Where Prince of Persia Faltered
Prince of Persia is one of 2008's most brilliant games, but recently it's not been seen like that at all. Many gamers hate the idea of it entirely and will scoff when they hear you can't die in it. Even the basic plot seems too girly and tree-huggery, and so we've seen hardcore gamers shun even the possibility of trying it. But does this game deserve all the hate? I don't think so, and I'm going to dive into what I feel are the successes and failures of Ubisoft Montreal's latest action game.
Here's something you may not know: your non-gamer friends and family members hate video game controllers. They're almost afraid of them, as if pressing the red button is going to cause the house next door to catch on fire or something. The 360 and PS3 gamepads are chock full of buttons, sticks, and triggers, rumble packs and flashing lights, and many game developers are trying their hardest to smooth out that learning curve, but at some point even if you tell someone "you only have to press one button!" and start to hand them a controller, there are still people out there who will shy away. After a few hours of playing Prince of Persia, you'll realize that Ubisoft Montreal really tried to make playing it pretty simple - left stick to move, face buttons to do everything, optionally the right stick will adjust the camera.
It doesn't get much simpler than that for a modern-day action game, and all four face buttons do something contextually different based on whether you're fighting, jumping, running, or standing there. Yet, there's still that pressure a non-gamer feels when the controller is offered to them, where they don't want to look like an idiot and this person is handing some curved, alien, complex thing to them that they have no idea how to use. The question is this: was Prince of Persia released on the wrong platforms? It was on the PC, PS3, and 360, while the console with the simplest controls, the Wii, was ignored by Ubisoft. And the Wiimote and Nunchuk could control PoP very easily, too.
But part of this is also the growing divide between not just people who do and don't play games, but those who play them casually and those who play them, well, a lot more. I'm sure that Ubisoft didn't port the game to the Wii because they'd have to compromise a ton on the graphics, bringing down the resolution of the textures and the screen to get the game running on Nintendo's more modestly-equipped console. But it's the console manufacturers' fault and that of the whole market that this problem even exists. Why can't the Wiimote work on the 360? Why can't we get both great graphics and intuitive control options?
This all is fine to ask, but when it comes to Ubisoft's decision to release this game on the PS3 and 360 and not the Wii, it shows that they missed at least part of their audience. Prince of Persia is an amazingly accessible game, yet the gamers who own these consoles don't necessarily care. They know how to run and jump, they can hit a trigger while pushing a button and yanking a stick. They know what a quarter-circle motion is. Ubisoft made a mistake in trying to sell an accessible game to people who didn't need accessibility. That's not the fault of the game's lead designers - they made a highly original and innovative game - but this basic marketing failure is the fault of the higher-ups in the company.
Do gamers really want long-winded plots? For some reason, some people found the Prince's ability to continue conversations past just what's required to somehow be a bad idea. Some argued that the plot was stupid so why would they want to even hear one word of it, while others argued that having to push a button repeatedly to get the full story was goofy and that it should just go through while the player had an option to press a button to skip the plot. But is that latter option really the best way? Maybe the Prince, this time around, isn't so inquisitive. Maybe he just wants to get this mission done and be as quiet as the game lets him be. By making the player dive deeper, it gives him or her more choice than just dishing out all the dialogue and giving the player the option to skip it. It also makes the whole experience a lot less jarring for someone who doesn't want to necessarily hear every spoken line in the game.
Let's face it - the plot of Prince of Persia is not exactly the most badass thing you've heard. Elika and the Prince must run and jump through a land corrupted by Ahriman to heal the Fertile Grounds. With each one healed, the surrounding area changes to a beautiful, life-filled place where Light Seeds must then be collected so that Elika can gain magical powers and move on to the next corrupted areas. Nope, there are no chainsaws attached to the front of the guns, nor are there any guns at all. Enemies are few and far between, and while you do fight them with a sword, the protagonist does a lot of acrobatic flips and combo moves where he tosses a woman around and she fires magical crap at the enemies.
To someone who just finished a solid session of Fallout 3 - where a good challenge is to find an eyeball after exploding someone's head with a stack of money fired from a vacuum cleaner that has a leaf blower attached to it - this probably seems really lame. It turns out that the corrupted areas of the world and the enemies you fight are pretty devious and actually fun to go up against, but for a gamer like this, the game never gets there. There's some crap about Fertile Grounds, oh God I have to run where?, you know what I think I'll just put Fallout 3 back in. If it hasn't happened to you, you know someone it would happen to.
This is not the fault of the headshot-desiring gamer. They've been desensitized; they've played hundreds, maybe thousands of games, they've admired quite a few bits of shiny lights and cool reflections, and things like "art" in a video game are zoomed past in search of the next thing that helps the player finish the area and move on to the next. If anything, Ubisoft failed to hook the gamer early with a harder-edged plot or at least people dying or something. From the time you get started on your mission to fight Ahriman to the end of the game, you'll see very few actual people. How many big Halo fans do you know that also loved Shadow of the Colossus?
The Prince himself seems a little off, too. He's funny, he's got a great demeanor, but he's also not mean - at all. He doesn't hate anyone, he hasn't had any traumatic experiences in his life, and he doesn't seem to have killed a single person. Nor has he ever decapitated anyone. I'm not saying he has to have done all those things to get a hardcore gamer to like him, but he at least needs to be a little more grizzled. Those first few minutes of the game are key; they're the hook. Many gamers' first five minutes playing a game color the rest of their experience. So maybe Ubisoft could have delivered a bit less of that toothy grin when a beautiful woman literally falls on top of the Prince, maybe a bit more scorn and less puppy-like following as he's chasing her. Give him a good reason to chase her other than just that she's interesting, because at that point, most gamers aren't finding her interesting. They're just finding themselves bored because they're being led through a run-and-jump tutorial.
All of this is relevant because there is likely to be another Prince of Persia game as a sequel to the one we just got. If Ubisoft can put together the right balance of Persian wonder with grizzled charm (and with less of that fake-feeling, rock music-spouting Warrior Within tough guy approach), then they'll have a great game on their hands. Sure, the goal was obviously to make him like Han Solo, but Solo's first 30 minutes on-screen were a lot more interesting than the Prince's first half hour. As a character he changes over the course of the game, and it's really a great transformation overall, but so many gamers likely never got to see it.
One way that Prince of Persia could have been made tougher would be some kind of difficulty slider that, when increased, would force the game to make fewer checkpoints, rather than one every single time you found solid ground. The only issue with this I can see is that the developers wouldn't have actual direct control over the difficulty, since if it checkpointed you, say, every fifth bit of solid ground you found, maybe there are four really tough little sections in a row and if you're at a bad time in the cycle you could find yourself replaying a lot of the game without the developers necessarily wanting you to. Then there's also the necessity of informing the player each time they hit a checkpoint, and the possibility that players would start gaming the system in order to get checkpoints more often - all of this kind of undermines the original intent of the system, which was designed to keep you playing stuff you haven't already played rather than stuff you have, and keep you focused on the game rather than on the HUD. In the sequel, maybe Elika can be reworked that a Game Over screen can happen once in a while, especially during the combat.
Next up is the way you simply cannot die in Prince of Persia. This decision seems to have been poison for some gamers, to the point where they will never ever play this game no matter what is said or written simply because "there's no challenge". Let me say: the game has challenge just like any other does. Hell, other games let you pick up where you left off when you die, too! They may set you back a minute or two in progress, but all modern action games have checkpoints. Prince of Persia does the same thing, but here any time you stand on solid, unmoving ground, that's a checkpoint. Is it really good game design to show some elaborate death animation, a game over screen, an option to continue from a previous checkpoint, a loading screen, and then a jarring trip back in time to a minute before you died? That type of design - which, admittedly, was quite preferable to the system most action games had before it - completely pulls you out of whatever immersion had been built up.
Here, Prince of Persia gives you an in-game way to keep you playing, even after you start falling to your death, that actually makes sense inside of the story. Now, there could be some contention that making every solid platform you stand on a checkpoint makes the game too easy or too short, but Prince of Persia is a good eight-hour-long game even without making you replay chunks of it every time you fall off a cliff. Mirror's Edge had similarly difficult platforming and also took about eight hours to finish, but that included tons of time in replaying one or two minute chunks repeatedly - it was a shorter game overall. Personally, I'd rather enjoy a game and continue progressing on through rather than go back repeatedly and do a long series of easy jumps just to miss a tough one and die over and over.
This is one of the major design elements in Prince of Persia that should be noticed by game developers. No, some magical hand shouldn't grab Marcus Fenix every time he falls to Locust weapons fire, but if a game can be difficult while not constantly throwing me out of it to load a checkpoint when I slip up, then we've moved on just a bit. The same way that the streaming capabilities of modern consoles have done a great job of reducing load times in today's games, a bit of solid game design here will keep us playing new stuff rather than replaying the last minute or two of what we just finished. At least, that seems like a sound idea to me for normal difficulty levels in games where combat isn't the only thing that can kill you; keeping the higher difficulties really tough will probably require less meddling in this way, and combat-heavy games probably wouldn't benefit much from a system like PoP has.
Ubisoft did make a great game in Prince of Persia, even if they left a few stalwart Sands of Time fans behind. In the sequel, it seems we can expect a less lonely world and a more mature relationship between the Prince and Elika, one without that wide-eyed wonder as they stare into each other's eyes. Maybe gamers didn't necessarily appreciate everything Ubisoft Montreal tried to do, but other developers should, and Ubisoft can surely refine these innovations in the upcoming sequel so that more gamers can enjoy them.