Game endings must be very tricky business for designers to manage. Not only must the story reach a satisfying conclusion, but this conclusion must be coordinated with the player's input getting there. Typically games make us earn our endings (some going so far as to supply multiple versions), hinging gameplay success with narrative resolution. Navigate the environments, solve the puzzles, beat the bosses, game over. We know the routine.
It's no accident that for many gamers, reaching the end of the story means "beating the game" more than it means resolving the narrative. I confess I've completed plenty of games I can barely recall story-wise, but I could provide vivid accounts of their final bosses. Castlevania series, I'm lookin' right at you. ;-)
So I must give Prince of Persia producer Ben Mattes and his team at Ubisoft credit for trying to rethink the notion of "ending" and for throwing us a welcome curveball at the conclusion of the game's story.
The game offers the player a choice: revive Elika and unleash Ahriman back into the world...or turn the game off and walk away.
I didn't see it coming. Prince of Persia isn't a "meta-game" ala No More Heroes. It functions until the very last moment exactly as one would expect a conventional platforming adventure to behave. Then, suddenly, Elika sacrificed herself and I was presented with a provocative dilemma: pursue the goal of my avatar, the Prince - whom would most assuredly revive Elika - or disconnect from that avatar and choose my own path.
After helplessly exploring other options, I realized I had no other choice. I never liked the Prince anyway, so I felt no devotion to him. I chose what I believed Elika would have chosen. I walked away. The Prince, as far as I'm concerned, can locate his donkey and find another tomb to raid all by himself.
Some will say the game offers no choice at all. The only real action the game allows is resurrecting Elika. I say poppycock. The credits roll when they do for a reason. Anything that happens after that is a coda. The game invites you to walk away...or not. It's up to you. The genius of this moment (in an otherwise highly problematic narrative) is in the way it provoked me to reflect on a character's death, assess my choices, and assume responsibility for the one I made.
Was the simple act of quitting ever made with such deliberate reflection? In the case of Prince of Persia, walking away means honoring the last wishes of the only character in the game who earned my respect. In retrospect, maybe it wasn't such a tough decision after all.
Lots of good writers have opined about Prince of Persia, many focusing on its controversial ending. I invited a few to share some cross-blog conversation with me. Below you will find other opinions, some in direct opposition to mine. I've also included a couple of unsolicited links on the topic. I encourage you to give them all a look. And, as always, I'm curious to know your thoughts as well.
- Prince of Persia: The End - Cult of the Turtle
- Prince of Persia's Powerful Finish - Tangletown Games
- So long, sucker! - Discount Thoughts
- Prince of Persia's Elika redefines "dying" in a videogame - The CutScene (Variety)
- In Defense of the Prince - Game-ism.com
- With the press of a button - Graduate School Gamer
- Prince of Persia - why? - Sean's Videogame Musings
- Prince of Patriarchy - Experience Points
- re: Prince of Noobs - You Have Lost!
Update: other related links suggested by readers: