Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown

‘Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown’ Represents

Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown, depicts its setting and characters with care and arguably more seriously than any commercial game produced outside of Iran.

Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown
Mounir Radi and Jean-Christophe Alessandri
Ubisoft Montpellier
18 January 2024

Ancient Persia is a favorite setting for artists making Orientalist art. Scholar Edward Said defined Orientalism as the perceived distinction between the Orient (cultures and places deemed non-European) and the Western world. The most famous example of Orientalist art portraying Persia is Antoine Galland’s translation of the folk tales in One Thousand and One Nights. It’s an Orientalist work whose impact is so pervasive that it has enculturated Western perceptions of Persia and the Middle East for centuries. More recently, Zack Snyder’s 2006 film, 300, is the emblematic work of fascistic art during the War on Terror, portraying the Persian Empire as distorted monsters.

Video games are complicit in the long history of Orientalist depictions of Persia. The video game series Prince of Persia, created by Jordan Mechner, has utilized ancient Persia as an unrequited muse. The influences and portrayals of Persian myths and legends have varied drastically throughout the series. In the first game, Prince of Persia (1989), the setting is merely window dressing—a veneer of exoticism draped over a conventional save-the-princess story. Subsequent titles drew more from Persia’s rich cultural history.

The most recent game in the series, Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown, depicts its setting and characters with care. Arguably, it does so more seriously than any commercially released game outside of Iran.

The ancient empire’s diversity, rich history, and legacy are fertile ground for cultural reproduction. Yet, until recently, many in the West had to settle with consuming media and witness outrageous portrayals of its culture and its people. Ancient Persia for many games was first encountered in Snyder’s 300. This jingoist film presented non-Persians as sculptured, heroic, and sovereign Davids. The Persians were othered through their depiction as exotic hordes of emasculated and grotesque people, monsters even.

Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown is no 300. It’s the antithesis of Snyder’s film. Within the cultural sphere of popular media, it serves as a counter to the worst stereotypes and orientalist tropes in other media depicting Persia.

Though Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown is still action-oriented, it embraces the multiculturalism characteristic of a massive empire. The Persian Empire stretched from Eastern India to modern-day Greece and North Africa at its territorial peak. In the game, you play as Sargon, a member of the elite warrior unit, the Immortals. The empire is in the midst of a 30-year decline after the death of the previous ruler, Darius. War, drought, and political unrest now plague the land.

Shortly after returning home from battle, the Immortals are tasked with rescuing the kidnapped Prince Ghassan. You must journey to the legendary Mount Qaf to save him. Mount Qaf is an important place in the mythology of Ancient Persia. It’s the home of the bird god Simurgh and other deities, as well as the supposed place of origin of the Djinns. Thus begins Sargon’s perilous quest. What later unfolds is a Manichaean struggle for the fate of the world.

Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown relies on mythology and Persian culture to engender a world for its players that is both familiar and unknown. It eschews the Orientalism of the first games in the series and relies on less controversial troupes when telling its story. Its narrative combines Zoroastrian myths, invention, and Marvel-esque balderdash. In short, its story is that of a conventional modern video game in terms of form and execution, but with excellent cultural representation.

This is not a criticism per se, as ancient civilizations with a pantheon of deities and mythical creatures are in many ways Proto-Marvel. Ancient pantheons collided like superhuman heroes and villains do today on our screens.

The Prince of Persia series is a storied one dating back to 1989 on the Apple II personal computer. The first game in the series, Prince of Persia, is the first game I remember seeing. It remains a formative experience in my life. The series reboot, 2003’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, is a highlight of the sixth console generation. It’s a 3D adventure whose combat, platforming, and mechanic of manipulating time was novel and innovative. With Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown, Ubisoft continues to push the series forward. It opts for the straightforwardness of 2D presentation. By subtracting a dimension, the game bypasses the pitfalls of 3D games: exorbitant production costs and added complexity. The result is unencumbered action conveyed at a breakneck pace. It’s a rare game that is as fun to spectate as it is to play.

Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown presents its story as interactive action. Our protagonist Sargon is agile and athletic and becomes increasingly superhuman—he’s ancient Persia’s Miles Morales. The gameplay revolves around exploring the massive world, battling at lightning speeds, puzzle solving, and either triumphing over or succumbing to incredible vertical feats.

The battles require fast reflexes, precise button presses, and a good understanding of the game’s combo system to vanquish the various enemies standing in Sargon’s way. The aforementioned vertical feats can be equally challenging. They require precision and button inputs to be strung together in rapid succession. This creates a well-deserved feeling of accomplishment when the more arduous challenges are completed. For those who find the default difficulty setting in the game too challenging, Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown has plenty of accessibility options that allow players to adjust and customize their play experience. It also has visualization options for the vision impaired.

Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown is heavily inspired by Nintendo’s Metroid Dread (2021), a sci-fi exploration game. Both fall within the sub-genre of “Metroidvania” a portmanteau of Metroid (1986) and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (1987). Metroidvanias are categorized for their action, platforming, and exploration. They usually boast a progression system where players gain abilities as they beat enemies, explore and complete challenges. These new abilities are used to explore and reach previously inaccessible areas. I played Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown and Metroid Dread on the Nintendo Switch. It’s surprising how much Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown is indebted to Metroid Dread in terms of gameplay. Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown borrows a lot from Metroid Dread regarding exploration and combat mechanics. Yet, it innovates on both of these.

The combat is more demanding and rewards mastery. Traversing the game world in Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown allows for a higher degree of player agency than Metroid Dread and most games in the genre. The game utilizes “memory tokens” markers placed on the map and referred to for a picture of the marked area. This tool facilitates exploration when encountering obstacles that are inaccessible due to lacking the necessary abilities to proceed. Luckily, the games’ world-building, platforming, and visual aesthetics are profoundly different.

Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown’s greatest strengths are its commitment to accessibility and wholehearted embrace of ancient Persian, Mesopotamian, and Zoroastrian myths. These are not mutually exclusive. This is the first game in the series that can be played in Farsi. I played the entire game with Farsi as the spoken language with English subtitles. It added to the charm of being in a fictionalized version of Persia. The game is nonetheless most faithful and caring in its cultural representation. Ubisoft Montpellier is no stranger to historical settings in games. Valiant Hearts: The Great War (2014) is an affecting example of this. Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown is a bold step in depicting the legends and myths of ancient Persia not as orientalist tropes but as a fantastic place worthy of awe.

Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown is an exquisite game that tries to unshackle itself from the series’ history and Western societies’ depictions of Persian culture. Is it a remedy—a dispeller—of racist perceptions of Persia in the West like Jasmine Seales’ The Annotated Arabian Nights Tales from 1001 Nights? I don’t know. I will admit that, at first, I was hesitant about playing the game. I finally became interested after learning that Ubisoft Montpellier hired an Iranian localization staff and recorded voice-overs in Farsi for the game. What other major video game has its setting in Persia and takes its influence seriously enough to have Farsi as a language option to experience the game?