Scott and I played Prince of Persia at the same time, so this post is a departure from the norm. When we are fortunate enough to play games concurrently we will follow this formula with one of our reviews supplemented by a shorter collection of the others' thoughts. Spoilers are avoided to the best of our ability, but as always, read with discretion.
I completed Prince of Persia on the Xbox 360, Scott did so on the Playstation 3.
Prince of Persia: Risks and Rewards
Despite a respectable Metacritic score of eighty-three (eighty-six on PC and PS3), Prince of Persia, Ubisoft's latest reboot of the long existing franchise, has garnered mixed sentiments. The most prominent critique is the game's lack of difficulty. According to the game's producer Ben Mattes in a recent IGN interview, players may be overlooking the innovative risks Ubisoft took in development:
"We set out to keep a few core fundamentals but to re-imagine everything else, discarding some very well entrenched ideas not about the brand but also about videogames in general... What surprises me is how little these high level risks seem to be noticed and appreciated as attempts to shake up the industry and push things forward. Perhaps I'm an idealist, but I think perhaps I was expecting a few more virtual pats-on-the-back for our attempts to do something new."
Though the game may have been too easy, I have to agree with Mattes' statement. The art is gorgeous, movement is fluid, the node system works well, and the seamless world is a treat. The following three design choices caught my eye the most and explain why I credit Prince of Persia with delivering an entertaining and fresh experience.
At any moment in Prince of Persia, the player can cue a discussion between Elika and the prince. These moments make up a large portion of the narrative elements, putting the narrative pacing almost entirely in the hands of the player. Yet the developers corralled these dialogue segments within particular environments, and included suggestive cues amidst playful banter, to encourage a steady, player-controlled progression through both story and environment.
Ubisoft supplements these short dialogue segments for the less plot interested player by including even shorter one-liners that change subtly as the story progresses, mechanics that elicit narrative meaning (as I've discussed in an earlier post), and short cut scenes after each boss that flow naturally regardless of the order they are defeated.
The life saving mechanic is still innovative despite the criticisms it receives. I have no appreciation for death as mere punishment. As I have already made clear, mortality, or the lack thereof, can serve a narrative purpose. Each time Elika saves the prince's life, the bond between the two grows stronger. One of my favorite scenes, which I won't ruin here, is the fight with the concubine, one of the four shadowy bosses. The dependence on Elika, built with this simple mechanic, is used to stunning narrative effect and asks the prince and the player to put this mechanic to the test.
Ben Mattes articulates this philosopy nicely: "The theme of love and loss was one we wanted to explore, but in a unique way - not just as a story but also through gameplay; a game where the penalty for failure is not artificially enforced by an arbitrary mechanic but rather self imposed by the player." Where the punishment system fails, the gameplay driven fairy-tale succeeds.
The Final Option
After defeating the final boss, as the prince walks slowly out of the temple, a short series of credits roll. Yet the game is not over. What then were the credits telling me? Why include credits when this is not the intended conclusion? I am not certain this is intentional, but it offers the player two finales: quit or continue. Prince of Persia makes turning off the console a narrative choice.
If the player exits the game, the story ends with a contemplative and perfectly satisfactory conclusion. If, as I assume, most players do not, the prince's actions that follow are implicitly that of the player as well. The immersive power or 'doing' is exactly what makes games so appealing. The player becomes an accomplice of sorts. All the doubt, shame and uncertainty the prince feels is partially owned by the player.
The interesting design choices aside, I found Prince of Persia to be a beautiful and engaging experience. Knowing the game was to be a newly imagined departure from the existing series, I was not let down by its approach to difficulty. In fact, this may be just the type of mid-range game needed to bring casual players to more "hardcore" titles. But the game does lack tension where tension is needed, a flaw Mattes is completely aware of. Prince of Persia is still young and has time to prove itself. If gamers can alter their perceptions of what Prince of Persia is supposed to be, I think they will find interesting and innovative design choices well worthy of praise.
Second Thoughts: A Modern Prince?
Prince of Persia is a litmus test for one's feelings towards current trends in big-budget gaming.
While PoP takes full advantage of current systems' graphical power, the game's beauty stems from artistry rather than photo-realism. It follows a tradition of games like Okami and Fable 2, who use modern graphics to create cohesive worlds focused on expressing contextual believability rather than objective reality.
PoP's gameplay also represents contemporary tastes. The platforming is streamlined to the point where the rhythm of jumping takes precedence over aiming said jumps, giving the game a "Rock Band meets Mario" flavor. It is a single-player game, but is based on cooperative mechanics: the Prince and Elika never part, working in unison during exploration and combat. It seems that today, gamers want company even if they are not playing with another human.
PoP has sparked a conversation about challenge in games, but it should be noted that the game's approach to difficulty is in following with the rising prominance of story-driven titles. A "game over" screen or "re-spawn" point is apocryphal in terms of a mono-narrative: Certainly the "intended" ending of PoP is not the one where I spaz out and accidentally force the prince to jump to his doom. Ubisoft employs Elika's magic as an inventive way of addressing this problem.
Challenge still exists in the form of another modern gaming trend: the "achievement." While the game may be easy to complete, additional trials await those who seek to test themselves. Challenge is no longer a road block along the narrative's path; it is a tangent that is simultaneously easy to avoid but tempting to those so inclined.
PoP hails from a decidedly "new-school," in which games try to be everything for everyone. Like it or not, the game is a sign of the times.