Ankh: One Last Thought

Now, I’ve compared the Assil/Thara relationship in Ankh to both Guybrush/Elaine and Prince/Farah. But on reflection, there’s one component of both of those that’s missing: male incompetence. In Secret of Monkey Island, Elaine has the whole LeChuck situation in hand until Guybrush shows up and, in his eagerness to rescue her when she doesn’t really need it, inadvertently wrecks her plan. In Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, the Prince unleashes the power of the Sands without meaning to, creating the conditions that he and Farah spend the entire rest of the game trying to reverse.

Nothing like that happens in Ankh. Yes, Assil sets his own misfortunes in motion through a moment of clumsiness, but this doesn’t affect Thara directly, and happens before he even meets her. If anything, Thara is the one who steps into this role, attracting the attention of the Pharaoh’s guards at one point by defacing some statuary while Assil is otherwise occupied.

The point is one of forgiveness. In Monkey Island, the male hero is forgiven instantly, once he’s cleared up the mess he caused. In Prince of Persia, he’s never really forgiven — once he rewrites history, his transgressions are forgotten, but that’s not the same thing. But in Ankh, there’s nothing for Thara to forgive. From her point of view, he’s been a perfect angel, and if her hostility toward him drops a few notches from when they first meet, it’s because that hostility was never warranted in the first place. It was just her lashing out because of her situation.

Instead, Assil’s ending reconciliation is with the Pharaoh — one of the story’s villains, whose dislike of Assil was basically a matter of whim, not based on anything Assil actually did. The more I think about this, the more I feel like the story is lacking something. Assil is just a little too abrasive for no one to ever be legitimately angry with him.

Ankh: Thara

OK, I’ll admit it: I’ve been using hints. Steam has an excellent walkthrough for this game, by user GratefulDead94, that’s organized into short sections, each devoted to a single puzzle. Here’s the thing: I’ve really been finding that I don’t need help with the puzzles. The puzzles are pretty clear. When I get stuck, it’s invariably because I missed some small, difficult-to-notice object. Using the walkthrough is basically equivalent to the feature some adventure games have where you can press a button to highlight clickables. This is in contrast to my recent experiences with The Watchmaker, which had both hard-to-notice objects and unclear puzzles.

Actually, in some ways I wish this game were a little more like The Watchmaker. The ability to zoom into first-person mode would be welcome in some places, store shelves and the like where there are lots of little things in a small area. And in one respect, the game becomes a lot more like The Watchmaker in Chapter 3, where you rescue the captive damsel I mentioned in the previous post and she joins you as a second playable character. But already I’m liking what Ankh is doing with two-person puzzles better than anything The Watchmaker did. It quickly finds a way to separate the two of them, but keep them in different parts of the same environment, where their actions can affect each other. It reminds me a lot of the sections involving Farah and the Prince working together in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.

In fact, now that I’m thinking about it, I’m noticing that the female lead has a lot in common with Farah. For starters, her name is Thara, which is pretty blatant. Both are members of important families from lands to the east: Farah is a princess from India, Thara is the daughter of an ambassador from Arabia. Both are captives, yet both are strong-willed and argumentative and willing to insult the hero to his face. Both, against their will, wear skimpy red outfits — Farah because it’s what her captors gave her, Thara because it’s all that Assil could find to replace her prison clothes. It seems likely that Thara is not just a deliberate homage to Farah, but that this was supposed to be obvious to the player. PoP:TSoT was just two years old when Ankh was originally released, so it would have been fairly fresh in people’s minds. It only took me as long as it did to notice the similarity because it’s been so long since I’ve played it.

And what of their male counterparts? I suppose there’s some similarity of personality: Assil and the Prince are both a little self-centered and annoying to people around them. Also, over the course of PoP:TSoT, the Prince gradually loses pieces of clothing, ultimately ending up shirtless. Assil is already shirtless. But Assil doesn’t have the Prince’s acrobatic ability to back up his arrogance. He’s basically Egyptian Guybrush, his successes based more on a willingness to embrace absurdity than on any kind of skill or virtue. (Indeed, multiple puzzles have emphasized his lack of skills: he can’t swim, can’t play the flute, is no good at handicrafts.) Now, when Guybrush first meets Elaine in Secret of Monkey Island, she’s instantly and bafflingly attracted to him for no apparent reason. This is an accurate depiction of how romantic relationships seem from the male perspective, but it clashes with everything else that’s established about Elaine’s personality so much as to be jarring, as if Guybrush is unwittingly exerting some kind of creepy voodoo mind control or something. Farah, meanwhile, despite a definite and believable undercurrent of sexual tension, sees the Prince first and foremost as the source of her misfortunes, and never completely comes to trust him. So what do you get when Guybrush meets Farah? I’ll be returning to this vital question later.


In a some ways, Braid is 2008’s Portal. Like Portal, it’s a puzzle-platformer that’s a critical hit despite being completable in a matter of a few hours (and despite being a puzzle game, for that matter), but in both cases, this is because there’s so little repetition and filler. Also like Portal, it’s a game based around grasping the unintuitive consequences of one simple idea. In Braid, that idea is control of time.

In other words, it’s the same underlying concept as Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. But PoP:TSoT was an action game, and thus had a reason to limit the use of time-control capabilities, lest it make the action too easy. Braid is a puzzle game, and lets you rewind as much as you want. Ironically, this means that Braid can contain action sequences far more intense than any you find in PoP. There are bits toward the end where I was constantly doing fractional-second rewinds in order to get things just right. It’s crazy how fast you get used to that. But when you think about it, playing a conventional action game also involves frequent irregularities in the flow of game-time, in the form of quickloads and reversions to save points, and the player usually isn’t bothered by this. The difference here is just a matter of degree.

Mind you, PoP‘s rewind system wasn’t very well-suited for puzzles: it let you go back in time and change stuff, but only in the simplest and most consequence-free way. To make puzzles, you need variations on the theme. The first and simplest variation in Braid is that some objects aren’t affected by your rewinding, and keep on moving forward. The freakiest variation — and my favorite — is the series of levels where the flow of time for everything other than the player character is a function of your position: move rightward and time advances, move leftward and it rewinds. Notably, this really throws a monkey wrench into the ingrained habits of 2D platforming. You can’t just stand there and wait for things to get into the right position for you, and in particular, if something is in your way, you can’t wait for it to move. It won’t move until you do.

If you take away the temporal weirdification, it’s a 2D platformer with mechanics that greatly resemble Super Mario Brothers, and the game runs with that, giving us monsters blatantly modeled on goombas and piranha plants, a princess who’s eternally “in another castle”, and so forth. SMB references seem to have become to indie games what Winsor McCay references are to indie cartoons: a way for the artist to establish cred by showing an appreciation for the true classics of the medium or whatever. Braid plays around with the princess premise in its between-levels text, first making it mundane, portraying (the player character) Tim’s pursuit of the Princess as occurring in the aftermath of a failed relationship with her, but then after a while turning it into something more abstract. The Princess is the eternal and non-specific object-of-pursuit, the thing which will make everything better once you find it, and which you therefore take terrible risks to discover, despite the uncertainty of your success. (In the epilogue, this is linked to science, and the development of the atom bomb, leading some to conclude that Tim is a nuclear physicist and the whole game is his guilt trip about his work on the Manhattan project. But I think that’s an over-literal reading of one example, among many presented, of where the generalized pursuit of Princesses leads.) The strangest part is that there’s a point where the stories of the mundane and eternal princesses overlap, where Tim leaves his significant other because he feels driven to go and find the Princess. Some have interpreted this as simply indicating that the woman he leaves here isn’t the one referred to earlier as the Princess, but I think the idea that he leaves her in order to find her fits well with the time wackiness. Sometimes Tim does things backwards.

And besides, the whole thing is driven by dream logic. The text is very clear that Tim is confused and his memories are blurred (as you might expect from someone who keeps changing his own past). The backgrounds are blurry in an impressionistic way (which makes the parallax scrolling look really nice for some reason). The level-selection areas are clouds, for crying out loud. Apparently there’s been something of a backlash against the pretentiousness and vagueness of the story, but I think that’s taking it all too literally. Some people seem to resent what they see as the author forcing the audience to make up the story when that’s clearly the author’s job. But I don’t feel like I’m being forced to do any such thing, because this is not a story-driven game. The story fragments are there as a frame, and do a nice job of providing things for the gameplay elements to be metaphors for, but it’s clear that the game came first and the metaphors were chosen to fit it. The big exception is the final level, where the gameplay comes to comment on the story quite directly, turning the rescue its head. Well, we’re told in the very beginning that the Princess’ captivity is Tim’s fault, the result of a mistake that he spends the entire game trying to go back and correct.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

The hype over the new Prince of Persia game inspired me to do something I’ve been meaning to do for a while: replay Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, the 3D platforming game that reawakened the dormant franchise. Apart from just wanting to refamiliarize myself with its plot events to see if the sequels make any sense at all in terms of them, I had a specific goal in mind. I wanted to master the wall rebound.

The wall rebound consists of leaping feet-first toward a wall and then propelling yourself sword-first toward an enemy. It’s one of several special acrobatic combat maneuvers in the game that can knock an enemy down instantly, and like all such maneuvers, it consists of a series of button-presses that I couldn’t tell you, even after mastering it. It does no good for the conscious mind to memorize such things. It has to go into muscle memory to be effective. At any rate, although I managed to pull it off accidentally a few times in my initial playthrough years ago, I never really learned how to do it. Instead, I had early on come to rely on the vault move, where you leapfrog over a foe and stab him from behind, which worked really well until I started encountering enemies that could block it, at which point I basically reverted to mundane swordplay. Some time afterward, an acquaintance of mine noted that he was pretty much exclusively using the wall jump in combat toward the end of the game, so I figured I should give it a try and see if it made the endgame easier.

Part of my thought on this matter was that it might be easier to learn all the moves if I used a proper gamepad. I have the PC version, and the first time through, I used mouse and keyboard. Well, it turns out there’s a reason I used mouse and keyboard: the PC version doesn’t support anything else. My gamepad driver can be set up to emulate a keyboard, but I didn’t bother, as it makes the analog controls iffy. Even using the mouse has its problems in that regard: where a modern gamepad gives you four analog degrees of freedom (via two sticks), keyboard/mouse only gives you two. As you might expect, the game binds (camera-relative) movement to the keyboard and uses the mouse for rotating the camera. This is usually adequate, because it lets you move in any direction by positioning the camera to point in that direction and moving forward. But there are a few scenes where the camera jumps to a fixed position and becomes temporarily immobile, and one particular such bit, where you have to swing on a rope and leap off towards a spot that’s just slightly off from straight forward, is made much harder than it should have been. But then, I suppose the parts where you walk along narrow beams are made easier by having a button you can press to go straight forward.

At any rate, I did manage to figure out the wall rebound, but it turns out to really be no more powerful than the vault. Yes, there are enemies who are vulnerable to the rebound and not the vault, but there are also enemies that are vulnerable to the vault and not the rebound. One of the last fight sequences consists entirely of wave after wave of three different sorts of big muscular-looking foes, one that’s vulnerable to the vault, one that’s vulnerable to the rebound, and one that’s vulnerable to neither and which, I speculate, must have some other weakness that I never discovered. This leads me to speculate about the intent behind the combat system: that it was intended to create increasing difficulty by means of increasingly specific weaknesses. Assume that there is in fact a third knock-down move. The earliest enemies would be vulnerable to all three. Tier two enemies would be able to block one move, tier three enemies would block two. The problem with this is that the player would have to be using all the special moves regularly from early on in order to notice it, and once you know one ultra-powerful move, you don’t have a lot of motivation to try anything else. (Call it the Double Dragon syndrome.) Now, I’ve looked at guides at Gamefaqs, and there really doesn’t seem to be any support for this theory there. But that might just be a symptom of the problem. At any rate, however it happened, the end result is that the game got a reputation for weak combat that ultimately resulted in the act of overcompensation titled Prince of Persia: Warrior Within.

But you know something? I don’t really care that the combat is weak and unvaried. Combat is not what this game is about. It’s about climbing things and dodging traps. Combat serves the purpose of breaking up the climbing scenes and providing a little variety, but the bulk of my time spent on the game was spent climbing things and dodging traps.

Or, to some extent, figuring out how to climb things. One thing that struck me the second time around is that this is basically a pretty short game — I can imagine someone who knows what he’s doing playing it from start to finish in a single session. It lasts as long as it does partly because of the time you spent wandering around confused, trying to figure out where you have to go next. The game tries to help you out: the camera is always trying to lead you to the right place by panning or zooming to show you your next goal, but I find that’s often not enough. There’s one bit in the final climb where I could enter a crack in a chimney-like hollow and couldn’t figure out how to get down without dying. The solution? I was supposed to be going up, not down. Once I figured this out, I remembered being stuck in the same place in the same way in my first play-through.

Overall, I’d say The Sands of Time still holds up well. The graphics aren’t quite as detailed as you’d expect today, but graphics had already more or less plateaued in their ability to impress. There’s a nice sense of mystery in the disappearing bonus areas of questionable reality — something that the sequels sensibly didn’t even try to address. And the two main characters, the nameless Prince and his sometime companion Farah, are appealingly human: working together but constantly bickering, plainly attracted to each other but, due to circumstances, unable to trust each other. The scene where the Prince muses to himself about the possibility of marrying Farah had me wincing at his clueless arrogance, but in a good way. This is something the sequels pretty much destroyed in their attempt to macho things up. Even when Farah shows up again in The Two Thrones, she’s been transformed into just another oversexed badass.

The really interesting thing about Farah is that she could easily be the protagonist of her own game, running concurrently with the Prince’s. Farah can go places the Prince can’t and vice versa, due to Farah’s ability to squeeze through small cracks and the Prince’s trademark wall-running, so they spend long periods of time separated. Who knows what puzzles she faces while you’re off doing your part? At one point, she leaves the Prince behind, and in the areas you go through as you try to catch up, the level designers conscientiously included a plausible route of narrow cracks for her.

I notice that I haven’t even mentioned the time-rewinding factor. I guess that means it was just a gimmick.