Prince of Persia (2008): An artifact of its time and place

Prince of Persia on the PC really feels like a port of a recent big-budget console game. I don’t even play recent big-budget console games, and even I can recognize this.

The most obvious signifier is the button icons. There are six basic action buttons: jump, sword, block, gauntlet, talk to Elika, and use Elika’s magic (with effects that depend on context). On a console, these are bound to the four face and two shoulder buttons. With PC controle, all six can be executed with the keyboard, but also, the game rather surprisingly supports up to four mouse buttons: by default, sword and block on left and right mouse buttons respectively, magic and gauntlet on the forward/back buttons that are usually only recognized by web browsers. The trackball that I use for PC games does in fact have these extra buttons, but I think this is the first game I’ve seen that supports them; even HTML-based games tend to not handle paging around through your browser history very well. Anyway, each of these buttons has a circular icon associated with it, each with a distinct background color. Invented for this game, they’re clearly replacements for the standard console button prompts, in both appearance and function: options in menus have button icons displayed next to them, and in the QTE-like moments in combat where you have to press or mash a specific button to execute or avoid a special move, the icon for the required button is displayed on the screen. This isn’t ideal. When it’s in combat, I usually fail to execute the move, because the symbols don’t have a strong association with their associated buttons in my mind. I do have a strong association between the buttons and their actions, but looking at the symbols is like reading a foreign language; it takes me a moment to translate from “green circle with a pair of legs in mid-leap” to “space bar”, and so by the time I know which button to press, it’s too late. I speculate that this is because it’s a two-step associative chain: the icon depicts an action which I associate with a button. On the consoles, it presumably just shows a picture of the button.

The other thing that seems particularly symptomatic of modern console games is the sheer amount of guidance the game gives you. The QTE prompts, where it tells you exactly what button to press, are the extreme case of this, of course, but it goes beyond that. In platforming, the player is basically never trusted to figure out what to do next. Sections of wall where you’re expected to do the Prince’s trademark wall-run 1The wall-run was introduced in 2003’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and quickly became known as the Prince’s signature move. I’m old enough to remember the original Prince of Persia from 1989, and at the time, I felt that his signature move was leaping across a gap, catching a ledge with just his hands, dangling for a moment, and pulling himself up. But then Lara Croft took that over, and nowadays it’s just expected of any decent platformer hero. are marked with scratches. Even if you get stuck (or, more likely, disoriented), Elika can produce a ball of light that floats ahead, showing the path to your current designated destination. Mind you, you get to designate your destination yourself — the game isn’t linear. That alone saves it from the worst excesses of the don’t-let-the-player-get-lost philosophy. Also, it is in fact still possible to wall-run in non-indicated places, and possibly even to discover shortcuts that way, although there’s a tendency for the solidity of objects to break down when you’re in a place where the game doesn’t expect you. Even so, the intense guidance robs the experience of a certain element of discovery found in prior Prince of Persias. I remember having to look carefully around a room and plan out a route, thinking “Will I be able to reach that beam from that pillar?” and the like.

And in general, the whole player experience seems very planned. The mechanics here don’t allow for a wide variety of alternate approaches. You can’t try to somersault under blade traps like in prior games — there’s no somersaulting (and, indeed, no blade traps). You can’t run away from fights. Combat generally takes place on circular platforms without exploitable environmental features; in the few places where you can exploit the environment, it’s because you’re facing a puzzle-boss who can’t be defeated any other way. The fact that you can wall-run in non-indicated places almost feels like an oversight on the developers’ part. Even when there’s no button icon on the screen telling you what to press and when, there’s a very clear sense that there’s a single right thing to do at every moment, except at planned branch points.

I’ve seen it advised that one should design games by thinking first about the experience that you want the player to have. I get the impression that a lot of big-budget games these days attempt this, but confuse experience with spectacle: they start by deciding what they want the player to see, then implement a game around making the player perform the correct actions at the correct moments to see it. For all the sophistication of its underlying engine, Prince of Persia can be viewed as a descendant of games like Cyberia. There are bits where you slide down a chute and have to clear gaps by pressing the jump button at the right moments, and other bits where you’re sent flying through the air with no control over your trajectory and have to dodge obstacles with the directional movement controls. These are both things that could have been done in a Dragon’s Lair or Rebel Assault engine without significant loss.

And yet I’m still having fun with it, which perhaps means I’m being overly sour about this sort of gameplay. Or perhaps it just points out how shallow fun is as a criterion for judging games.

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1. The wall-run was introduced in 2003’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and quickly became known as the Prince’s signature move. I’m old enough to remember the original Prince of Persia from 1989, and at the time, I felt that his signature move was leaping across a gap, catching a ledge with just his hands, dangling for a moment, and pulling himself up. But then Lara Croft took that over, and nowadays it’s just expected of any decent platformer hero.

1 Comment so far

  1. josh g. on 19 Jun 2011

    The visual cues on where to do a wall-run reminds me of the Portal series. Both games did it, although I think Portal 2 may have used it more strongly. I found myself appreciating it more often than not, although by the end of the game there were some instances where it made things a little too obvious.

    Still, it did leave me hoping for some community maps or extra challenges afterwards that were less obviously prompted.

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