Don't read this blog if you haven't finished Prince of Persia.
Wherein we discuss Prince of Persia, mostly the story. I found it a very interesting game. First off, you're put in the shoes of the Prince, who is a total enigma, and does not really open up much throughout. He talks a little about his travels and how his parents died, and I guess he robs tombs, but we don't really know anything about his past. While plenty of games cast you as a blank slate, like Fallout 3 or Fable 2, the Prince does have a personality and a past, we are just not given it. We know he is a good guy at heart, obviously, but at the same time he only seems to trust himself. That he trusts Elika seems like an exception, to me. I found myself talking to Elika at every opportunity just to learn more about these characters, the Prince (I call him that because we aren't even given a name) especially. At one point the Concubine, an awesome villain, alludes to him being a Prince, but she could be referring to the future as well, as it's all rather vague. Obviously the game's title is meant to make you think he is/was/will become a Prince, but that could be a red herring. So throughout the game we steer the prince towards his destiny without really knowing his true motivations. That's fine, most of the time, we are used to doing what games tell us to do, especially if it is the Right Thing To Do. Which it is throughout. Until the end.
Where the game really starting messing with me and making me think was the ending. Again, I must warn you, this is a total spoiler zone, and it is an ending so shocking you'll want to see what happens for yourself. After having gone through all the trouble of healing all the fertile grounds and killing Ahriman's four corrupted Lieutenants, we finally get to imprison Ahriman himself. Elika uses all her powers to restore life to the tree that keeps Ahriman imprisoned, which costs her her own life. At this point, the Prince picks Elika up and we get control again. The only thing we can do at this point is walk outside of the temple, and we do, and we put Elika on the stone slab outside. The Prince doesn't say word one during all of this, including everything that happens after this. Four radiant trees have grown in the area surrounding the temple, which I assume are keeping the tree of light, Ahriman's prison in the temple, intact. Hesitantly, I make my way towards the trees. Surely, he can't mean to do the same thing Elika's father did? At this point we start hearing Ahriman, who has two voices, male and female, whispering, softly. Being given no other choice, I cut down the first tree, and the area surrounding it is drained of life and color and grows corrupted again. At this point my worst fears are confirmed. The game, or rather the Prince, wants me to cut down all the trees, and that is all you can do, save for turning off the game. With every tree I cut down, the whispers grow louder. Ahriman is convincing me, the Prince, to free him to save Elika. But has the Prince already made up his mind? Is he controlled by Ahriman or does he know full well what he is doing?
Having cut down all the trees, the temple reopens. I return to the tree of light, Ahriman's prison, and the Prince takes the essence of the tree, which is the orbs of light we have been collecting throughout the game. With the orb of light in our hands, we return to Elika. The Prince infuses her with the light and she returns to life, blurting "Why?". The Prince picks her up, carries her off into the distance in silence as the temple collapses behind them, the land is ravaged by darkness and Ahriman escapes.
To Be Continued.
The reason I find this so very fascinating is not just because the story makes me want to see what happens next, but also for academic reasons. We are used to following a linear path in videogames because we're doing the right thing, or in rare cases, playing an evil character. We are almost always doing things that reflect the character's nature. In some cases, you determine this nature for yourself. But in Prince of Persia, what you do in the end undoes everything that led up to that point. And worse yet, we get no insight whatsoever into why the Prince is doing this, because he doesn't say anything. Throughout the game, while we learn little about his past, we learn quite a bit about the Prince's character. Despite his devil may care attitude, he clearly cares about Elika and wants to help her save this land. He's a pragmatist. So why would he sacrifice everything just to save Elika? Was it Ahriman's influence? Was it his own choice? By making the player do these things, we are encouraged to consider the Prince's motivations. Ours are simple: Finish the game to see what happens, even if it means doing something that, in the context of everything that has been told to the player in the game, is a Very Bad Thing. Personally, I think the Prince knew full well what he was doing and it was his own choice, because we retain control of the Prince, even if we have no true control. This ending in itself would be surprising, maybe a little shocking, if it had been a cut scene, but because we, as the player, are forced to commit these acts ourselves, their impact is increased dramatically. Just think about that for a second. By simply being interactive, as opposed to a static cut scene, we look upon these events in quite a different light.
Be warned, the following paragraph also contains spoilers for Metal Gear Solid 3 and minor spoilers for Shadow of the Colossus and Bioshock
There have certainly been moments in games where you have to do things that you may really not want to do, but we know why Snake had to shoot The Boss at the end of MGS 3, even if it wasn't easy to do. So when I was destroying the trees, I felt incredibly conflicted. I knew what was going to happen and I really didn't want to do it, but the story demanded I do it. To stop playing would mean simply ending the game before it has truly ended. We are, in essence, slaves to the game's demands. I think the designers have been heavily influenced by Shadow of the Colossus here, where you are going around killing these colossi, who are mostly pacifistic, to restore life to a girl. But even there, you aren't sure that you're truly doing an evil thing. But somehow, it just feels wrong. Every slain colossus is another step towards the game's tragic conclusion. What makes this so interesting is that you are given the illusion of control in videogames, but there are really only two choices: follow the path you are given or stop playing the game, which isn't even a real choice given by the game. Bioshock did a similar thing where it is revealed you have been manipulated all along, and even after you break the manipulation, you are still a slave to the game's whims.
This new movement of games that have something to say, implicitly, about the player's involvement in a game (in this case, that control is an illusion) is incredibly fascinating to me. Games where you get to make choices that influence the story have been around for a while, and while some of them are fairly succesful at creating the illusion of freedom, ultimately you're still doing the things the designers intended you to do. Forcing you, the player, to do things you really don't want to do, or things that just feel wrong, instead of just watching them happen in a cutscene, can evoke an incredible feeling of dread or sadness. And that, my friends, is what makes video games so special. They can evoke feelings no other medium can. And that's why we're all here, isn't it? Feel free to agree/disagree/discuss, I'd love to hear what you guys think.
Thanks for reading and happy new year!