In Defense of the Prince

by Steve Bowler on January 3, 2009 · 7 comments

in general

First off:  SPOILER WARNING.  If you haven’t finished Prince of Persia yet (the one released in 2008), either stop reading now, or have the ending and the entire game ruined for you.  You’ve been warned.

I was a bit surprised this week to hear a few folks in the newly dubbed “Brainysphere” talking about how much they don’t care for the new Prince in Prince of Persia.  Some felt they should have shut off the game before the final ending, others simply felt he was too shallow a vessel (but hopefully feel differently now that they’ve finished the game).  Still others out there felt that a quip-slinging wise-guy with a middle-of-America accent was somehow an insult to gamers and irresponsible in general.

The first thing that surprised me about the dislike was that I’ve never really found The Prince to be all that deep.  Do we require our hero in this series to be anything more than a fun platform hopper?  This Prince really isn’t all that far of a stretch from the Sands of Time Prince, is it?  Maybe with some updates for the current decade?  I’m not saying we can’t or shouldn’t have a deep hero, but I think The Prince is just deep enough, for reasons that I’ll get into in just a bit.  But the bottom line here for me was that my expectations were low.  This is an “everyman” game here.  It’s shallow level hopping gameplay, by and large, that needs to appeal to mass audiences.  I wasn’t really expecting a magnum opus with legendary characters or performances.

The second thing that surprised me was that people were aiming their indignation at The Prince.  If I had to nitpic anything in the game, I’d start with the game-world and the gameplay in general, and start by asking questions along the lines of…

  • Who the hell designed these buildings, and where did the budget for the floors go?  Do they realize that building a structure so that the floor isn’t the primary base of the building’s foundation isn’t code nearly everywhere in the world, including Persia?  Umbrella style buildings where the ground pillars for the structure go directly to support the roof, which in turn holds the walls up in some kind of “hanging” fashion, and then attempting to bolt the floor to the hanging walls is a recipe for disaster, and we’re seeing it unfold before our eyes.  And don’t get me started on why there’s handholds 5 stories up.  Thankfully, Persia is inhabited by some super human race of howler monkeys, if the scrapes on the walls are any kind of indication.  There’s been people wall-running and pole hopping here for a millenia.  There might be more people left if they’d invest in some proper building materials and techniques.  Every time Elika wonders where all of her people went, I want to scream LOOK DOWN THERE FOR THE CORPSES IN THE VALLEY BELOW.
  • Where did Elika learn to fly?  No, seriously, if she has a license, it needs to be revoked.  Not only does she take the most redonkulous paths around the level in order to find her destination, she takes every opportunity to scrape her passenger off on every possible outcropping of rock she can find.  Every time we came upon a yellow plate, I positively cringed.  Especially at the end sequence.  I’m pretty sure I know how all of the other Ahulas went.  They flew into walls.  And then fell thousands of feet into the same valley where the people fell.  Because there’s no floors.

So, yeah, I think there’s some bigger things to chase down in the game than the Prince’s lack of depth in character.  If we’re going to ask questions and point fingers, let’s start with the ludicrous before we move into the realm of the questionable, at least.  However, all of these things, including the Prince’s apparent shallow vessel, are all chalked up to game-isms.  And I’m not only okay with that, I’m actually excited about it.  Well, except for Elika’s flying.  And even then, it’s all part of the game.

Now, some folks might wonder, why would I like the Prince being shallow?  I like it because I think he isn’t shallow.  He intentionally sidesteps questions about his past.  While vague, he speaks volumes with his posture and his bravado.  While we don’t know if he is an actual Prince in the traditional Matriarchal/Patriarchal system sense (and he very well may be the spoiled adventuring prince type), we do know one thing about him:  He is a Prince of Thieves.  He throws us off by constantly talking about King’s ransoms worth of gold that he could have had.  Carpets that would have been this thick.  The women!  Oh, the women he could have and has had.  All of his intentionally false bravado (with a twinge of ironic comedic self deprication) leads to the eventual realization, which occurs in both the Prince and the Player at both the same time, that he has grown to want something else.  Obviously, he’s falling in love with Elika, either because of her perfect chaste attitude (sweet 25 and never been kissed, or loved for that matter) or because she’s his complete opposite.

The Prince’s growth is important in many ways, but the most important one as far as characters are concerned is that The Prince is the only character in the entire game who evolves, and therefore probably the most interesting character to play/experience.  Maybe he doesn’t even “evolve,” so much as “reluctantly accepts his true nature.”  He’s a nice guy underneath all of that bravado and filth.  If he weren’t, he wouldn’t have agreed to help out Elika once it became apparent that she wasn’t a floozy and wasn’t going to simply “give up the goods.”  A true scoundrel or rogue would have resumed the hunt for the donkey, Farrah.  The Prince, it would seem, is an adventurer and a gentleman, to boot.  His words may say one thing, but his actions say another.

His entire journey in the game actually reminds me a bit of Han Solo, and why people (either knowingly or not) were so angry when Lucas revised his story so Greedo Shot First.  Han Solo was a scoundrel chasing a piece of tail who turned out to be a Princess.  He was in it just for the money (and even tells us as such), but in the end it’s Han who has the change of heart and comes blazing out of the setting sun, for no other reason than to do the right thing and help out the people he’s grown to love through adventure.  Luke is still a whiny dreamer.  Leia’s still a stuck up Princess.  Han?  Han grows.  Without Han Shoots First, there is no growth.  If we remove the gruff exterior from his beginning, it diminishes the growth seen at the end.

The Prince’s story really isn’t much different.  The ending of Prince of Persia surprised me, because it echoed my sentiments, exactly.  When I first heard about Prince of Persia, after the graphics lust wore off, I fell less and less in love with the title.  I didn’t want a buddy.  I didn’t need a buddy.  Why is the player forced to have a sidekick?  Just writing these things out I feel as if I’m The Prince saying these words.  PoP players and The Prince have a lot in common, I imagine.  We’re used to handling this journey on our own.  Hell, we’re even used to rewinding our own sands of time, thank you very much.  We don’t need a sidekick heroine to save us.

And yet.  AND YET.  When Elika dies in order to save the world, I was genuinely upset.  Not on the verge of tears upset, mind you, but upset with the game.  I, and The Prince, had come to the conclusion that, well, I didn’t want it to end.  When I walked down the long hallway, carrying Elika for the last time, I got a touch misty when the credits rolled.  Was this it then?  This was the ending to our great adventure?  When The Prince slaps his hands angrily on the altar, a signal of his absolute refusal to accept this ending, I became excited.  He didn’t even need to tell me what to do.  I didn’t really need the light beacon game-isms to tell me where to go.  The game had already taught us that if we sacrifice the tree, Elika will live once again.  It’s how we got into this mess in the first place, isn’t it?

And it seems that The Prince (and I) have come to the same conclusion:  this mess was a lot of fun.  Who cares if we undo everything we just did?  The end doesn’t justify the means, because it’s not The End that was important to us; it was the journey here that mattered.  I had hoped that bringing her back to life meant that we would be forced to relive the entire day over again; an endless Groundhog Day loop of flirtatious parkouring and witty banter and conversation.  I’ll accept that it more likely ties into the “fertile grounds beyond the temple” and the inevitable sequel.  I’m actually looking forward to it.

That’s the power of the narrative and the characters and the game design in Prince of Persia:  I wanted to play more.  I bit into the hook of the sequel; I will tear this world apart and undo everything we just worked to accomplish if it means I get to spend just one more day with Elika.  The Player and The Prince are transformed in the same interactive cinema into realizing that there are some things more valuable than loose women, untold riches, fame, and fortune.

Ubisoft chose to end this game as if it were an indie title and reward love instead of greed.

And that, my friends, is some damn brilliant game design that I feel compelled to defend.