Prince of Persia: Animated Motion

Playing Prince of Persia (2008) again just after sampling Angry Birds makes for an interesting contrast. I said that I was prejudiced against thinking of stuff that you play on a phone as “real games”, but in a way, Angry Birds feels like more of a game than PoP08. Even though your actions in it are limited to operating a slingshot and tapping the screen to activate special abilities, it somehow feels a lot more free than PoP‘s full movement and array of contextual actions. I think this is because the few actions you can perform in AB are more significant: any input is acted on immediately, and small differences can have large consequences. PoP, on the other hand, is designed around discrete actions, and windows of opportunity to to perform them. If you’re swinging by your arms from a horizontal flagpole, and you press the Jump button to flip to another flagpole farther along, the precise moment that you press the button doesn’t matter, as long as it’s within the interval allocated for success. I suppose this is the sort of gameplay that OnLive is ideal for.

This sort of gameplay is the consequence of a particular model of action that goes back to the original 1989 Prince of Persia, a game that was famously built around rotoscoped animation, allowing for movement of unprecedented realism. It was, in essence, the ancestor of modern motion capture — just in 2D, which meant that all they needed to capture motions was a movie camera. But a rotoscoped animation is just a static series of frames, something that can’t respond to changes. Most other platformers didn’t put such a high priority on fluidity of motion, and therefore didn’t care if they snapped directly from a walk animation to a jump, or from running at full speed to the left to running at the same speed to the right. In PoP, jumps were linked to the Prince’s stride, and switching directions meant playing a brief animation of the Prince skidding to a halt and turning around. Anyone who’s played the original for any length of time has toyed with just skidding left and right repeatedly.

Now jump forward nearly two decades and add wall-running. A wall-run is a pre-recorded animation. When the animation ends, the Prince has to go into one of his other animations, such as catching hold of a ring embedded in the wall and swinging himself further onward, or planting his feet against the wall and jumping outward, or plummeting. Unlike simple 2D rotoscoping, a 3D engine allows for blending of animations, and we see that in cases where the player is allowed to interrupt an animation at any point, such as jumping away from a wall-run. Nonetheless, in a lot of situations, animations are allowed to play out in full before further input from the player is acted on. It’s like moves in a fighting game. I compared the combat sequences to a simplified Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat before, but the same movement model, and therefore the same feel, is found in the acrobatics as well.

It should be noted that the developers really did go all-out in producing the movement animations, particularly in the way they accomodate Elika. Elika follows your every move, swinging from the same flagpoles and balancing on the same beams. When this would normally result in Elika occupying the same space as the Prince, there are special two-person animations built around it. For example, if you’re both balancing on a beam and you try to move the Prince into the spot Elika occupies, the two of them execute a tricky maneuver where they swap places by grasping each others’ arms, putting their toes together, and pivoting 180 degrees. When I saw this for the first time, I was incredulous that two strangers could pull that off without exchanging any words. But as the game goes on, you of course get used to such things. Which, also inevitably, means that they stop being impressive. It’s got so that I try to keep significantly ahead of Elika most of the time just so that I don’t have to spend time waiting for the more elaborate two-person animations to execute.

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