This post is part of a cross-blog conversation started by Michael Abbott over at The Brainy Gamer. Feel free to offer your thoughts, and feel free to send me a message if you post a contribution so that I can add your link to this post.
In analyzing Prince of Persia, it has somewhat worrisome to see myself diverging so sharply from folks whose opinions I generally agree with, but I will attribute it to personal taste rather than a spiral into fanboyism. However, when I say I "liked" the game's story and characters, what I truly mean is that I found them "believable." Simply because something is believable does not mean it is flawless or even admirable, and critical analysis is always useful, regardless of how much I enjoyed the game. Here is one criticism I will levy on Prince of Persia: It is a game whose narrative conforms to traditional patriarchal values that condone the subjugation of both women and nature.
Elika's function in the story as well her magical abilities play into historical imagery of conflating women and the natural world. Elika acts as a healer and a protector for both the Prince and the land itself. Without her support, the Prince would either find himself dashed to bits at the bottom of one of the game's many chasms, or on the losing end of a monster's blade. In a larger sense, Elika can be seen to be fertility incarnate: She travels through a "corrupted" land to restore its lost bucolic splendor, gathering enough seeds (a figurative and literal symbol of fertility and sexuality) and, with a cry that calls to mind both orgasm and child birth, restores the land's verdancy. This mixture of nature, femininity, and sexuality is not a new concept, and arguably it is more positive than how the men in Prince of Persia are portrayed. It should still be subjected to scrutiny: Is it significant that Elika is not aggressive or that she seems perpetually selfless? What does it say that her powers are "magic" and not based on hard work, practiced skill, or rational choice? Let us not confuse fertility with agency.
The agency Elika does exhibit is repeatedly attacked by the game's male characters. In reviving Elika, her father subverts and commodifies the environment to serve his personal ends, even though it means degrading the natural world. In an attempt to exert dominion over Elika in both death and life, her father demands she remain at his side once he has revived her. He can not, or will not, tolerate her dissent or consider the suggestion that he made a mistake. Ultimately, his willingness to subvert nature leads to the destruction of his family, his city, and his being.
Initially, it seems the Prince will avoid her father's mistake as he helps Elika collect the light seeds. Ultimately, once the Prince realizes that Elika has made the choice to sacrifice herself, he chooses to overturn her decision. In doing so, he renders their previous work, along with Elika's intentions, meaningless. The Prince chops down the trees, symbolizing the destruction of nature and the final shreds of female agency. The game ends with a distraught, yet powerless Elika asking "Why?" The Prince offers no verbal answer, and even though Elika spurns his conciliatory glance, proceeds to carry his prize away from the city.
Prince of Persia's story has turned out to be surprisingly divisive. Like many folks out there, I was initially put off by the Prince's modern U.S.-centric dialect, but I soon found that the further I progressed, the more I became interested in the characters, their actions, and their motivations. I gladly took platforming breaks and listened to the "on-demand" dialogue, which provided an unexpected amount of depth to what started out as shallow characters. Even though it seems that most folks came away from Prince of Persia unsatisfied, it also appears they came away inspired to talk about it. A story that can inspire so much discussion is never a bad thing.
Remember what I said about PoP inspiring discussion? Well here is a sampling of some other PoP-inspired posts that I have enjoyed. They are well worth your time:
Prince of Quitting - The Brainy Gamer
Prince of Persia: The End - Cult of the Turtle
It's about how you feel - Discount Thoughts
A Review - VersusCluClu Land
Prince of Persia's Powerful Finish - Tangletown Games
Prince of Persia's Elika redefines "dying" in a videogame - The CutScene (Variety)
Most innovative game of 2008 - Twenty Sided