Prince of Persia: An Autopsy
Ugly things are easy to maintain since they have no standards of form: a ragged rose bush can be allowed to grow forever once beauty no longer applies to it. Assassin’s Creed is a bush that has become representative of the state of single-player gaming today, and has always lacked a proper gardener to judge or contain its abandonment of standards of beauty. It has always been a test subject for the latest trend, and has hopefully stunted itself permanently inside the latest pot it built for itself with Assassin’s Creed Origins: the constrictively tiny space of microtransactional greed. But the series began as a transition into a new generation for another series entirely, one that had been cared for since its creation in 1989. Prince of Persia was one of the prettiest flowers in gaming’s garden, and has not survived being uprooted and replanted as Assassin’s Creed.
Plans were underway for the eponymous Prince to ride into a new age and a more freeform style of gaming. And then Ubisoft got an awful idea, a wonderful, awful idea: that a series that sells itself with a brand name would not be the most profitable platform for a new kind of game. There was no rationale in their grinchy headspace for wasting resources on a known brand. If there was to be a new kind of game, it was to have a new identity. Assassin’s Creed is the child of this idea. As a result, it has always been whatever Ubisoft needs it to be: an adventure game, an online multiplayer game, a nostalgia-driven casino. It’s not the series we need but it’s almost certainly the one we deserve.
Meanwhile, the Prince has stagnated: I imagine him lolling in his tattered adventurer’s garb, surrounded by wine and treasure and memories. He was briefly gaming’s most mature explorer, in a time when Lara Croft had already hung up her bralette for what seemed like forever. His trilogy on PS2 could be the best of its generation: a series that was not tonally consistent, but which grasped every inch of its hardware generation, balancing the freedom of combat with the guiding force of its story. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time particularly is a narrative marvel, canonizing its game mechanics into story and providing what has always defined gaming at its finest: storytelling, through player interaction, being elevated into modern mythmaking.
The Sands of Time is one of the best games I’ve ever played. I have to ask why in a time when we’re still getting sequels to Call of Duty, Sonic the Hedgehog, and even Assassin’s Creed, which grew all shriveled and demanding from the Prince’s very sands, that we haven’t seen the Prince make a serious effort in years.
And I think the answer is sadder than the problem: I think it’s because we just don’t want that kind of game anymore.
We want games where characters are so interchangeable that they can become equalized in the arena of online deathmatches, and the Prince simply has too much character. In Sands of Time he had a real and resonant development arc, he fell in love, and he learned to see his world differently. Since that can’t happen to the barren hunks in Assassin’s Creed, their stories are never satisfying, but they can also be uprooted whenever Ubisoft pleases, into multiplayer matches, tower-defense games as in Revelations, or even into hack-jobs like the buggy and inconsistent Unity: it just doesn’t matter.
The Sands of Time was a game of structured challenges with an ingenious mechanic in its time manipulation that allowed even the frustration of death to be mitigated by learning and comedic upheaval. This kind of game has run out of flashy selling points, when loot unboxing is the latest craze on Twitch and open world is practically an industry requirement. But if it isn’t the best time-killer, the structured narrative-based game remains memorable. I will remember my time with the Prince long after shrugging from my memory the Brotherhood campaign, or the time I helped Benjamin Franklin chase down the pages of his wind-scattered almanac in Assassin’s Creed III like some misinformed colonial Pooh and Piglet.
It wasn’t all roses before that. Prince of Persia 3D failed in every aspect symptomatic of its generation’s maddening kink with converting beautiful and functional flowers into gaudy, unnecessary, and disposable ones. But it failed its series more than the industry to which it was practically a mascot – the first Prince of Persia, the game from which The Sands of Time drew all its potent adventurer’s verve, is still one of the finest experiences in gaming.
And I say “fine” purposely to mean a type of quality, one which doesn’t last long but which has the proper upbringing to be a classy and memorable addition to its lineage. The original Prince of Persia in 1989 introduced an untried level of realism to the most prominent genre of the day (the platformer) and created an entire subgenre of games, converting the experience of heroic adventure gaming into a new institution in the same temple.
The “realistic platformer” used the traps and jumps normally associated with a floaty mythical world like that of Super Mario Bros. and introduced it to a real human being with flesh and tantalizingly breakable bones. In Jordan Mechner’s original game, the Prince had to descend from ledges mindful of the distance he could drop without taking damage or instantly dying. He had to walk slowly sometimes, navigate brutal time trials, and reason through all the meticulous nuances of the realistic jump engine (which later featured prominently in the original Tomb Raider trilogy). He even had to fence with opponents, a mechanic that was extrapolated into an entire game with the indie hit Nidhogg. And while you had unlimited lives, unique for the time, you had only one hour to complete the entire game, from the time you entered the vizier’s labyrinth to the time you embraced your princess. So in a final stroke of realism, the Prince’s very life could not be taken by cheap minutiae in the game world: only the player, either conscientious or wasteful, could give him the time he needed to win.
Prince of Persia distilled the trial of the adventurer into an art form, out of which immediately came other classics such as Another World and Flashback, and which continues to influence the dreams of indie developers, who take Mechner’s concepts and turn them into Limbo and Inside and even Spelunky. But what the Prince will always have alone, and which has so regrettably been lost to time, is the wonderment of using a structured challenge to take a wary player and make them dauntless. To my childhood as a gamer, the Prince stood for the emergence of a conqueror in the worlds of fear and adversity from which nearly all games are made. As one of our fractured gaming industry’s mythological origins, the Prince can be seen at once as an idol and a deposed king, someone whose influence on design can be detected practically everywhere, but whose latest game in the company’s adventure lineage will gouge out your sense of adventure for regular payments of $19.99. Ubisoft seems intent on planting only weeds from now on, not because it values them, but only that roses aren’t worth the effort.
M.C. Myers is a graduate of English Literature and a geek even when it’s in vogue. When he’s not writing about video games he has a semi-regular column on Bright Lights Film called “Watch it Again.” He can be reached at his email: firstname.lastname@example.org