As a gamer, the holidays nearly always provide a reality check for me. We typically entertain a house full of guests, eat ourselves silly, trade gifts, and play lots of games. The reality check arrives as I watch these casual and "midcore" gamers plow through my treasure-trove of games, inevitably settling on one that somehow emerges as the consensus favorite. This year that game was Prince of Persia. Somehow, I didn't see it coming.
I bought the PS3 version of the game when it was released and quickly loaded it up to take a gander at its highly praised art direction. The game does look fabulous, and I confess my very first impression was more like a wish: "Wow. I wish I was playing a new Zelda game that looked like this." Nevertheless, I spent an hour or so looking at the splendid environments and character models, and I felt immediately comfortable dashing across walls and building swordfighting combos. I left the game looking forward to returning soon.
Having read a positive review of the game from a writer I trust, I was curious to see how Prince of Persia was faring with other critics, so I wandered over to Metacritic for a look. I quickly discovered the game has largely polarized the games press, with many scores in the low 60s to 75 range, and many more in the 90+ range.
When such disparities occur, they're usually due to disagreement over a specific aspect or element of a game, and Prince of Persia is no exception. In this case the issue is the game's perceived lack of difficulty:
"...lack of challenge..." -Gamespot
"...never quite intelligent enough to push the genre very far forward." -360 Magazine UK
"...a game that, at its heart, is incredibly easy." -Gameplanet
"...watered down gameplay mechanics..." -ActionTrip
"...a beautiful gaming experience, but you won't find much in the way of excitement nor challenge..." -Level7.nu
"...total lack of intelligence..." -Gamer.nl
"...yet another poor game planted in a bed of fantastic technology and interesting mechanics, which, rather than empowering the player to solve interesting problems in new and exciting ways, merely sends you for a long and elaborate stroll through a beautiful world devoid of challenge or variation..." -Eurogamer
I'm not here to argue Prince of Persia's merits as a game because I haven't played enough of it myself. In fact, nearly all my experience with the game is drawn from an observer's point of view. But an observer's role can yield valuable impressions too, and from that vantage point I can attest that Prince of Persia thrilled and delighted the audience I saw play it over the course of several days. I mean they loved it.
What's more, it clearly engaged these players for precisely the reasons many reviewers scored the game poorly. Its "watered down" mechanics are accessible, quickly learned, and easily executed. It provides immediate excitement, thrusting the player into gameplay that feels urgent, teaching her how to succeed one mechanic at a time. It fosters a kind of "in the zone" feeling that makes the player feel he's in sync with the game as he repeats certain acrobatic combos. It presents failure as a teacher, not a penalty producer; encouraging the player to try again and overcome a mistake via improvement, rather than punishment.
The game is also gorgeous to look at, as every single person who played the game remarked in one way or another. The characters move with remarkable grace and fluidity. We sometimes forget, I think, that these things matter beyond our noting them as a merit worthy of bonus points in a review score.
How are we serious gamers to respond when a big-budget, ambitious, traditionally core-focused game like Prince of Persia arrives, designed to appeal to an audience larger than us? What rubric can we use to fairly evaluate such a game? Can we meet the game where it lives, but also expect it to retain some fidelity to its heritage? If we accept simpler mechanics and gameplay, are we lowering our standards or building a bigger tent?
If the reaction to Prince of Persia at my house is any indication - and if the post-Wii trajectory we've seen continues - I think these are questions well worth asking.