Ubisoft’s relaunch of the Prince of Persia series puts other efforts to re-envision the platformer, like Mirror’s Edge, to shame. While the experiment of attempting to produce a platformer from a first person perspective seemed promising, Mirror’s Edge failed to really pay off in what seems to be its intention. That intention was to allow a player to execute smooth, acrobatic moves in a fast-paced and dynamic way while enhancing the experience of immersion by allowing the player to see from directly behind the eyes of a free runner.
It sounded exciting, but it was not. The limitations of the first person perspective in really evaluating where a character is and how easily constrained a fairly fixed frame of perspective that that perspective locks one into led to frequently underwhelming sequences of trial and error jumps that only occasionally allowed the player a real sense of fluid forward motion. The tension of fleeing from trouble was broken by a frequent inability to grasp where to move next and how to do so despite some clever visual clues provided by a stark visual layout.
Prince of Persia
US: 2 Dec 2008
Such pleasure at experiencing a fluidity of motion and falling into a zen pattern of competently executed leaps and bounds is provided by the newest incarnation of the Prince, though. Blogger Iriquois Pliskin has commented on the new Prince of Persia‘s resemblance to rhythm-based games in that a player in those games learns to adapt rapidly to visual cues (note capsules in the case of games like Amplitude, Guitar Hero, or Rock Band but simple recognizable terrain alterations in this game) and respond to those cues as patterns emerge forcing the player to respond by tapping buttons (or strumming or pounding on drum pads) in order to follow the rhythm that the game prescribes.
Indeed, this description is a fair one regarding the mechanisms of how Prince of Persia plays. Unlike Mirror’s Edge, which seemed desperately to want to immerse a player in an experience of a kind of balletic kinetic movement, the Prince‘s simple one-button press to respond to these simple visual cues provides an elegant explosive forward-driving motion that feels amazing to enact as a player. In other words, the kind of visceral expression of motion that Mirror’s Edge wants us to feel is what Prince of Persia actually provides.
Additionally, while the game has taken some heat for not allowing the Prince to die (his female companion, Elika, will always catch the Prince before he is about to fall), this mechanic, which really simply spares the player from load screens as he or she learns the pattern of a level, contributes to the sense that the action of the game is always driving the player forward, and that the action of performing like a trained acrobat is not interrupted by the less competent novice handling a controller.
In that sense, the game is extremely successful at providing a sense of immersion in the skills that being the Prince should emphasize. Unlike the necessity of creating a half-baked frametale that explains why the experienced free runner Faith of Mirror’s Edge needs a tutorial to bone up on her forgotten skills to justify said tutorial at the beginning of that game, the Prince seems competent from the start because learning what he does and how he does it is so much more intuitive for the player. As both games progress, Faith dies in seemingly stupid ways for someone that we are intended to believe is competent at what she does, while the Prince merely has to begin a chain of jumps again after a lack of sure footededness. As a result, the authenticity of this competence allows the player to believe in the basic premise of the character that he or she is asked to inhabit.
The game then is not a visual puzzle as platformers like Tomb Raider are. Slowing down to gauge how an environment can or should be traversed is beyond the point in Prince of Persia. The effort here is to provide a fantastic experience, not at all intellectual but one driven by velocity and the player’s own gut.
Both the visual style, with cel shading providing a less realistic and more comic book-like dreamscape of a fantasy world, and the simple tale of corruption and renewal of this same land match the overall romantic feel of this new Prince’s world. However, the manner in which this plot unfolds is a bit less elegantly handled. The relationship between the Prince and Elika emerges through their physical interactions as Elika and the Prince move through the landscape together, providing one another boosts and catching one another as part of the natural flow of gameplay, which mirrors well the emphasis on physical expression that the game’s mechanics focus on. Learning how the two feel through the way that they physically interact works. Body language gives a strong sense of the sexual chemistry between the two.
Nevertheless, a “dialogue button” of sorts provides the most regular means of transmitting background information between the Prince and Elika. Tapping the button in normal gameplay can be intrusive as it just provokes strings of sometimes witty banter between the characters that grows repetitive after a while. As certain sections of the game are unlocked, these dialogues are encouraged by an on screen prompt indicating that the Prince and Elika have some new and specifically pertinent observations on the world that they explore. Tapping the button over and over again to fill in these details seems unnecessary and again interrupts the flow of the game. Frankly, an old fashioned cut scene or spontaneous speech while the Prince and Elika proceed on their adventure would suffice.
The most fascinating part of the narrative, though, comes in the game’s closing minutes and has provoked a good deal of discussion both positive and negative. Without getting into great detail concerning the story’s ending moments, suffice it to say that, following the rolling of the credits, the game in its effort to express a very particular sense of the character of the Prince allows the player to take actions that may be unpalatable to some players. While the game has “ended” in terms of recognizable conventions of storytelling (the credits should mark a game’s ending, right?), the moment that follows that traditional marking of an ending makes the player (should he or she choose to continue playing) become complicit in the Prince’s choice of how this story should end.
Such a decision on Ubisoft’s part to not allow the player alternatives in determining the fate of a virtual world flies in the face of much of the currently popular open world models of video gamesmanship. Multiple endings, binary choices, or nonlinearly determined outcomes are the vogue amongst most designers, a seemingly appropriate choice in a medium in which player interaction and input is possible in guiding a storyline. While such choices are interesting and often compelling, I appreciate the linear “decision making” offered by Ubisoft here. If an authentic experience of athleticism and acrobatic prowess is offered over the course of the game, I find the authenticity of the character who develops over the course of the story being told is not compromised by the story’s conclusions. The Prince seems to follow his own basic compulsions as we have come to understand them over the course of the story.
The new Prince is a vagabond and anti-hero whose motivations to save the world seem driven by self interest and, perhaps, more an interest in Elika than her kingdom. Ubisoft does a nice job in maintaining the integrity of that character by allowing the narrative momentum to achieve its natural outcome in the close of what otherwise would be a simplistic fairy tale, whether that momentum lead to an outcome distasteful to the player or not.