Thursday, February 5, 2009

Prince of Persia

Decision making is an integral part of any gaming experience. In a game of chess, I could choose to advance every piece into the center of the board carelessly, and be readily checkmated by most foes. Or I could take great care in each move I make, plan ahead, and with skill and patience, prevail. Even the worst chess opponent could defeat a Grandmaster if he chose to make careless moves. Most videogames are designed to be won by players, yet every gamer is intimately familiar with the Game Over screen. Prince of Persia seems to leave this all behind.

The game is presented as a semi open world, with handfuls of areas to traverse in whatever order we want. Branching as these paths may seem, even they only offer the illusion of choice. All levels must be played eventually, to complete the game, in the end it doesn't really matter how you do it.

This system has flattened the usual difficulty curve a game presents to a player, and this creates little tension over time. There is no need to wait until you've gained enough experience to tackle a harder level, or no forging ahead through the tough stuff early for a more difficult and rewarding experience. Though some seemingly arbitrary pathways are blocked until certain points in the story, it's only a matter of time before it is all accessible. The story moves along independently of your actions as you progress, and your route becomes largely irrelevant.

More apparent is the fact that there simply is no way to lose. Any series of levels could make for a fun experience, but when even the option of failure is removed entirely, the gameplay is no longer an incentive to the player. No matter what mistakes you make, Elika magically saves you almost instantly, with only mild setbacks. If you are nearly run through by a boss, she props you back up. If you jump repeatedly headlong into chasms, she repeatedly pulls you to solid ground. Even if she is immobilized by an enemy, your failure can be her key to salvation, as she flies free to once again remove you from harms way. You never see that Game Over screen, and you are never placed in checkmate. It's as if every move you attempt the computer reminds you 'Hey, I can capture that piece and win, you need to do something else here.' You're barely playing a game at this point.

Though all of this, it is still possible to enjoy yourself with Prince of Persia. The story is unwoven slowly as we take in complex and breathtaking environments. Elika and "the Prince" are presented building a relationship to an extent rarely attempted in video games, and the script is passable amongst contemporaries. Though varied in its overall successes as a work of fiction, it's excision of such vital gameplay components often leaves it feeling more like an animated film that just really needs your attention.