely at odds with the rest of the gameplay, and also didn't really fit the character of the Prince himself.

An interactive storybook?

Despite all of this, the difficulty level remains the elephant in the room, repeatedly brought to mind by the more ludicrous "Achievements" the game offers. David Zhong, for instance, characterizes the game as practically playing itself. In a pair of essays, Sinan Kubba argues that the lack of challenge in the game goes beyond the simplicity of execution and actually descends to the level of removing meaningful player input. In his view, Prince of Persia becomes something of an extended quicktime event, more akin to an interactive story than an actual game.

Is there something to this? The game seems to fiddle with player agency in interesting ways, especially at the end. The Prince's decision to cut down the trees was at odds with the desires of many players. As discussed at Tangletown Games, this fact emphasizes the division between the Prince, as a character, and the player as an agent, and forces the player to examine his own values. David Zhong felt that the optional dialogue gave rise to a disconnect between the player and the Prince. His informal survey suggests that many people saw the Prince, rather than themselves, as the agent in the closing scenes. In general we think of games as being about player agency (even if it is only the weak agency of "continue or end"). Could the reaction to the game's difficulty result from a feeling that the game in its story and mechanics removes agency from the player, despite its open story structure?

The Prince or the Princess?

The choice to invest so much in the Prince seems odd in retrospect because few critics were impressed with him. Always a good point man on character matters, Michael Abbott brings two essays to this line of inquiry. In "Prince of Promises" he identifies an uneasy tension between the light-hearted wisecracking of the Prince and the depressing destruction of the world; he feels the game might be telling the wrong story. The Prince's character artlessly reaches for Han Solo territory, as Michael details in "Prince of Nada", which makes him much less interesting than Elika.

So, why not make the game Princess of Persia? In his essay, "Caring about the Prince" Tom Cross acknowledged that Elika is the real emotional core of the story, and this is a thread that you can find in many of these essays. In his consideration of Elika, Ben Fritz pointed out that she's so powerful one wonders why she needs the Prince at all. Yet the game's story works against Elika, and its narrative conforms to patriarchal values, as Scott Juster explains in his excellent "Prince of Patriarchy". In the game, nature and women are subjugated to the desires of men, and the King (at the beginning) and the Prince (at the end) undermine whatever agency Elika has.

Does Prince of Persia earn its ending?

The ending of the game puts all the decision-making power in the hands of the Prince, taking it away from Elika, and even from the player. Even people who agree about the difficulty seem to be sharply divided by the game's conclusion. Steve Amodio thought that Elika was clearly worth saving and the cold, dead world of the Ahura was not. As mtvernon points out, the feeling of freedom in the gameplay depends entirely on Elika; her absence in the closing segment of the game makes the player feel uncertain and wary during the platforming. Spitfire felt that the ending worked in part because the Prince was a dynamic character, and in part because the gameplay incubated affection for Elika in the heart of the player. When the Prince slapped the bier, Spitfire got excited because he was united with the Prince in not wanting the experience to end.

Voices from the other side of the spectrum were just as loud. Sean Beanland felt that the game actually didn't do enough to convince the player that the Prince would choose to save Elika. Eric Swain thought that the structure of the Prince of Persia's story worked against the development of the relationship because it prevented it from following any real trajectory (he also proposes a particular arc in an interesting piece). Although the vignettes with the various corrupted successfully create a vision of what Ahriman is and what can be accomplished through him, Swain wonders why the Prince doesn't learn anything from their hollow victories. In fact the Prince reveals on at least one occasion that he understands Ahriman's duplicity. In my own view, the game never does enough to build up the relationship between the Prince and Elika, or convince the player he's foolish enough to make this choice. Moreover, by destroying the player's time investment the ending makes him feel like a sucker.

The player's time investment comes up in Game-Boy's wide-ranging discussion of the game. He feels that Prince of Persia goes out of its way with mechanics like Elika's life-saving to respect the player's investment of time. As a result, he's confused by the choice to devalue that investment at the end. Joe Tortuga identified a different kind of tension at this point, in that the game has a very free and open structure up until the final battle, but at that point doesn't allow you any alternatives.

Or does it? The early credit scroll led to some extended discussion of whether turning the game off early was a valid approach. Joe didn't think stopping early was a legitimate response, and as a consequence he felt the ending ruined the game. In contrast, Michael Abbott chose to walk away from the game rather than submit to its epilogue. As Greg Tannahill notes in his equivocal piece "Closing the Book", turning off a game early can improve the experience, but the question remains whether you are gutting the intentions of the creator. At the same time, as I mentioned earlier, games are about creating a feeling of player agency. In a game like Prince of Persia, is turning it off the only relevant contribution a player can make?



Happy reading, everyone. Special thanks to Michael Abbott for setting up some cross-blogging about the game's finale. That link collection was a good starting point for the rest of this. As always, point me to anything you think I overlooked using the comments, twitter, or e-mail.

Last updated: 4/6/09

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