Back to the Future
If Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was a figure skater, then it would easily get a ten for technical merit. Even the Russian judge would have to admit that its triple-lutz, double sow-cow is among the best. Like skating, though, technique is only half of the equation when it comes to video games. Equally important is the artistry that a skater brings to his or her performance. Sadly, Sands of Time is no perfect ten in the artistic department, suffering from an uninspired storyline that relies too heavily on race and gender stereotypes.
Like the original Prince of Persia games, this incarnation is an action-packed adventure set in the ancient middle east. Success comes from navigating the prince through a series of elaborate traps, mazes, and other perilous predicaments. With the prince's repertoire including running along walls, swinging on flagpoles, and balancing on beams, the variety of moves you'll need to get from any given point A to what looks like an impossible-to-reach point B is incredibly complex. However, the ease with which you can perform any of them is the game's genius.
Ubisoft has developed a nearly flawless control system for Sands of Time that makes playing the game an absolute joy. The right combination of my PlayStation 2's R1 and X buttons was the only thing I needed to pull off every circus feat in the prince's bag of tricks.
Even more impressive is that the Ubisoft team realized that every gamer's biggest frustration in playing these jumping games is being penalized with instant death for every little mistake. It's like when your girlfriend breaks up with you because you just forgot to put the toilet seat down those few times in a row. Like, as if she's perfect! What about the time she forgot to set the VCR to tape wrestling?!
Ahem. Sorry about that. Back to the review.
Should you happen to lead the prince to an untimely death, Sands of Time gives you the ability to rewind the game ten seconds and go back to the point before you screwed up. It's absolute frickin' genius, made even smarter by the developers basing the plot around this feature so that it ties in logically.
The story is that the prince, returning from the conquest and looting of a maharajah's palace, has been tricked into unlocking the Sands of Time, a magical artifact that was being kept there. The resulting chaos leaves all of the castle's inhabitants turned into sand creatures except for the prince and Farah, the recently captured daughter of the maharajah who seems to know how to put things back to normal. Reluctant partners, they journey together through the immense castle armed with the Dagger of Time and its ability to control all things chronological.
With its Middle Eastern setting, Sands of Time deserves credit for allowing Western gamers the chance to experience a different cultural atmosphere. Predictably, however, the game evokes the idea of Persia in only its most Orientalist incarnation. Caught between two stereotypes, Middle Eastern people are typically either depicted as characters straight out of The Arabian Nights or as modern Islamic fundamentalists. While Sands of Time opts for the former and at least portrays the prince and Farah as positive Middle Eastern characters, it's still not as progressive as if they had been positive and modern Middle Eastern characters. That is, it seems to confirm the mass media dichotomy that good Middle Easterners only existed in the past and all the current ones are terrorists. This is not really this particular game's fault so much as the entire entertainment industry's, but by playing to stereotypes the Ubisoft team isn't making anything better.
This accusation can be made more forcefully in regards to the characterization of Farah and her negative representation of women. Adhering to the sexy sidekick role embodied by the Bond girls in that series of films and games, Farah takes a limited role in the action while wearing as little clothing as possible. She helps the prince fight enemies with her bow, but has to constantly call out for the prince's assistance during battles. She's plucky, but ultimately inferior to the prince ("I can't jump like you can," she complains). A nude swimming scene confirms that Farah exists only to titillate both the gamer and the prince and cannot be taken seriously. The prince certainly does not see her as an equal. "It's not so bad for a woman to have a little bit of spirit," he says, like Rush Limbaugh pretending to be a feminist, "It's a challenge!"
Sands of Time is essentially made up of features from a number of other games, including the puzzle-solving of Ico, the slow-motion effects of Max Payne, the scenery and gameplay of Tomb Raider, and the spirit of its predecessors. On a technical level, it succeeds by blending the best elements of these games into an interface that is absolutely outstanding. By resorting to tired clichés and stereotypes in its narrative, however, the game fails to reach the same level artistically.
Video games are still a young medium. As in the early days of film, most of the innovation and research that goes into game development is devoted to its technical side. If anything, Sands of Time proves that we have now reached a plateau in terms of a game's controls and interface. I just don't see how it could get any better. This game can now stand as a model on which other developers can build, allowing them to focus on reaching the same level of merit artistically as they have technically.
7 April 2004