Jan 062009

The major controversy about Prince of Persia, even more divisive than its ending, has concerned the game’s difficulty, or supposed lack thereof. Because the main character essentially cannot “die”, and because the platforming is fairly easy to figure out, some hardcore fans of the preceding trilogy have reacted harshly against the new game. Defenders have responded that the game really isn’t so easy, and also that it was intended to appeal to a broader, more casual audience. These things are true, but in a way I think these counterclaims don’t go far enough. Prince of Persia is a very different game from the Sands of Time trilogy, with different aims. The complaint about excessive ease strikes me as a failure of reviewers to grasp the core ideas that the platforming segments convey.

The previous Prince of Persia trilogy featured a style of platforming in which each environment served as a pathfinding puzzle to be solved by directing the Prince to perform the correct sequence of movements. This kind of level design meant that areas were rarely traversed in continuous sequence. Instead, the player tended to move around in fits and starts, pausing frequently to decide where to go next (often involving a reversal of direction) and what moves were needed to get there. Often this could only be determined by trial and error, using the series’ time reversal mechanic to erase mistakes — an idea that was woven thematically into the larger story of the trilogy.

Although the Prince of the new games uses a similar set of moves, the nature of the platforming is completely different. The player never has any need to decide which maneuver to use, because the environment provides copious visual cues at every opportunity. Pathfinding, of course, is simplified by Elika’s guiding light, but this is rarely necessary. In most cases, the route between two points in the open world is quite linear. Moreover, once the player starts down one of these paths, the camera typically orients itself in such a way that the next immediate step along the way is positioned right in the center of the screen. The player is never left in doubt about what to do next (but often in doubt as to what he will do after that). Of course this will seem to be too easy if you are expecting environmental puzzles, because there aren’t any, but their absence should clue you in to the fact that this game is doing something different from its predecessors.

The platforming in Prince of Persia is not meant to be an intellectual activity. It does not present a problem to solve, or reward making a plan. Rather, the platforming focuses on instinct and rhythm. The immediate effect of this is to created extended, fluid parkour sequences, but I think the intent goes beyond the simple physical representation. Despite their linearity, the platforming traversals inspire a feeling of exhilarating freedom, an idea that you can go anywhere in this world. This sensation survives the linearity because the rhythmic appearance of new interaction points prevents the player from ever surveying the whole of the traversal pathway. A player, having successfully learned to identify the immediately needed motion at each point, will feel confident and completely in control of his journey through the lands of the Ahura. The open-world design reinforces this sentiment.

It’s important for the player to feel this way because this illusion of power, this certainty that he controls his own destiny is at the core of the Prince’s character. He isn’t right — he relies on Elika completely to make his way through the game world — but during the course of the game one starts to take her for granted, as does the Prince. The myopic concentration on the next immediate need perhaps mimics his inability to make good long-term judgments, and his nomadic nature might be reflected in the perpetual-motion extensions of the parkour sequences. The platforming is not a means of testing the player; it is a way of inspiring him to feel as the Prince does.

I think this interpretation informs an understanding of the game’s failings. The arena-style combat, with its molasses tempo and arrhythmic quicktime events, feels constrained and restrictive. The flying and running plates force the player into a semi-preset path and cannot be navigated just by element recognition. This causes them to break up the flow of traversal and illusion of control. These segments have other flaws also, but their critical failing is that they are at odds with the feeling the rest of the game so carefully cultivates.

Video games are not all elaborate mechanisms for measuring manual dexterity. They tell stories, they teach, and they convey emotion. The requirement for skill ought to be assessed in light of the priorities of a particular game—not just in terms of the external factors such as audience, but also in terms of its own internal aims. Prince of Persia, despite its pedigree, is not a puzzle-platformer. The platforming segments are not primarily meant as a test of the player’s intellect or reflexes. Rather, they seem meant to inspire certain feelings in the player, emotions that mirror those of the game’s titular character. They should have been judged on this basis.

  3 Responses to “It’s about how you feel”

  1. Mr. Clarkson,

    I thought this was a great post. I think you do a great job of explaining how the platforming in PoP functions (and in particular, and how it's different from other games that also have platforming. I think it is very important, from a critical perspective, to articulate what a game is trying to *do* on its own terms, and this is an excellent example of how it's done.

  2. Interesting post. I agree that PoP sets out to provide a different type of challenge than the games in the Sands of Time series.

    I think you correctly highlight the games primary failings (i.e. the combat), but I think the statement "The platforming is not a means of testing the player; it is a way of inspiring him to feel as the Prince does." is a little too high-brow for me – the narrative in PoP is neither that substantive nor that nuanced.

    IMO the developer's goals were slightly more pedestrian, and they succeeded to creating a platform mechanic that imparts a sense of motion and freedom. However, I would have enjoyed more variety and depth in the parkour sequences, and felt the platforming became stale and predictable relatively quickly.

  3. I agree that the story in PoP would be pretty poor if we were to try to transpose it into a book. But I don't agree that we should conclude that the developers are bad at using game elements to tell a story simply because they aren't particularly good at writing dialogue. One can of course come to the conclusion that inspiring emotional mimicry with the platforming and developing the relationship with Elika through the haptics are instances of the developers stumbling on something by blind luck rather than design. I don't know one way or the other, but when something works out well I like to think it was intentional.

    As for the platforming becoming stale or predictable, I can certainly see that being a problem, especially with the flat difficulty curve. The light seed collection may have been meant in part to mitigate this feeling by encouraging the player to explore all of each area and experience some less linear sequences. If you're not interested in collecting, though, you probably won't gather any beyond the ones you need for the plates.

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