Prince of promises
January 04, 2009
I'm not sure how it happened, but I've devoted far more time than I ever anticipated playing, replaying, and discussing the new Prince of Persia. Sadly, I've discovered I admire the game less and less the more I reflect on it. This raises a couple of questions for me:
2) Is it necessary that I care about the game's story and characters? You might say Prince of Persia is what it is: an accessible platformer wrapped in a standard adventure genre plot. A little Shadow of the Colossus; a little Zelda; a little Okami stirred into a rousing Prince of Persia recipe. Is that a bad thing? If I want a good story with interesting characters, I should go read a book, right?
The problem is that Prince of Persia sends a series of mixed signals about its intentions. We have a wise-cracking titular hero accompanied by a woman whose family and civilization have been obliterated by a force that the game itself takes very seriously. The less I know or care about all this devastation, the less bothered I am by the Prince's one-note comic relief. But the game offers me the opportunity to know much more, and the game tells me in all sorts of ways that I should care about what I learn.
We're left with a tonal collision that creates more wreakage the closer we inspect it. Perhaps wisely, Ubisoft chose to shield the player from the quips, verbal sparring, and philosophising by making most of them elective for the player. Ironically, the deeper you probe - the more you let the game reveal its story - the more cracks appear in its narrative shell.
The Prince and Elika essentially sustain one long conversation through the game, and this conversation bears little or no relationship to the events they punctuate. Prolonged, high-drama events or confrontations occur, followed by "As I was saying..." dialogue passages or backstory exposition that arrives in dribs and drabs for no apparent reason. I understand the Prince is meant to function as comic relief, but his winking observations grow so repetitive and arrive so unrelentingly that I found myself avoiding the dialogue options altogether. The unfortunate result of this choice is that I learn less about Elika and her story, which happens to be interesting and worth caring about.
I also think Prince of Persia tells the wrong story. The narrative arc of Elika and her mourning father is fascinating - far more interesting than anything that happens in the game. It's a shame that nearly all of this is treated as backstory. Sometimes writers write around the scene they need to write, describing via dialogue the compelling, impactful stuff that happened offstage. Such is the case with Prince of Persia. The best story has already ended before the game begins.
Traversing a corrupted land, fighting monsters, collecting healing light seeds - it's easy to see how a platforming game can be built on such a narrative framework. The story that emerges from this activity, and the events that provoked it, seem to lend themselves to a past-tense narrative experience.
Could a Prince of Persia game have depicted the inciting events surrounding Elika and her mourning father; the release of Ahriman and the resurrection of Elika; the flight of Ormazd? I don't know. But if none of this matters, and these stories are just window-dressing for a game about jumping around a lot, I would prefer not to be teased by the promise of a character like Elika with a story I hoped to care about.
Tomorrow: a final Prince of Persia post focusing on the game's controversial ending. I'll be joined this time by a few friends. You can read my previous two posts on PoP here and here.