Podcast update

The place between fantasy and reality

Prince3 Game sequels have a habit of growing dark and gritty. GTA4 is certainly an effort in this direction, as were Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess and Prince of Persia: Warrior Within. We're told the next Splinter Cell game (Conviction) will follow a similar path. Visually, this trajectory usually translates as "more realistic," but as you may have noticed, dark and realistic don't always bring improvement with them.

Rare is the sequel that goes the other way, striking a sunnier note than its precursors. The just-announced Diablo 3 looks like it might buck the trend with its decidedly colorful art style and more fanciful character designs - which apparently has some fans hopping mad. And despite the fact that Valve can do anything it wants, I still think it took guts to make Team Fortress 2 look the way it does. Guts and creative imagination...not a bad combo.

But what happens when you've done fun and lighthearted, then followed it with dark and grim - and now it's time to make another sequel? Go back to happy-land? Go even darker? Such is the problem faced by the next Prince of Persia game, and I'm intrigued by the direction the design team seems to have chosen.

Aesthetically, the Prince of Persia: Sands of Time trilogy was a schizophrenic roller-coaster ride. The original Sands of Time (by far my favorite) was a terrific adventure with silky-smooth gameplay that wisely never took itself too seriously. Its sequel, Warrior Within, was an abrupt and disappointing departure with a brooding bad boy prince and lots of incongruous bloodshed. The final game, The Two Thrones, was an obvious attempt to strike a balance between the two, but by then the series seemed to have run out of ideas.

What has renewed my interest in the Prince of Persia - and I confess I'm responding to early promotional info from Ubisoft (always dangerous) - is the design team's decision to situate the new game in a place somewhere between fantasy and reality. Artistically and thematically, they are apparently trying to deliver a story and convey a world that both connects the player to the real world and transports her to another.

Lots of games have done this, of course, with varying degrees of success, but I find a few of the designers' comments interesting, particularly their stated influences:

We want to create a game with style, and we don’t go with realism, so we go with caricature. Artistically, the inspirations are Japanese movies like Princess Mononoke, not just for the story, but also for the characters – they’re not just black and white, but more mature. A lot of comic books, too, as I’m a big fan, and a lot of games with big, strong artistic direction like Okami, plus some parts of the new Street Fighter and Mirror’s Edge – these are all good references. It’s a mix of a lot of things.[1]

It's an odd but intriguing collection of influences. How this turns out is anyone's guess, but I'm encouraged that Ubisoft Montreal is looking for ways to leverage next-gen hardware to create true next-gen art design, rather than endlessly grasping for the photorealistic brass ring. Ironically, they're using a modified version of the Assassin's Creed engine, which was designed to render realistic environments.

When we started to work on this Prince of Persia, we wanted it to be different from other next-gen games. A lot of them tend towards realistic graphics, featuring many technical details, such as normal maps and specular… we use those things, but much more softly than in, say, Gears of War. We’ve taken a lot of time to create post-effects and textures for this. It’s a more painterly style than other games. A vast fantasy world… that’s what we want to have.[2]

It's easy to forget how fresh and innovative the original Sands of Time was when it appeared. That game was an inspired overhaul of an existing franchise that captured the essence of the original, but wrapped it in a fun and thrillingly kinetic new experience. Here's hoping the talented gang in Montreal can breathe new life into the prince again.