[In a new opinion piece, writer Tom Cross uses his regular GameSetWatch column to examine Prince of Persia: The Sands Of Time, wrestling with a dilemma -- in contrast to the personalization games so often prize, is it better to distance the player from the "willful, foolish, annoyingly self-assured Prince"?]
As gamers, we are often asked to identify with some pretty rough-and-tumble characters, and often, those characters are cruel and violent, not just tough. Whether the hero of a game is good or bad, dumb or smart, we are asked to be that person, control them, and hopefully like them (or at least like being them).
In the previous installment of this column
, I lauded games for using certain techniques to increase the sense of immersion and connectivity with one’s in-game avatar.
That got me thinking about the games that head in the exact opposite direction: games that, for whatever reason, choose to divorce you from the settings, characters, or events that unfold before you. Why do these games present themselves in this fashion, and what are the results?
The Disembodied Hero
With the emphasis the industry places on immersion and character identification, it’s surprising that these games aren’t singled out for special attention more often.
Many older games feature disembodied, voiceless heroes. Myst
and its ilk, as well as early shooters like Doom
, lacked any kind of serious connection with characters. Where Myst
at least had interesting, barren environments, Doom
only had its amusing version of hell.
This was usually a consequence of technical limitations. Doom
couldn’t show you your character’s body because you couldn’t look down and you were a sprite, anyway. It was common to turn this weakness into a strength, though. You couldn’t see your character, so you could imagine that character was you.
The "You Are There" Factor
This logic has transferred to modern games, although the technical limitation obviously hasn’t. These days, “immersiveness” is both a goal that some games honestly strive for, and an excuse that some games use so that their designers won’t have to think hard about in-game characterization.
In Mirror’s Edge
, it looks like the goal of your in-game avatar is to reduce the gap between the player and the world more than ever before -- your parkour-agile body is the thin membrane between you and the city-cum-jungle-gym of the game world. On the other hand, in most FPSes, you barely speak and don’t have a body; game designers (and PR people) say it’s to increase the “you are there” factor.
One way or another, it seems like getting close to your avatar is the name of the game in modern design. What about the other games, though, like Shadow of the Colossus
, where the entire story and mood are created through a purposeful distancing, and a careful brand of aloofness?
isn’t the only game to take this route: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
also creates an intentional divide between you and the Prince (and especially between you and his actions). It may not be the same kind of separation that we see in Colossus
, but both games trade in a rarely seen method of presentation, one that doesn’t fall over itself trying to associate you closely and directly with the main character.
A Wise Distance?
The Sands of Time
may be traditional in its narrative, but for a video game, its treatment of the Prince is near-revolutionary. For most of the game, up until the last section, the Prince is clearly depicted as a selfish and ignorant young man. He may learn from his actions, but it is almost always too little, too late.
Interestingly, Sands of Time
doesn’t ask us to identify too closely with this willful, foolish, annoyingly self-assured Prince. The Prince is never “badass,” he never tries to get you to sympathize with him too closely (this changes, unfortunately, in the next Prince installment). The entire story is related in the form of a fantastical tale, told to you by the Prince.
When you save your game, the Prince tells you that he’ll start telling the story from that point, the next time you play. This conceit is carefully constructed throughout, and the game finishes with the Prince telling the story to Farah, a woman he meets during the game.
What Sands of Time
does with this approach is allow us to judge and watch the Prince as he changes throughout the game, and how his story unfolds. We are certainly asked to be intrigued and entertained by his quest, but the need to be the Prince, to suffer his losses, isn’t insisted on. Where other games would ask you to share in your character’s failures and successes (like the strangely failure-fraught first journey of No One Lives Forever’s
Kate Archer), Sands of Time
invites you to form your own conclusions about the game’s protagonist.
Not only is he brash and uncaring, but the Prince often shows knowledge of this. In his narration, he flaunts his early mistakes, just as he will eventually flaunt his sorrow and regret. By distancing us from the Prince and his decisions, we are placed in a form of thrall not unlike what you’ll find in less interactive forms of entertainment. We don’t need to “be” the prince, or be responsible for his mistakes, and we can thus appreciate the sweep and grandeur of his story (and judge him more harshly than we would otherwise) from a less involved and more enjoyable position.
The Shadow Effect
Shadow of the Colossus
also distances gamers from its story, but it does so for a different purpose, and with different results. You start the game as a silent boy named Wander (something I didn’t know until I looked it up), who travels a desolate landscape to bring his dying companion to a temple where he can save her. From the beginning of the game, almost all dialogue is voiced by the spirit that inhabits the temple, which directs you in your quest to save the dying girl.
This is about as much as you’ll know about Wander, up until the last moments of the game. He is completely single-minded in his drive to kill the lumbering giants that populate the world, all in order to save his friend. The careful and limited drip of information that players receive is designed to do more than make the main character’s motives and moods opaque, however.
By distancing us from the hero’s actions, the developers allow us take a much more complicated view of the hero’s actions. If we were given the details of Wander’s past, his feelings and goals, then the world would have become some arid, drab Zelda
knockoff. Instead, we are treated to a stark set of gargantuan battles, in which our hero fells giant, wretchedly vulnerable opponents.
The sadness we feel as we kill each new colossus would be fainter, perhaps nonexistent, if each one had a name, a temple, and an element. We might not be so busy trying to guess what’s “really” going on with the Colossi if they were more knowable, less opaque.
Instead, we are told just enough to intrigue us, and the game’s art, sound, and feel do the rest. You don’t know that your character is horribly alone because the narrator does not tell you so, nor are you told that his quest is taking a terrible toll on him. All this is told through the minimalist presentation that permeates the entire game. It’s why we worry about the fate of our hero, just as we fear that his fate may be nothing compared to the damage he is inflicting on the world around him. This lack of information about Wander doesn’t lead us to feel that we are Wander, though.
Because we’re asked to see his actions as troubling and potentially at odds with our own moral feelings, we don’t see them simply as an expression of ourselves in-game, we see them as the content-rich mystery that lies behind the character we (increasingly uneasily) control. It’s the difference between a flat and a round character. If you already know everything about the character because you are the character, there’s not much to wonder about.
A Careful Balance
In both of these games, distance is key to emotional connections between gamer and game, and a protagonist whose body we are often forcefully removed from is a key player in that distance. When the Prince saves his game (entering a mote of magic sand), he clutches his head in pain, or some other overriding sense. As this happens, the camera is thrown wide away from him, before rushing back. Immediately afterward, we are treated to a vision of the Prince’s immediate future, the path he’ll take through his story.
You may be the Prince’s aid, as you are Wander’s, but they are both their own creatures, less beholden to your creative wants than Kratos, Nathan Drake, Agent 47, or Commander Shepard. All of those characters are meant to be extensions of the player, as are the adventures those characters embark upon. Wander and the Prince are extensions of players, to be sure, but only in that our intervention allows for the continuation of their stories: we aren’t asked to justify to ourselves what we are doing, only what they are doing.
It’s a shame that other developers don’t practice this careful balancing act. It’s apparent that it can be done in more than one way, for different reasons and leading to different results. When you aren’t required to be a character, it can often be easier to empathize with them or understand them, because they seem more real. Making the main character into an actual three-dimensional character adds nuance and heft to games that might otherwise lack those traits.
Allowing the player to step back and size up their multifaceted avatar provides a chance for deeper, clearer connections and appraisals on the part of the player. This kind of decision is a vital part of any developer’s bag of tricks, one ignored more often than not.