There has been much ink spilt in the last several months over the new Prince of Persia (hereafter POP) from Ubisoft studios. Whether in defense of the game or in detracting from it, it has certainly raised the ire of the video game intelligentsia. On the one hand, the masterful artwork of the game, the gorgeous cell-shaded graphics, the simple intransigence of the archetypal story, or the simplistic control scheme have been lauded as on of the
principal and most innovative games of the past year. On the other hand, the game mechanics (again), the story (again), the nature of the tale’s interactivity, the hidden linearity of its levels, the death mechanic, and, not least of all, the ending, have left may reviewers feeling slighted and/or jaded towards what Ubisoft was attempting with the game, which, other than simply reboot the series, has also been left in a sort of amorphous grey area of speculation.
As I have pointed out in the blog on numerous occasions, my intentions in writing about video games is not from a reviewer’s standpoint. I will happily tell you, faithful reader, whether or not I liked a game, but I will not mount a review worthy justification for a game’s score. To put it simply—I was entranced by the Prince and by Elika—both in their plight and in the manner in which they attempted to return the wasteland to its former glory. Each time I furiously mashed the “x” button on my PS3 controller (I think it was x:)), I waited to see how the verdant spread of life would transform a dark and sinister environment into a place of light and beauty. I then reveled in the exploration of that new environment in my attempts to find all the light seeds—for the record I found 948—close but not all of them! I was never bothered by my need to return to an area once a new power was unlocked; I always enjoyed the re-exploration of the area with new powers and the ability to see new vistas. I did not find the lowest point but it was not through lack of effort! I found the battle mechanic enjoyable and when I did finally string together the 14 hit combo I was overjoyed. In short, the game captured my imagination and my mind.
However, I found that there was a deep seated sense of irony in the game that I imagine was unintended by the developers. Someone once remarked in an article in Slate magazine that a distinct lack of an understanding of irony is the predominant characteristic of the American middle class. While I believe that statement might be a bit outdated (it can apply more directly to the 80s rather than the 00s), I have found that an understanding of the irony of the POP can go a great way to understanding both the shortcomings and the leaps forward in the narrative of the POP. From the long, standing conversations between the Prince and Elika, to much maligned but little discussed ending, irony seems to me to be the essential characteristic that carries the thread of a, dare I say, phenomenological creation of meaning throughout the game. The only way to understand this game is in the manner in which you interact with it. Meaning is created from the encounter between the reader and the text, or in this particular genre, between the player and the game—there is no essential difference between the two.
To begin with, let us take into account the word “illusion.” POP presents the player with the illusion of choice. Player choice in a game is obviously a relatively hot topic in game theory at the moment, with games such as Grand Theft Auto IV, Far Cry 2, Fable II, and Fallout 3 exploring the possibility of choice in an open game world. Of the games listed above, and many more that can be added to that list from 2008, probably GTA IV is the most similar to POP in providing the illusion of choice. While the side quests and missions you accept in GTA IV can be selected or discarded at will, there is still a driving central narrative that forces you along the game play path. In Fable II and Fallout 3, there truly are no limits as to how you choose to embark upon entering the world of the game. You can follow the main quest or not. Both of these games provide ample and varied side quests that allow the player to, in a sense, construct their own decolage of narrative. You can, in some ways, create your own story. Far Cry 2, while allowing an unlimited interaction with the open world, does not provide enough variety in its missions to truly offer a narrative outside of the text of the Jackal.
POP, on the other hand, presents the illusion of that choice. The choices offered to you in POP—which of the arenas to enter first, which of the powers to acquire, how long it takes you to complete the game, how often you return to certain areas—are, in essence, an illusion of choice. None of these options remotely affects the outcome of the game or even the narrative to any significant degree. I am not specifically arguing that POP was marketed as a game full of open world options and choices, although in working at Gamestop I will say that this is one of the opinions I heard most often from the consumer about the game—that it was in fact a game of choice. But when you stand in the desert with those
options arrayed around you, it is impossible not to be at least partially seduced by the idea that narrative options abound. In reality, you have little choice. You can choose to move forward in the game, or to turn around and talk to Elika. One could argue that you could endlessly explore the different hubs of POP, but that is akin to saying I could drive my warthog around the bases in the opening levels (on Halo) of Halo: Combat Evolved. I could do it, but it would be inane.
Rather, the only real option one has in POP is how much one wishes to converse with Elika. This is ironic, given the fact that game presents such an illusion of choice. The irony of this choice is not fully realized until the end of the game. (Beware, spoilers abound from this point onward!) While there has not been a significant amount of comment on the end of the game from the journalistic press–the reviewers and so forth–the small community of intelligentsia around the gaming field has found something to latch onto with the ending. Allow me to detour for a moment into an industry wide observation.
It is ineffably to the credit of the story designers and the scribes at Ubisoft Montreal that the narrative ending to the game has aroused commentary from such a community. Like myself, there is a small faction of gamers who have, aside from their “real” jobs, taken to discussing video games from a much more academic position than from a specifically review/preview stance. The principal participants in this field, to me, reside in places like Michael Abbott’s blog, The Brainy Gamer and others (First Wall Rebate, etc.). Abbott himself pointed out recently that the gaming sphere has an astounding number of intelligent blogs being written about video games and their cultural, geographic, economic, creative, and artistic significance. The fact that POP was the topic of a rather wide ranging round table discussion in reference to its ending is a testament to its innovation. So kudos definitely go out to the designers and scribes for this achievement.
The individuals discussing these issues are not gamers who have decided to give their hands a whirl at academic discourse. They are writers, academics, and thinkers who are also gamers—hopefully that’s a bit like myself. There is a burgeoning field of study in the humanities realm of games that asks questions of game narrative from the theoretical positions of narratology and ludology (the study of game as a story and the study of game as “game”, respectively). In this sense, my post is concerned to some degree with narratology, but more in line with how the mechanics relate the story—with a ludoloigcal approach to the game. I am here indebted to Clint Hocking’s reflections on ludonarrative dissonance in Bioshock.
In this sense, to return to the point at hand, that the perceptibility of the game and the mechanic of the game both lend themselves to the irony of the story. In its illusions of choice, the player is left to explore or not explore the only real choosable option—diving deeper into his relationship with Elika. If you choose to explore this relationship fully (with hardly an achievement or trophy on hand) then you–despite the fact that such a choice pulls the player outside of the game world by forcing you to stop, turn, ask, listen, ask again, and listen until there is no longer an option to hear responses from Elika–will at least hear some of the more personal dialogue that occurs between the two. To be sure, the dialogue is interesting and despite numerous repeat performances it increases the depth and humor of the game itself. This essential act, however, removes the player from the immersion of the game world. I use the word immersion loosely, here, knowing that it is a debatable term. The mechanic both at once engages and disengages the player and thus the irony of choice and narrative.
To move this pattern to the end of the game. The Prince, after much exploration and combat, many wise-cracks and quips, finally, with the help of Elika, or more accurately in helping Elika, defeats Ahrmin—the dark god of chaos that has been slipping from his prison since the beginning of the game. Well and good. But in true pulp fashion, Elika must sacrifice her life in order to contain him. This is not a twist that was un-deducible from previous events in the game. Any player worth his salt could probably see it coming. What was sprung upon the player, however, was the choice of the Prince. Elika dies and the Prince, in a slow funereal walk, carries her body out to the front of the temple and lays her on the dais, surrounded by the beauty and magnificence of a realm freed from Ahrmin’s control. The credits have rolled and the Prince … stands there. No black screen comes up. And clearly, through whispers bourn upon the wind, the Prince is given a choice; the same choice the King had when Elika died before. Ahrmin will raise her up if the Prince will free him. You can choose to leave, or you can choose to act.
Here again is a form of irony. Game play itself dictates that a player act. One of the most memorable scenes in gaming in 2007 was in The Darkness when you were given the choice to just—sit and watch a movie with Jenny, your girlfriend. For most gamers (the few who actually took the time to play that fascinating game) sitting was the hardest choice they could have made. But sit you did and you were rewarded with a small achievement and a large emotional involvement in her eventual death. In a similar fashion, the player who is the most involved in the Prince and Elika’s relationship is the inveterate button pusher, the player who has mashed L2 every time he stopped to hear what Elika and the Prince discussed. The option now, to leave Elika dead and walk off to find your donkey, is almost insensible. In pressing every button throughout the game you are now told to press no buttons except “off.” To press on will resurrect Elika, but will also defeat everything you fought for throughout the game, to raise and defeat Elika in the same breath.
I had thought, in some ways, about writing this post and comparing this to the old “choose your own adventures” books we all read when we were kids (I particularly loved the Indiana Jones ones when I was a boy), but eventually decided that it wasn’t the corollary I was looking for. I think the best corollary in literature is in the concluding novel to Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. In the seventh and final novel of the series, The Dark Tower, the Gunslinger final arrives at his intended destination. He stops before the door and walks in. And the novel ends. After seven books of trying to get there, of
discussion and speculation, when the Roland arrives the reader is excluded. King has overtly and interestingly, if sometimes distractingly, experimented heavily in meta-narrative and dissonic story telling. At the end of the series the reader is given a choice—to continue with Roland and find out what is inside the Dark Tower or to leave the novel alone, to put it down and walk away, recognizing, as King has, that the journey was the thing. Once read, the reader can never go back. It is an impossible choice, a sort of pyrrhic conclusion—to read is to discover but to be inevitably dissatisfied. To place the book on the ground and walk away is to admit a sort of defeat, and yet hold honor in your hands like water—forever slipping away. Whether it was satisfying or not I will leave up to you to decide, if you ever choose to read his work (which I highly recommend, by the way!).
In relationship to the POP, the illusion of choice has created the only choice possible which turns the game completely on its head. In a manner similar to Metal Gear Solid 4, after fighting with guns and gadgets, stealth and cunning, you are finally reduced to a hand to hand fight on the top of a rig with a completely different control scheme and the ultimate objective of killing, not just stopping, Liquid Ocelot. It throws the whole experience into a necessary tailspin. In POP you must continue to do that which you have done throughout the game, or you must choose the opposite, to do that which veers significantly from the expectation created throughout the narrative. Thus the illusion brings the irony and the irony adds depth to an otherwise simplistic experience.
As to whether or not this is “good” or “bad” I cannot say. I think that type of decision is immanently relative and must be left up to the individual player. To return to a type of game play phenomenology, the meaning depends up on your encounter. I however, found it fascinating and one of the most unique and refreshing endings I have ever encountered. Hopefully this is a trend—and one I will happily engage more of.