Call for Feature Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

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Wednesday, Sep 16, 2009
I launched a campaign, took one look at the board, and having no idea where to begin with the hieroglyphic of controls that I had just “learned about” promptly turned the game off and forgot about it.

Some of us old gaming fogeys sometimes like to gripe and groan about the current state of the game manual.  Video games for the most part now come with these flimsy little pamphlets that they call a “manual” that might contain a schematic of your controller that indicates what the buttons do and not much else.  Of course, “back in our day”, floppy disks came packed in a mammoth sized box with a bunch of nifty extras like maps of the game world alongside a 300-page manual that described not only how to play your game from load screen to the penultimate moments of gameplay but probably the entire history of the Roman Empire that would serve as a little flavor for the game that you were about to undertake.


As unwieldy as these tomes were, they often did add that bit of flavor to the proceedings, and they were ultimately necessary components to gaming since most games really provided no in-game tutorial of any sort to guide the player in learning the game.  Consider the horrifying implications in 1985 of Hacker‘s claim that a screen reading “‘LOGON PLEASE’: is all you get to start with.”  A game that gave you nothing to read to get started with?  That might ask you to learn the game by playing around with it?


Of course, “playing around with it” is largely the pedagogy of contemporary games albeit in a guided manner as opposed to the pure “sink or swim” approach of Hacker.  Rather than having to guess at how to control a game character or mash some buttons to see what they might be capable of doing, most games have some sort of tutorial, usually built right into the opening segments of the storyline, that instructs you on how to move around, open a door, or throw a punch.  In addition to telling you how to do it, the game also asks you to “play around” with these controls.  Not only do you learn that you need to “Press A to jump,” but you are instructed to do so yourself after reading or hearing that instruction, a good example of active learning. As Wikipedia notes, this pedagogy popularized by Charles C. Bonwell and James A. Eison in their 1991 book, Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom can be basically boiled down to the concept that “practice after initial learning” is a good way to reinforce a new skill.  The dominant notion in this pedagogy is that pure exposition is generally an insufficient way to acquire new knowledge and that active reinforcements of knowledge benefit those trying to learn new information or how to do something new.


I was reminded of the more traditional expository method of conveying information that game manuals used to provide gamers a few weeks ago when I tried booting up a copy of the World War II simulation, Hearts of Iron 3.  Not only is Hearts of Iron 3 a game that is built in a retro style with pared down visuals of maps and charts rather than fancy battlefield graphics, but it depends on a retro style of tutorial.  While an in-game tutorial exists for this political and military sim, the tutorial is presented as a series of lengthy texts overlaid over the user interface that explain how to build troops, a national economy, participate in diplomatic efforts, etc.  Because of the World War II setting and the fact that you are going to take on the role of a singular authority over a nation, the text is “spiced up” with a kind of narrative component that suggests that Hitler himself is narrating these instructions to the player who will soon be taking on the role of dictator.  While the game attempts to inject humor into what is otherwise a fairly didactic description of gameplay, the “humor” is more groan inducing than funny and also serves to distract from what is a labyrinthine set of rules, guidelines, and symbols that make up the game. 


Since this is all expository, and there are a whole lot of rules to learn, the “tutorial” of Hearts of Iron 3 becomes an exercise in sophistry as the game lectures you on how to perform diplomacy, espionage, and combat in slide after slide of words that vaguely relate to the graphs and charts of the game that you are looking at.  It tells you how to play but doesn’t at this point allow you to get your hands dirty in any of it.  All in all, it takes about ten or twenty minutes to read and scratch your head about the relationship between what you are reading and the UI that you are looking at.  By the time that I was done, I had managed to forget every single thing that I had just read and felt utterly clueless about how to play the game.  I launched a campaign, took one look at the board, and having no idea where to begin with the hieroglyphic of controls that I had just “learned about” promptly turned the game off and forgot about it.


While my response to Hearts of Iron 3‘s pedantic approach might imply that us old fogeys should shut the hell up and join the rest of the world in the 21st century where games teach the player through the more effective pedagogy of active learning, one might consider that the value of active learning has been challenged as well.  For example in a 2006 study, “Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching”, Paul A. Kirschner reviewed the shortfalls of a number of efforts to put active learning to work in practical settings.  While not all of Kirschner’s criticisms of active learning may be applicable to video game tutorials, some of them are interesting in regards to the problems that some games have in providing only “minimal guidance” when actively training players.


For example, Kirschner notes that novice learners have some troubling results when trying to understand a new concept or how to perform a new activity by actively engaging with it when that activity may require more prior knowledge about it than a beginner may be reasonably expected to possess.  Pressing A to jump is a relatively simple task and then being asked to perform that task by, say, jumping up on a table in game world seems like a relatively innocuous task.  While I might never have played the game that requires me to do so, I possess enough gaming experience to know that I need to press a thumb stick towards the table as I press the button to jump.  I am not a novice when it comes to the general concept of jumping via button pressing in video games.  After all, I played Donkey Kong back in 1981.  However, despite my years of gaming experience I have never played any games in the Tony Hawk series. This is largely because I never picked up a Tony Hawk game until it was well into its bazillionith iteration.  Whichever sequel I tried picking up at some point, had an in game tutorial that I simply couldn’t fathom, asking me to do things and string together combos when I didn’t even really understand the concept of stringing together tricks at all and could barely pull off an ollie.  Like my experience with Hearts of Iron 3, I gave up before the game started with a similar feeling that the controls were a kind of untranslatable hieroglyphic created to confound rather than illuminate.  Rather than being overwhelmed by too much information, I suffered from far too little before I was asked to actually accomplish something.  Ever tried to jump into a DDR sequel having not played the first few versions of that dancing game?  That tutorial will kick your ass.


In addition to the problem of minimal guidance for active learning, there also remains a question of the repetition of learned skills.  Many tutorials ask the player to perform a new task multiple times (three seems the magic number that active learning experts advocate), like, while fighting a thug, perform the X, Y, X combo three times.  While a sensible approach to active learning—trying to remember some complicated pattern only one time while having other additional instructions tossed at you shortly thereafter isn’t conducive to conditioning a good reflexive response—sometimes even three times really isn’t enough if it isn’t an action that will be reinforced regularly.  My experience with 2007’s Conan immediately comes to mind. While I am quite sure that I was taught to block during the tutorial sequence, I spent the entire game not even considering the necessity of a defensive move at all (barbarians don’t really play defense so much do they?).  Thus, the final boss battle in the game was a pretty big shock and ultimately an aggravation to me, since the ability to block is utterly necessary in defeating that one villain.  Initially, I found the battle hopeless.  Paging through the two pages of the manual in the hopes of understanding what I was missing about Conan’s abilities didn’t help much.  A trip to the more expository world of Gamefaqs.com was my only relief as someone on the boards there explained in detail a blocking strategy, which I then had to teach myself by getting killed over and over and over again.  Repetition helps teach a lesson I guess.


Which I suppose is my point, that I am neither opposed to exposition or active learning, nor am I sold on either one as a proper pedagogy for video games.  Quite honestly, I want a good and reasonable amount of both in my game tutorials as they each have there use in learning a game.  However, don’t overwhelm me with a novel length description of play before letting me try out a few basics.  Likewise, don’t assume that I already know enough or that I have used all of the skills available in a game enough before letting me sink rather than swim into action. 


Oh, and for the love of all that is good, allow me the option to skip it altogether if I really, really want to.  Everybody knows that school sucks.


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Tuesday, Sep 15, 2009
A breakdown of Alexander Galloway's collected essays on video games.

One of the most interesting questions about video games is, if they are art, how do they communicate a message to a person? How do they cross from what Roger Ebert once described as “sport” into making a plausible statement about the world in a game? A book recommended to me that extensively handles the topic is Alexander Galloway’s Essays on Algorithmic Culture. The text is very short, 126 pages total, and consists of five modified essays Galloway published in various journals. I’m going to focus on his points about political games and player vs machine relationships for this essay. Chapter 2, ‘Origins of the First Person Shooter’, is a comparison of the cinematic techniques of the First Person and how video games build on these. For a variety of reasons, I personally don’t agree with this argument. Intellectual pissing matches where one person cherry picks convenient quotes and attacks another author rarely produces anything useful, so I’m going to just focus on the parts of Galloway’s book I found persuasive. You can read the book and make up your own mind about the rest of it.


From Final Fantasy X

From Final Fantasy X


That said about his heavy reliance on film theory, Galloway is an interesting critic on video games for that same reason: he doesn’t necessarily organize a game by ludic and narrative components. Instead he relies on a series of arbitrary distinctions between types of events in a game. For example, there are machine actions and operator actions. He writes, “The difference is this: machine actions are acts performed by the software and hardware of the game computer, while operator’s act are performed by players. So, winning Metroid Prime is the operator’s act, but losing it is the machine’s.” (5) He acknowledges himself that the distinction is meaningless in most games, falling into the lava in Super Mario is just as much because of the operator as it is the machine’s depiction of a loss scenario. To Galloway though, this cinematic interlude is, “a type of grotesque fetishization of the game itself as machine. The machine is put at the service of cinema.” (11) These moments are our windows into the world of the game, the point at which we are allowed to look at the machine as a whole rather than just plot or identifying something on the screen. This duality of machine depiction as well as narrative depiction are essential. These machine elements are depicting non-diegetic (outside the film’s world) information. He uses Final Fantasy X as an example, the way that you see all the numbers and stats despite the fact that they are never acknowledged in the plot. A game must continually do this in order to make the player aware of the algorithms that govern its world so they can modify their behavior to become better at play. This is where literary theorists like Derrida become relevant to video game theory, there are multiple layers of what is going on in the game and what is specifically ‘real’.


From http://literature.sdsu.edu

From http://literature.sdsu.edu


I’m probably going to bungle this summary of Derrida’s points, the man’s writing is ‘Go F*** Yourself’ hard to understand, but as Galloway puts it there is no central meaning to a video game. It’s not just the plot and it’s not just the ludic elements, it’s both interacting. Derrida, while discussing literary theory, was making the point that the meaning of words and historical events changes over time and from person to person. Little House on the Prairie read today is fairly racist towards Native Americans but in the past was considered a heart-warming story, to give an example. Derrida uses the word ‘play’ to then describe how the meaning of a text is generated; it doesn’t come from one source but rather is bouncing off the person, history, social stigmas, education, etc. The meaning of a word is constantly being adjusted and played with by a reader. Galloway writes, “So while games have linear narrative that may appear in broad arcs from beginning to end, or may appear in cinematic seques and interludes, they also have nonlinear narratives that must unfold in algorithmic form during gameplay. In this sense, video games deliver to the player the power relationship of informatics media firsthand, choreographed into a multivalent cluster of play activities.” (93) In a video game the process of generating meaning through play is made very literal. There is a game’s narrative meaning and then the player constantly playing with those values through the game design, bouncing around these interests.


From SOCOM

From SOCOM


Galloway goes on to explore the discrepancy between realistic graphics and realistic action in a video game using these ideas. Ordering a pizza in The Sims looks like a cartoon but in terms of action it is more accurate than SOCOM’s storming of an enemy base despite the fact that SOCOM has better graphics. That’s not really how you storm a base but it looks more realistic than The Sims, which features plausible conduct. So the distinction between realism is not really one of visuals, but rather how much you are properly coercing realistic behavior in a player. (73) He writes, “I suggest there must be some kind of congruence, some type of fidelity of context that transliterates itself from the social reality of the gamer, through one’s thumbs, into the game environment and back again. This is what I call the “congruence requirement,” and it is necessary for achieving realism in gaming. Without it there is no true realism.” (78) This is where Galloway draws the distinction between a game depicting a fantasy and one depicting reality, “it boils down to the affect of the gamer and whether the game is a dreamy, fantastical division from that affect, or whether it is a figurative extension of it.” (83) A strong example of this would be Duncan Fyfe’s explanation of why Call of Duty 4 is a fantasy. There are no civilians in the game. There are no complications to any battle except whether or not you’re playing well. Unlike a real war, which requires that you manage all of these complications, the game is just a fantasy war scenario where there are no innocents. It affirms Galloway’s point: the game design is what makes something realistic, not the graphics.


From The Sims

From The Sims


This brings us to Galloway’s ultimate point about how a game communicates a message to the player. Almost every game in existence, whether you’re stabbing dragons or driving cars, presents a depiction of reality. It does this by making its rules transparent in the non-diegetic moments. (93) Rather than the way a film communicates a political message, which is to just have us observe a story and its various characters at work, a game shows us the process and has us go through it ourselves. In this way games often reveal political bias, racism, and other ideologies. Native Americans in Civilization, for example, have a technology handicap that builds on their stereotypes. He adds, “The other great simulation game that has risen above the limitations of the genres is The Sims, but instead of seizing on the totality of informatics control as a theme, this game does the reverse, diving down into the banality of technology, the muted horrors of a life lived as an algorithm.” (103) The game becomes a message about the horrors of suburban life as you engage in meaningless task after meaningless task for a win condition that doesn’t exist. Galloway concludes, “the interpretation of gamic acts is the process of understanding what it means to do something and mean something else. It is a science of the “as if”. The customary definition of allegory as “extended metaphor” should, for games, be changed to “enacted metaphor.”  (118)


The final chapter of the essay explores the opposite approach of delivering a game’s message, rather than focusing on changing the rules you change the visuals. Galloway sees this mostly occurring in the mod and indie scene, something that was just coming into existence when he was writing the book. He notes one quirk about the mod scene, “aesthetic experimentation often trumps interactive gameplay…the three aesthetic realms most often modified in artist game mods are space, visuality, and physics. Modding the flow of gameplay itself is less common.” (118) Galloway cites a few examples like using glitches in the game’s visuals to make you more aware that you’re playing a game or tinkering with the physics so that the visuals become very reflective of your actions. This portion has dated a bit but I think he nails the core force driving the indie scene even today: redefining the concept of play itself for gamers.


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Friday, Sep 11, 2009
A comparison of the hardest levels in Peggle with Trash Panic, and why the latter is considered punishing but not the former.

Gamers love a challenge, but when a challenge is described as “punishing”, that seems to be a roundabout way of saying “not fun.” The implication is that the challenge is so difficult that trying to overcome it can be considered a form of punishment, but what it’s actually describing is a challenge that requires a great deal of precision (and maybe some random luck) and that the slightest mistake can ruin your entire attempt. The sense of “punishment” stems from the game’s seemingly extreme consequences for failure. But it’s a very fickle word; our perception of any given challenge is affected by the rest of the game around it. A game that starts off easy and then gets very difficult won’t be considered punishing no matter how hard the later challenges may actually be. Case in point: Peggle.


Peggle is a conceptually simple game: There’s a vertical board filled with floating pegs of multiple colors. You shoot a ball from the top of the screen, and try to hit all the orange pegs, at which point you’ve beaten the level. Aside from the main Adventure mode, there’s a Challenge mode. In the hardest Challenges, you’re tasked with clearing an entire board starting with just one ball. These Challenges are the very definition of punishing: With one ball you cannot make any mistakes, every shot must result in another free ball or you start over. But these are not generally considered punishing, no part of Peggle is, because the rest of the game works to ease the player into that higher difficulty.


Peggle starts off slow. The rules aren’t complicated to begin with, but it still takes multiple levels before the player is introduced to the four kinds of pegs and what they do. The game is broken up into sets of five levels, and the first set is very straightforward: The layout of the pegs is simple, and there are no moving pieces. The second set adds some large curves, the third set adds some moving pieces, and the board slowly becomes more complicated until the player feels comfortable facing the punishing Challenges.


Trash Panic, on PSN, is very much the opposite. It’s instantly reminiscent of Tetris, but nowhere near as simple. Pieces of trash fall in from the top into a trash can, the user must throw them down, either on top of another piece of trash or at a particular angle, so that they break. If left unbroken, the trash quickly piles up and if three pieces fall out it’s game over. The basic mechanics seem no more complicated than Peggle, but when the use of fire, explosives, and decomposable trash, the odd scoring system that rates you on “Eco” versus “Ego,” the lack of a proper save system, and the lack of a tutorial are taken into account, then just learning the rules of the game becomes an unnecessary challenge.


From a technical definition, the final Challenges in Peggle are more punishing because there’s no way to recover from a mistake: One bad shot means the game is over. In Trash Panic if a piece of trash doesn’t break when we intend it to, there’s a small window of opportunity to fix this mistake if we doesn’t panic. So in this regard Trash Panic is more forgiving, but it’s not the actual difficulty of the individual levels that makes a game like Trash Panic feel punishing, it’s everything else around those levels, it’s that fact that the game does everything it can to prevent the player from progressing. Without a competent save system or tutorial, it feels like the developers never wanted players to reach the fifth and final level. Where Peggle eases the player into its harder difficulties, Trash Panic throws us in headfirst.


On the Japanese PSN, there’s an “Arcade Edition” of Trash Panic that lets you play three “lives” for 100 yen (about $1) When those are gone you have to pay again to keep playing. It’s a fitting structure for the game, since Trash Panic feels like it was designed to eat quarters.


Peggle is a textbook case of a game that’s well paced. With each level lasting only five to ten minutes, we’re constantly faced with new challenges, but the actual difficulty of those challenges increases at a slow and steady pace. Gamers love a challenge, but only when it’s an expected challenge. Trash Panic’s embrace of that instantly-punishing arcade style shows how much games have evolved since the days of the arcade. If a game doesn’t ease its player into the harder difficulties it risks losing them, and there’s no longer someone else standing behind them ready to plunk down a quarter for their turn. Today’s games must pander to the player. That’s not to say they must be easy, or even that they can’t be punishing, but they must let the player know what they’re getting into. Some challenges should be for volunteers only.


Tagged as: peggle, trash panic
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Text:AAA
Thursday, Sep 10, 2009
Two amazing collections of personal stories from MMO games have been posted online.
From EVE Online

From EVE Online


There have been two absolutely amazing MMO stories coming down the blog pipeline and both deserve mentioning.


The first is Jim Rossignol’s four part series over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun about his five year experiences with EVE Online. It chronicles the formation of a small raiding corporation called The State and their wanderings across the massive universe of EVE. If you’re unfamiliar with the game, it’s a startlingly open game where players form enormous corporations and alliances. Resources must be mined, transported, and developed at player created stations. The need to ferry supplies and control markets, all controlled by players, make his stories of pirating and raiding groups fascinating both as a social experiment and purely because of how complex these online games are becoming. Fondly remembering a long conflict with another corporation Rossignol writes, “The few months in which we fought, toe to toe, is something I’d love to be able to recreate or recapture, but I know it’s lost. A singularity in the history of gaming. It was so valuable: a time when the kind of game I’d always dreamed of had come to pass: carving out our niche in a living universe, protecting the weak, working as a team to make money and bring down enemies.”


From Ultima Online

From Ultima Online


The second is a collection of musings by a former GameMater or GM of the now defunct Ultima Online. The game was one of the first graphically depicted MMO games and drew heavily on MUDs and previous Ultima games for its design. What made it unique was what a hostile and wild place the game became when contrasted to modern MMO’s. If someone unprepared stepped outside of town, thugs would descend on them immediately. The game was ridiculously unbalanced as well, allowing for master players to basically dominate the scene. Being a GM in such a culture, which resembled Hobbes’s state of nature more than a civil online game, allowed one called Backslash to collect a long list of stories. So many that he’s posted three essays so far with hopefully more to come. You can check the first post out here. He comments, “As an ex-professional deus ex machina, I have a brain full of these stories that bubble up unbidden in my memory from time to time. I thought you might enjoy if I shared a few of the more interesting stories I took part in.”


You can’t make stuff like this up.


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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Sep 9, 2009
The conclusion of Prince of Persia invalidates everything that the player has been doing throughout the game or in playing a game at all.

This discussion of the Prince of Persia contains major spoilers regarding the game’s conclusion.


Despite their often thuggish and brutal behavior, a few weeks ago I wrote about how the characters that we play in video games are still often made sympathetic to us through various narrative techniques that sometimes conflict with player choice.  While Niko and CJ of the Grand Theft Auto series do some terrible things while we control them, both characters’ rough edges are often softened by scripted cutscenes that give these characters justification for their bad behavior or that just simply show that they are not altogether bad.


What I would like to consider this week is a character whose reputation has suffered as a result of a slightly different and less static narrative technique that also attempted to reveal more about the protagonist of a video game, the Prince of Persia.  Much like the rapscallions of the GTA series, the Prince seems to have been largely conceived of as an anti-hero.  Much like Aladdin, the Prince emerges from the tradition of the rogue as hero.  The charming and rebellious bad boy has much going for him in the way of generating audience sympathy that can be found in other characters like him.  Unlike the bad boys of GTA and other crime sagas, characters like Han Solo, Jack Sparrow, or just about any character ever played by Cary Grant, tend through their own wit, charisma, and good looks to offset any negative feelings about their possible character flaws or even criminality.  Charm, it would seem, masks a host of vices.


Certainly, the latest re-envisioning of the Prince of Persia plays into this persona of the bad boy, especially as such characters normally relate to a female love interest (a perfect vehicle for demonstrating qualities like charm).  Like Han Solo and Princess Leia, Jack Sparrow and Elizabeth Swann, Peter Joshua and Regina Lambert, the Prince’s general charm is in part communicated to the player through the witty verbal cut and thrust that he and Elika take part in over the course of the game.  Nothing says sexual chemistry more than a little verbal violence.  We tend to forgive little boys their attacks on girls after all because we know that in reality it just shows that “they like ‘em” and that seems to be the case with most of these man-boys.


While some folks may criticize the relative cleverness of the non-stop give and take between the Prince and Elika, unlike many video games, it certainly reveals more about these two characters and how we are intended to perceive them than games often do.  Usually, video game characters seem to go mute when a cutscene ends and actually playing as them begins.  While this is usually because they aren’t working with a partner, the partnership between the Prince and Elika is one essential to gameplay (as the Prince serves as the vehicle for moving around the world of the Prince of Persia while Elika’s powers keep him alive) but also to characterization—one of the easiest ways that a writer can develop a character is by showing an audience what they act like around others.


Despite efforts to build the Prince into a likable rogue, the Prince has taken a real beating as a much beloved protagonist largely do to the final decision that he makes somewhat independent of the player’s control at the close of Prince of Persia.  The gameplay and plot of Prince of Persia are driven by the goal of saving an unnamed kingdom by healing its corrupted landscape.  When the Prince and Elika (and the player) finally manage to succeed in healing the “fertile grounds”, the Prince and the player is confronted with the uncomfortable truth that Elika, whose resurrection caused the corruption that plagues the land, must also die to make right the unnatural balance that was created by her previous return to life. 


Interestingly, Ubisoft did not choose to present the Prince’s response to Elika’s death as a final dramatic and unplayable cutscene.  However, despite the seemingly participatory nature of the game’s epilogue, the player is not actually given any choices about how the Prince might choose to respond to Elika’s death.  If the epilogue is played through, the only thing that the player can do is walk Elika’s body out of the temple that she has sacrificed herself in and destroy several trees that represent the lifeblood of the land.  As a result, the land once more is corrupted by shadow, and Elika is returned to life.  The Prince has chosen love over salvation.


The conversation  provoked by this unusual and exceedingly romantic conclusion is varied.  Some (as I myself do) feel that this is a reasonable conclusion to the Prince and Elika’s story.  Every indication of the Prince’s feelings for Elika as they verbally parry and thrust through a complex dance of sexual antagonism and anxiety indicates to me that a legitimate sexual chemistry and ultimately love is being developed between the characters.  It may be that I have seen too many episodes of Moonlighting, but this formula of boy meets girl, boy and girl hate each other because they actually really, really like each other has apparently conditioned me to view much literary and cinematic romance in this way.  Additionally, the rebellious qualities of the Prince suggest something of the Byronic hero or the Satanic Hero.  Like Satan in Paradise Lost who felt that it was “better to reign in Hell then serve in Heav’n”, the Prince chooses to resurrect what he desires rather than save a world.  Thus, I feel like this final decision is consistent with the character (and, truth be told, I kind of favor the Byronic expression of the hero over the blandly noble heroes of other literature myself).


However, given that saving the world is the focus of so many games and certainly the goal that the player has been led to believe is his or her own of over the course of this game, it is, perhaps, unsurprising and very understandable that many players find themselves to be very much in conflict with the Prince’s decision.  Those that might want to choose a more noble outcome or see the Prince as a potentially less selfish character might reasonably disagree with this conclusion.  To further rub salt in the wounds of players that might feel that saving the world is a more noble and sacrificial choice to make then to save the woman that they love, the game asks the player to make this choice right alongside the Prince, to become complicit in this more “Satanic” option. While the player controls the Prince at this moment in the game, he or she can only take actions that revive Elika and corrupt the land, there are no alternative actions (barring making choices outside the boundaries of the fictional world itself) that might allow the Prince and player to maintain an uncorrupted kingdom.  As Iroquois Pliskin puts it in his review of the game from December, 2008, Prince of Persia  “presented the player with the one of the few real ethical dilemmas of the holiday season: turn the console off, or finish the game?”


That Ubisoft seems willing to force the player into enacting a choice that they may or may not agree with and allow the player’s will to come into direct conflict with the will of the character that the player has inhabited for hours strikes me as a brave from both a narrative and gameplay perspective.  Not only do they risk making the Prince an unsympathetic character by making the player overtly complicit in his less than noble decision to embrace his own needs and desires over those of the “greater good”, but the conclusion of Prince of Persia invalidates everything that the player has been doing throughout the game or in playing a game at all.  One of the most satisfying thing that adding narrative components to video games has done for gaming is in providing a conclusion, a stopping point that allows players to know that they have succeeded in their goal, that they have “beaten” the game.  However, that this goal is the result of achieving various lesser goals throughout the game by testing their acumen at the various tasks of the game (in this case, running, jumping, fighting monsters, etc.) suggests that taking all of those minor actions are worthwhile because they achieve that victory condition.  The frustration that may arise from playing Prince of Persia may lie in the fact that the value of the actions necessary to “win” the game are all erased at the game’s conclusion.  It is as if the board that the game is played on has been suddenly swept and the 10 or 12 hours needed to complete the game were unnecessary.  The land is under the spell of Corruption and nothing has changed as a result of a laborious effort. 


The near absurdity of the reversal of the the effort of playing a game is sure to aggravate players who are accustomed to being told that playing results in achievement and winning.  The interesting thing about Prince of Persia is that it challenges the value of the work of play itself.  That the Prince makes the decision to invalidate his work in saving the world might be acceptable but that the player is forced (barring turning off the console before the narrative completely concludes) to invalidate their own work alongside him might make it easy to begin to hate this guy.  It also raises the question, though, since we have acted alongside him, do we have to hate ourselves for wasting all this time?


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