Friday, January 2, 2009

Singling out the Prince

2008 is over, but in its waning moments, Prince of Persia sparked discussions on topics as wide as the game's difficulty to its cultural responsibility. I am always in favor of thoughtful game analysis and criticism, but after reading some of the posts on Prince of Persia's narrative and artistic choices, I find myself confused. How does the gaming community come to fixate on certain games while others are given a pass? How do folks decide what nits need picking?

In a world where most video game voice work is laughably bad and stories are hopelessly bloated, how does Prince of Persia fare? While it may not be perfect, the game's story touches on complex topics such as faith, obligation, and fate without having to go into a five minute cut scene to do so. The end of the game only served to make the characters' conversations resonate more deeply, as a final choice made in the last moments of the games sheds a new light on previous conversations of the Prince and Elika's different life philosophies.

For those people uninterested in back story, the forced dialogues are relatively sparse and competently acted. For me, though, Prince of Persia is one of the few games in which the voice actors sound like they are actually interacting, rather than reading their lines in a cold, isolated sound booth.

On the topic of Elika, another odd criticism I see popping up concerns her abilities. Some argue that her magical powers make the Prince irrelevant, as she could easily complete the quest by herself. I find this strange for two reasons: One, this position is not supported by the internal logic of the game's universe. If the player tries to make Elika attack an enemy who is vulnerable only to sword or gauntlet attacks, Elika finds herself on the losing end of sucker-punch. While the Prince obviously requires her magical mulligans when it comes to platforming,Elika needs the Prince for his fighting skills.

Secondly, I am interested in why folks choose to suspend their disbelief when discussing some games and not others. It seems to me that Marcus Fenix should be wearing a helmet if he is going to take on the alien apocalypse. And does Faith fail to carry a knife or some rope to help her in her platforming? Is magic that much more difficult to divorce from the rational side of one's brain? Or is there something different about the game that draws attention to the dissonance?

Steven Totilo recently ran an interesting piece comparing the imagery of Shadow of the Colossus to Prince of Persia. I think the inspiration Ubisoft Montreal drew from Team Ico's games is apparent, but couching it in terms of "This is one top-tier 21st century development team riffing off another — or ripping them off. Fair or foul?" strikes the wrong tone. As I have said before, culture does not exist in a vacuum; games do borrow from one another, as all art does. I would most certainly hope that every game studio in existence has been influenced by the magnificence that is Shadow of the Colossus. But again, why do these things come out in an when people are discussing Prince of Persia? If memory serves correctly, Gears of War shares a few gameplay similarities to another famous action-shooter, but I would not say it was a rip off.

Which brings me back to my original question: Why are some games apparently subjected to more nitpicking than others? Perhaps it is the high standard to which we hold a beloved series? Maybe the fall season has slowed down sufficiently for people to catch their breath and start looking at games more carefully? Could it be that Prince of Persia's easy-goinggameplay allows gamers' minds to wander, thus allowing them to make connections they would otherwise miss?

Or am I just an misguided Prince of Persia apologist? I will be sharing some more thoughts on this controversial game, and I am interested to hear you all offer your opinions.


  1. I’ve not played the new Prince of Persia but I think the reasons why are telling in themselves.

    When I played the first of the revived Prince of Persia titles (Sands of Time) in felt unlike most other games around at the time; the Prince was naive and far more earnest that other videogame protagonists. He was a hero but a flawed one, familiar yet fresh.

    The platforming felt the same, familiar elements given a fresh twist with the parkour inspired platforming and Capoeira inspired combat.

    For Warrior Within they upped the combat quotient, and drenched the game in blacks, greys and blood red. The Prince became an "angry young man" and there was a clear tone of over sexualisation in the enemies, Metal bikinis anyone? Ultimately it felt like just another videogame with an angry protagonist engaging in brutal violence to impress some overly sexualised woman.

    Two Thrones tried to go back to the original in terms of thematic content and was generally successful, even if the Dark Prince feels like a miss opportunity coming off not as a Jungian “shadow” alter-ego but a bad comic book villain.

    The first few images and previews I saw of the new Prince of Persia (The Edge exclusive I believe) made me very interested in it. It seems like a return to the freshness of Sands of Time. Then I saw the first video and heard the Prince talk. He sounded like a bored frat boy, and my immediate reference was not the whimsy and freshness of Sands of Time but the clich├ęd juvenile attempts at humour found in Warrior Within.

    I stopped being interested in that game from then on. It seems to me that whoever was responsible for the script and casting didn't understand what had made Sands of Time so appealing and so I found it difficult to trust that those responsible for the gameplay would be any different. – Off topic for a minute, I accept that the slightly English accent of the Prince in the Sands Of Time is no more accurate than the American accent in the new one, but there is a cultural history of characters in historical adventure films putting on English accents; everybody in an historical play seems to want to sound like they are reading Shakespeare.

    Once bitten twice shy? I have a feeling if I'd actually played the game my initial reactions of the characterisation would have coloured my impressions of the title.

    Also when was the last time you saw a Parkour practitioner carrying a rope?

  2. Well, i played the new Prince of Persia and i found it beautiful. Although the gameplay is not so much different from the former ones (except for sweet Elika of course), i am especially astounded by the graphics, animations and the effects. I may have flows and it may not be suitable for hardcore gamers but it definitely doesn't deserve any bad comments. I think it's a real and an enjoyable game for both genders.

    And personally it became one of my favourite games and i find it better than the last two..

  3. @CrashTranslation

    I'm glad you brought up the English-accent phenomenon: I think it speaks to the power of familiarity in forming our views. I also found the acting choices jarring, but then I youtubed a few of the cutscenes from the Sands of Time and decided maybe the new voice work wasn't so ridiculous. ;-)

    The characters genuinely grew on me, and I would recommend a rental. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on the whole game!


    Have you introduced the game to anyone who isn't a big gamer? Some folks are saying that Prince of Persia is a good introductory experience.

  4. If I had to answer your last question:why some games and not others? I'd have to say that I tend to nitpick the games I like more than the ones I don't. The games that are almost-great get more derision for their errors than mediocre ones.

    It's because I wish they were perfect, I guess. Or perhaps wishing they were more perfect;)

    I've given PoP a lot of grief (although not for its difficulty), but I really did enjoy the game. I'm annoyed at the developers, but that will fade in time for the sequel, I'm sure.

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  6. @Generic Joe

    Good point: small issues that keep games from totally succeeding are probably more noticeable in those "almost hits," than in games that just aren't enjoyable.

    I'm also looking forward to the next PoP game, if for no other reason than to see what the team will do next. They've already shown their willingness to boldly experiment, I hope they don't lose this spirit.

  7. A quote from a comment on a portal analysis:

    "...Further to this, there’s a kind of wider impulse (which isn’t your fault of course) to list Portal as being somehow more culturally significant than other games because it happens to be well-written and put together. Of course it makes Portal a more appealling text to study, and of course it means that it is enjoyable and satisfying to play and to experience, and that undoubtedly prompts these kinds of examinations.

    However this privileging of Portal for its supposed extra significance is an attempt to make video games seem “worthy of study” by aligning them with ‘traditional’ (modernist or realist) literature, sharing the perceived, culturally valorised feature of depth.

    Unfortunately, by doing so, efforts to make videogames appear worth analysis shoot themselves in the foot. They’re suggesting that instead of every game having cultural significance that is worth mapping, there are just some games worth talking about - because they’re like books. Which means that games will always continue to be seen as platonically inferior copies of books when it comes to reading them analytically."

    Also, by taking a game otherwise ambitious in more than presentation and entertainment-- and pointing out its flaws that are seen in almost all video games of today--an opinion can be made more encompassing and credible.