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?