Monday, January 5, 2009

Prince of Patriarchy

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.

Edit, 1/8/08:

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


  1. What an interesting take. I confess I hadn't really thought about the whole mess in terms of gender issues, but it certainly leads in an interesting direction doesn't it? All these men think they know what's best for Elika, and all they end up doing is blowing up the world. And what does it say for men that the Prince stares the King's error in the face, recognizes it, and then repeats it?

  2. I've put this game in my queue, though it may be a while until I get to it.

    This was an aspect about which I (probably naturally) thought about while everyone was posting their stories of how great Elika is.

    This game does seem to speak about agency a bit with both the ending about which every is bandying and Elika's goals appearing to be that toward which you strive, but cannot ultimately attain.

  3. @Sparky

    I think PoP has a surprisingly deep, but that it is getting lost in the shuffle as people talk about the huge risks it takes in regards to game design.


    I'm glad that you stopped by to read this, as I was trying to channel your skillful gender analysis in this post. I'm interested in your take in some future fanny Friday features!

  4. One thing that's surprised me so far about the response to this game is that it seems nobody has been reading quite as much into the ending as I did. It seemed clear to me that the developers were trying to subvert some stereotypes with it, and I think they might have tried a bit too hard to be subtle. It may be that they had bigger aspirations for the ending (and the story in general) and ended up scaling them back in the end, but left bits and pieces of their original ideals remaining in the ending.

    I usually try not to read too much into game stories, but this game resonated with me a lot, so here's my take on it:

    Once Elika is dead, approaching the altar presents you with another vision. This by itself is kind of a big hint, from my perspective. Earlier in the game the developers try hard to establish that the visions are coming from Ormazd. If that were the case, what purpose would the visions have now that Ahriman is resealed and all is right with the world?

    Another detail is the voiceover (which is unfortunately far too quiet, in my opinion) after Elika dies. If you turn on the subtitles, the voiceover's only caption is 'ahriman whispering', which isn't terribly surprising - but there's something else at work here. There are *two* different voiceovers, with distinct voices and distinct tones, each telling you a *different message*. Only one of them has a subtitle, and that one is ahriman. Who is the other voice? The ahriman subtitle goes away when it's speaking, so it's not ahriman. Based on the previous hint, I think it's not too hard to come up with a plausible guess.

    The third detail is less solid, admittedly, but ties in with the first two: Throughout the game, you're essentially cleaning up a mess that was created by the people who were supposed to be protecting the world from Ahriman in the first place. He was sealed away long ago where he could never harm anyone, locked in place by all these fertile grounds and whatever other plot mechanism was supposed to be keeping him sealed. Unlike in many traditional stories in this vein, he did not break free of his own overwhelming power of ability - he was released, by the people who were supposed to ensure that he never got free.

    Based on this, by sealing Ahriman away again, what has the Prince actually accomplished? This also ties in with some hints given to the player in some of the story dialogue, in that according to Elika, Ormazd is *gone*. Nobody knows where he is or why his presence is no longer felt, when clearly he was a strong presence in the time before Ahriman was sealed, and Ormazd was essential in dealing with Ahriman. Contrast this with the fact that according to the game's story, Elika only gained her miraculous light powers AFTER her death and subsequent resurrection. These powers are clearly intended to have been granted by Ormazd.

    Based on all this, my arbitrary, off-the-wall conjecture is as follows:
    Sealing Ahriman is the easy way out, and a hollow victory at best. Allowing Elika to die simply to lock away Ahriman is not defeating him at all, it is merely shoving the danger under the rug so that someone else can set him loose again in a few hundred years. It's not a victory at all - it's a short-sighted compromise, that gets you back to your thick rugs and loose women as quickly as possible (from the Prince's perspective). From the player's perspective, it provides a relatively quick ending to the story, and essentially ties up all the loose ends in the world - the girl made a noble sacrifice, the great evil is sealed, and the prince gets to go about his life.

    But a lot of us don't *want* that ending, because we know it's not quite right. That's why most of us kept playing after the credits rolled, and cut down the trees.

    If the whole saga of Ahriman and Ormazd, Elika and the Prince, are supposed to be inspired by higher concepts - which they probably are, at least in some extent - then really, the idea of destroying Primal Evil by merely sealing it away is ridiculous. Sealing away Ahriman did nothing to eliminate the evil within the other characters in the story - Elika's father was willing to sacrifice the entire purpose of his existence in order to see his daughter again. You can easily frame this as a metaphor for the difficulty of confronting the human capacity for evil.

    In all likelihood the inevitable sequel to this game prove that I'm seeing depth and subtlety where there is none. But for now, I'm going to remain cautiously optimistic and hope for something more than just another tired Light vs Dark saga with a shallow moral fable and predictable ending.

  5. Kevin,

    Thanks for taking the time to post such a comprehensive comment, I like hearing other people's interpretation of what is actually a pretty vague ending.

    I had similar thoughts as I went experienced the game's ending. I like the idea that Ahriman and Ormazd are somehow connected, and I would like them to bring Elika's mother into the story (along with the Prince's parents).

    I really hope they continue this story line into the next game, as I'm interested into how the Prince and Elika's relationship changes after his faithful decision.