[In this opinion piece, writer Tom Cross explores Ubisoft's new Prince of Persia game and why it sets a new standard for creating characters players care about -- disagreeing with the majority of the gaming press on the "style over substance" argument.
It’s not exactly a secret that I’m a fan of games with strong narratives, and am often willing to sacrifice a certain amount of gameplay and interface quality in the pursuit of interesting characters, stories and dialogues.
When I started playing the newest Prince of Persia
, I suspected that I’d found one of those rare games that was completely willing to subject itself to the rigors of actual storytelling and narrative substance. I was correct, and had one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve ever had playing a game.
Imagine my surprise, then, when it became apparent that most of the gaming press disagreed with me. People have criticized its emphasis of "style over substance," a demerit that I can’t believe people are still using, seeing as it relies on some extremely problematic assumptions concerning the definitions of the words "style" and "substance."
The game has also been criticized for its lack of control and interface complexity, its lack of general gameplay complexity, and finally the (strangely virulent) accusation that the new Prince’s dialogue and voice don’t correspond with how the Prince "should" be, or with PoP
This was a problem that plagued another PoP
game, Warrior Within
. At the risk of splitting hairs, it should be noted that that game was part of the Sands of Time
universe, whereas this Prince is a completely different creature, inhabiting a different world. People might expect a certain kind of Prince, but it’s obvious that they’re doing so due to prior Princely outings.
More specifically, people seem to have an idea about how the Prince should sound and what his world should look like, and while it’s never exactly articulated in the reviews, that idea seems to clash strongly with the game’s sense of humor, which is to say, with the Prince’s.
People don’t seem to think -- at the risk of putting it crudely -- he sounds foreign enough; he’s too straightforwardly American-seeming. The gameplay, too, is too straightforward for most reviewers, which seems to have bored them and not to have challenged them enough -- it’s too easy, they say, to make your way through the game’s levels.
New Prince, New Princess, New Tricks?
Quickly then, we must examine the basics of this new PoP
. As always, you control the titular Prince. In this adventure, you stumble upon a hidden kingdom, ruled over by a dying people and their last Princess, Elika. Elika’s father unleashes an ancient evil upon the land, and you and Elika must put a stop to it. To this end, the Prince flings himself from ledge to pillar to slope, with Elika following by means of acrobatic prowess and magic.
Unlike previous PoP
games by Ubisoft, when the Prince fails a jump or misses a pillar, you cannot rewind time to a point before your mistake. Instead Elika will appear by your side, and spirit you back to solid ground. Thus, Elika turns what would be a death-inducing mistake into a save.
In practice, this means that Elika will transport you to the last patch of solid ground the Prince encountered. Likewise, should the Prince fail again and again in combat, Elika will stun your opponents, gaining you some time to recover; at the same time, the opponents will regenerate some health. At most you’ll lose a few minutes of play, at the least, seconds.
It’s this mechanic, and the Prince’s abilities (and how you manipulate him) that have so many people up in arms. When compared to the Prince’s moves as seen in Sands of Time
, this Prince is both more agile and less precise an acrobat. While he may be able to scale walls and slide along surfaces in a much more fluid and beautiful fashion, he does so relying on fewer player inputs.
Before, the height of the Prince’s jump would have to be calculated, along with the timing necessary to dodge multiple traps and enemies. Now, one doesn’t encounter such complicated obstacles until the last few areas of the game. Perhaps this is the problem people have: the game works its way up to a certain level of complexity, one which doesn’t come close to matching the last game’s (infuriating) Dark/Light Prince platforming segments.
That’s all well and good, you might say, but why does navigating this changing environment have to be so simple?
A Worthy Tradeoff
It seems to me that Ubisoft came to a point (or perhaps had decided on this from the beginning) where they began to create a gameplay experience that made itself as unobtrusive as possible, while still providing a set of gameplay situations that required a modicum of the player’s attention and skill. Even a person completely unfamiliar with games could master the game’s final boss, due to the fact that the game’s difficulty ramps up from easy to slightly less easy.
Even the game’s longer, tenser segments are surmountable, given one or two retries. When new gameplay elements are added to the Prince’s world, they fall into two very strict categories: new combinations of previously-available inputs (boss battles, extended platforming sequences), or a set of "plates" that allow for slightly different methods of traversing the environment. These plates are unlocked through the collection of "light seeds," orbs that allow Elika to drive the darkness from the land, and (handily) unlock new portions of the map to explore.
What’s hard to describe about the Prince’s movements is the way they work so well with the controls to draw you into the world. You may be using fewer timed presses to slide and wind your way through towering dungeons and aging marketplaces, but the Prince moves in such an exuberant, exaggerated manner that you’re transported, just watching him transcend one obstacle after another.
When you look back at the massive landscape you’ve traversed, you won’t be complaining about the game’s difficulty. As the Prince and Elika bounce from one dirigible to another, high among the clouds, you couldn’t ask for a more breathtaking series of acrobatics. To put it bluntly, I’d trade this beautiful ballet for the simpler control scheme any day.
All of this is to say that Prince of Persia
offers little challenge to an experienced gamer, once they’ve learned its ins and outs. Then again, I’m not sure why this is such a failing. Yes, if I wanted to play the game again, it wouldn’t be that different of an experience. It is not, as many reviewers would say, a "substantial" offering. It’s a game that you’ll play and love (or hate), and then put down for a long, long time.
"Substance," Meet Elika
So how is this "style" over "substance?" What do those ideas mean? Reviewers, in making that division, and saying the game’s too easy, seem to equate difficulty with a sense of accomplishment or of fun "attained" and experienced.
Thus, story, narrative and plotting are deemed to be "style," while difficulty, method of control, and complexity of gameplay and interface are deemed to be "substance."
I’ve discussed elsewhere how such a limiting view can be dangerous, and I feel like the response to Prince of Persia
is a perfect example of the pitfalls of such an approach to gaming and game design. If this Prince is so lacking in what everybody else calls substance, maybe we should look for the meat of its experience in its style.
In Prince of Persia
, narrative development and complication are much more important than the complication and expansion of various gameplay tropes. The game is much more concerned with upping the dramatic ante (by suggesting that Elika may have misled the Prince with regard to her past or her intentions, for instance).
This is not to say that gameplay is completely simplistic in Prince of Persia
. As mentioned above, the game is constructed to provide a seamless, flowing experience that attempts to simulate the type of acrobatic movement practiced by the Prince.
Working hand in hand with these simplified controls is the story of PoP
. Prince of Persia
takes a very interesting approach to storytelling, creating a process that the player is constantly involved in, although the game uses many other devices to maintain its propulsive and creative narrative. At any point in the game, the player can talk to Elika, discussing their situation and their pasts, getting to know each other. These conversations are universally well-written and engrossing, and there are more of them than you could ask for.
These conversations are completely optional, and yet they work perfectly with the in-game back-chatter and other reminders of the duo’s relationship. By creating systems that provide for storytelling on a fairly low-impact level (this is not a Blizzard cutscene), the game creates the sense that their relationship is one that makes up the very foundation of the world.
As integral to the Prince’s quest as his abilities and attacks is his ability to remain close to and converse with Elika. You’ll want to converse with her at every opportunity, so interesting are the conversations. Depending on how much you’ve talked with Elika (and on how far into the game you are), your conversations range from silly and superficial (the Prince teasing Elika with a game of "I Spy"), to mocking flirtation, to alarming questions about Elika’s true motivations for saving her lost city.
Evolving The Relationship
The Prince’s changing feelings toward Elika are constant factors in their relationship. Initially, the in-game back-chatter between the two is laced with animosity, sarcasm, and worry. The prince and Elika are constantly running past each other as you explore the game world, and the Prince frequently carries Elika on his back. At first, he complains about Elika’s weight, while she mocks him for complaining.
As the game progresses, so does their friendship, and their chatter changes. Elika stops berating the Prince for falling, and instead worries for his safety. Likewise, the Prince, apologizes for dislodging her during complicated acrobatics. The tone of a gameplay mechanic changes along with the story. It’s a subtle trick, but it matters a good deal to hear Elika and the Prince express convincing-sounding worry for each other. How could you not share their feelings?
In a way, the environment is an even more important character than your enemies: the Prince and Elika constantly reflect upon their surroundings, and they react to changes in those surroundings, good or bad. To play PoP
is to be forcibly thrown into a world where you must notice your surroundings, if only because the only two constant speakers are themselves obsessed with it.
Outside of the aforementioned player-activated conversations, the story is told through cutscenes of the traditional variety. Still, PoP
manages distinguish itself even in this most familiar of areas. Instead of story segments punctuating increasingly difficult or protracted gameplay segments, gameplay is punctuated by increasingly dramatic and revelatory story sequences.
While the Prince and Elika may face slightly increased levels of difficulty, the true payoff in PoP
comes from deep, engaging cutscenes and dialogue, all of which help to ground us in Elika’s kingdom.
I emphasize these words because it is obvious that when a story gains momentum and moves closer to its conclusion, it (out of tradition, in our society) reaches new heights of drama and tension. This is by no means a rule that must be followed closely; in fact, one could substitute such a statement by claiming that as a narrative progresses, its players often reach new conclusions regarding each other. They may even change their perspective on issues vital to the plot, to our (lack of) surprise.
This is where my favorite part of PoP
comes into play. I may find the game’s difficulty to be perfectly balanced (it lets me experience the game, not beat it), and I may enjoy the flowing, simplified platforming, but my favorite part of this game is Elika, and how she becomes your companion and friend.
The Prince is also a deep character, to a degree, and he does change (as the developers have said, in a rather Han Solo fashion). However, it's Elika who is a miracle of modern game design. She is made a more important character than I’ve seen in any other game. She is vital to your cause from a story and gameplay standpoint. Without her, you would die time and again, and regardless of what people say, this is a debt that the player feels for the whole game.
It’s interesting to notice that people have seen Elika as a fanciful save system. When they write of her, it’s to complain about how minor an improvement she is over the Sands of Time
technique of time reversal. What they don’t seem to realize is that by making Elika a constant and vital part of the Prince’s environment, Ubisoft has made her more important than any other element of the game.
Through Elika's Eyes
As the Prince, you see the world from one point of view, but Elika is a crucial part of that point of view. You can’t save the land without her; likewise, enemies can only be killed (or saved) through her understanding and magic.
The Prince, though he wants to be completely independent (like Han Solo), can never be the center of this story. From the instant he meets Elika, the world the player inhabits quickly narrows to a point, following Elika. She is your friend and your link to this new land, your tour guide and friend, an enigmatic ally whose goals may not actually be in keeping with your own.
Her worries, wants, secrets and past are all key to the experience of PoP
. The Prince may want to escape to his donkey and his wandering life, but he quickly becomes caught up in Elika’s tale. At the end of the game, the Prince, despite being callous and independent-minded, ends up believably choosing to save Elika instead of completing the mission that he and Elika have fought for. And it’s a good objective, of the highest importance -— saving the land, and ultimately the rest of the world.
It’s the rare game that makes you pick between two goods, leaving behind the thing you’ve fought for the whole game in favor of your love interest. Here’s one place that Prince shows a strong resemblance to its spiritual predecessor, Shadow of the Colossus.
This Prince of Persia
is many things good and bad, but for me, it has been one of the more enthralling experiences provided by a video game. It eschews frustrating, punishing gameplay tropes, and instead follows a hugely unpopular and successful (at its aim) path: it aims to create a continuous, enjoyable, flowing experience, one unhindered by the mechanical, artificial traditions of “achievement” and “fun” that so many games cling to.
Here is a game that asks you to enjoy yourself, and its fiction, and attempts to make these goals as attainable as possible. I can’t think of a more welcome trend to introduce to the industry, and I wish Ubisoft well, especially if they continue to produce products of such impressive quality and passion.
[Tom Cross writes for Gamers' Temple and blogs about video games at shouldntbegaming.wordpress.com. You can contact him at romain47 at gmail dot com.]