I should have turned it off.
It’s not like I haven’t done it before. I turned Silent Hill: Homecoming off at a point where I thought it should end, though I eventually gave in to the developers’ vision. It would hardly have been a sin to treat Prince of Persia the same way. To be honest, though, the moment sneaked up on me. By the time my suspicion that things had gone horribly wrong turned into certainty, I had already gone so far into the game’s conclusion that there was nothing left but to let it reach its full, insulting grandeur.
Prince of Persia‘s ending has three serious issues. The first of these is that it is not an ending, but rather an obvious opening into a sequel. None of the problems have been solved, no real closure has been achieved. I know that video games, like nearly all modern media, love to build on successful efforts with sequels, trilogies, and full-on series. It’s a bit irksome, however, to have that so boldly thrown in your face. Games are pretty expensive, and it twists my tail to have a developer ransom my interest in the story for the price of a second game.
A related problem is that the ending nullifies the player’s effort to finish the game. The player, along with the Prince and Elika, has struggled for hours to return Ahriman to the prison. By releasing the dark god again, the developers basically strip the worth of that time. The ending they devise denies the player a sense of accomplishment; every fight, every traversal, was just a wasted effort. What’s more, the player is forced to participate. Once Elika has been placed on the platform, the player has no choice but to undo all his hard work, even if he doesn’t want to do it, or believe that the “Prince” would.
And make no mistake, this ending does not work with this character. It doesn’t suit the kind of character he is, for one thing. The game would have been more accurately titled The Princess of Ahura, because it is clearly Elika’s story. Were it not for his occasional employment of sword-fighting skills, the Prince would be completely superfluous. He never makes the critical decisions, and Elika clearly doesn’t really need him to make her way through the environment. Although he’s the focus of the player’s experience, there’s no escaping the fact that the Prince is not the hero of the story. He’s the comic relief. Promoting him to the center of the story in the last moments feels like a misuse of the character.
Even if you accept his newfound central role, the Prince’s decision is inexplicable. When Elika asks him why he did it he gives her a look that I assume is supposed to be searing (it’s hard to tell given the characters’ apparent facial paralysis), but nothing in the game to this point supports such all-consuming infatuation. Again, maybe the developers meant those awful, mask-like faces to convey some kind of emotion throughout the game, but the dialogue itself never amounts to anything more than mild flirtation, in which Elika repeatedly shoots the Prince down. It became utterly obvious about 3/4 of the way through the game that her death was inevitable. The Prince we are introduced to up to and beyond that point struck me as the kind of person who would take the death stoically and chalk it up to just more bad luck.
In addition, the game builds up plenty of antipathy between the Prince and Ahriman. As he runs through the desert you can hear Ahriman whisper that he’s done no injury to the Prince, and I guess that’s so if you don’t count being stabbed, crushed, knocked about the head, choked, slashed, and repeatedly drowned. Moreover, the Prince makes clear during his fights with the Concubine that he knows Ahriman is not to be trusted. He also knows that Elika would not wish him to do this. I simply can’t buy that the Prince is infatuated enough, or foolish enough, to follow through with what Ahriman wants.
The story of Prince of Persia is bland and competent, if nowhere near as interestingly presented as Sands of Time or The Two Thrones, but the ending is a mess. It devalues the player’s investment in the game and his efforts to complete it. Additionally, it just doesn’t fit the character of the Prince. To add injury to insult, the player is forced to work for this ending. He has no alternative but to put an effort into senselessly undoing everything he worked for.
That’s not entirely true, though, is it? There is an alternative, and it’s one I should have used. I should have turned it off.