Dec 172008

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.

  8 Responses to “So long, sucker!”

  1. On the other hand… the fallen king looks pretty neat ;D

  2. As you'll discover in a few days, I completely agree with you.

    I disagree, however, that "turning the game off" represents a valid choice.

    Well, it's a reasonable choice, but not valid in the sense of finishing a media. It's akin to walking out of a movie, or closing a book before the epilogue is read.

  3. To a certain extent I agree with you, Joe. By turning it off I would be consciously choosing to truncate the developers' vision. I don't think it's as pat as walking out of a movie or hurling a book, though. The exploration of a game space is a cooperative activity involving the player and the developer. If the developer wants to keep extending the game space, doesn't he have an obligation to keep the player on board, and validate the player's commitment to completion? I don't feel like that happened here.

    In light of your examples, what do you think of the fact that the credits roll before you get to the closing act? Is that something like adding 15 minutes of movie after the closing credits, or appending another chapter of a novel after the typeface description?

  4. I agree with you about the developers' need to keep the player involved and believing in the narrative. I also felt it was a false choice — railroading, if you will — at the end. Merely giving me an alternate choice for the ending would have assuaged that for me. (It would have even made the "true ending" a bit more tolerable, for some reason.)

    Somewhere (I'm not sure where, or I'd give a reference) I saw a reference to the final ("To be continued…") achievement as "you've unlocked the true ending." That logic makes sense, if you let things dangle. I think that the part that makes the first credits fail for me, is that it just left me there in the game, with nothing to do.

    I wish I had an example of an alternate book or movie ending like you describe that changes the meaning of the entire narrative in the way PoP seems to. Not that games == movies, but it would help me think about this more deeply.

    Actually, if this were a movie, then the prince's final actions would inform his love for Elika, and cast a light on everything he has done. But it's not a movie — as players, we're asked to buy into this fiction, but it hasn't been sold to us. (Although it seems to have been sold to others.) The developers need to give the player some motivation for taking the actions that the character wants to take (they don't have to be the same motivation.) I don't think "completing the game" is quite enough.

  5. I have to politely disagree with you. I'll have to write up a full post on it now, because you've forced me to dwell on it, but I think they made the decisions they did because:

    A). Elika never evolves. While more interesting, she is a static character. The Prince does evolve. Therefore, he's a more interesting player to play (even though his evolution happens right at the end).

    B). They did what I wanted them to do. The Prince was a blank protagonist that I could project myself onto. He had just enough personality that I could identify with certain traits (comedic grandeur through seemingly oblivious self image deprication). I didn't want my time with the interesting Elika to end. So when she died, I wanted more time with her. Even if it meant just re-living the same 4 worlds over again. If the ending was merely "turn back time and replay the day," it would have been satisfying for me. Playing into the "there are tales of more fertile grounds beyond the temple" seemed satisfactory.

    I was positively thrilled with the ending, and thought Ubi did a really great job trying to put some indie flair into a big budget game title.

    I even loved the credits rolling before the end. I loved it when Frank Miller did it in the Yellow Bastard comic book (and was angry when it didn't happen in the movie), because the first time the user experiences it, they feel the experience is over, and made me realize I wanted more.

  6. I can see where you're coming from, Spitfire, but I disagree that the Prince evolves. He's exactly the same at the end as he is at the beginning, otherwise the end doesn't make any sense. He begins as a shallow, selfish, irresponsible treasure-hunter, and that's the character who revives Elika. The only thing that changed was the kind of treasure he wanted.

  7. Hey, I know you read my post on this, but for what it's worth I think it's probably a mistake to see the game as about putting Ahriman back in his prison. You KNOW Ahriman's going back, that's a given if you play long enough. The mystery presented to the player is instead what it will COST to do so, and whether the characters can bring themselves to pay that cost. It costs Elika her father, and she accepts that, but when it costs the Prnce Elika, he doesn't. And that sense of cost and loss is drawn out through that last sequence, where you realise how useless and shallow you suddenly are again without everything that Elika brought you.

  8. I'm not on board with trying to analyze this game in terms of what mystery is presented to the player. There's no real player agency or involvement in that story, and a good deal less than there is in the straightforward imprisonment of Ahriman. I mean, if we're going to look at things that way then PoP's greatest flaw is that it's a game rather than an animated short, because the mystery is passively delivered until the final moments. I think a stronger case is that what the game is really about is the relationship between the Prince and Elika. The problem with the story from that perspective is that the Prince is a jerk and the dialogue is inane. Although the game succeeds in making us really like Elika it doesn't sell the relationship.

    You make an interesting point about the player's ability in the segment with the trees, but I don't exactly agree with it. The Prince's inability to escape the area at that point really felt like a cheap developer's trick, especially since they showed us the seams by running the credits early. What I will agree with is that the character of the platforming in that segment is different. It's more like the puzzle-platforming of the earlier games, and less like the free-feeling and expressive platforming that occurs elsewhere in this one. The platforming isn't really any harder, but it feels different.

    If we're going to praise the game for making us keenly feel Elika's absence, though, then I think we have to criticize it for not giving Elika back to us. The Prince gets Elika, sure, but all we get is a lousy cutscene (and those faces).

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