Writing archive

Guestblog: David Brothers on Prince of Persia

— Monday, February 20th, 2012

We at Project: Ballad are honored to host what will hopefully be the first in a series of guestblogs by awesome writers from all over. Today we have the inimitable David Brothers, whose headquarters is the great 4thletter, but who also writes a great deal for ComicsAlliance and has been seen on lots of other sites as well.

Known for his voice of reason and his laconic wit, we all know David primarily for his body of work discussing comics and music, but he’s been known to throw down on games as well – readers of the Persona 3-heavy last week of entries on this site, for instance, might enjoy his own examination of the game’s style and its character designs.

David was nice enough to squeeze a little time for us into his busy schedule; click on past the cut for his thoughts on a classic game and its clever use of storytelling. Thanks, David!

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was the first game I played that featured a sublime connection between storytelling and your actions in-game. You play the eponymous (and yet still nameless) Prince as he proceeds in his quest to save a princess. In a way, you make no decisions for the Prince and every decision for him. The path the story takes is set in stone, leading to one specific ending, and you cannot alter that. But, you do control the man as he gallivants around Persia, crawling ladders and battling enemies.

Sands of Time is a platformer, and it was the standard-bearer in the genre for a long while. The platforming is fantastic. The Prince is agile, and the gameplay features acrobatic stunts whenever possible. Wall-running, now a genre staple, still felt fresh in Sands of Time, and it was just one of a number of innovative features. The Dagger of Time allowed you to rewind time for a brief moment, either to avoid falling to your doom (a common occurrence) or solve puzzles. The Dagger could be recharged by defeating and absorbing enemies, which provides a tangible link between the combat and platforming styles of gameplay present in the game.

The story is told from a first-person point of view by the Prince. Yuri Lowenthal plays the Prince, and he’s very sedate in his telling of things, very rarely getting excited. His speaking style is casual, but quietly unstoppable. His story is building to an inevitable end over the course of the game, and the only question is just what end it will be. He’s a talented storyteller, too, full of charm and wit, and he sounds genuinely invested in the situation at hand.

Taken alone, none of these things are very spectacular. There have been thousands of video games that have fighting, jumping, and talking. But in The Sands of Time, those three aspects combine and create something that has been particularly hard to top.

The entire game takes place in the past tense, an intriguing touch for a game about time travel. A moment’s thought would reveal that the game is, in a sense, done before you even begin it. The Prince lives because he’s telling the story, the people he talks about beating have already been beaten, and the princess has been saved. The game is building to something, then, and that something is the point at which the past and the present meet. It’s building to now, to the moment when the Prince is telling the story.

I’m sure this wasn’t new to video games at the time, but there’s a storybook quality to the telling that perfectly fits the tone of the game. It brings to mind One Thousand and One Nights, and someone spending what might be their last night on Earth telling stories. When you consider this with the momentum that the past tense brings to the story, you’ve got something that’s just a bit foreboding. There’s a finality to the Prince’s story, even as it is going on, and I found myself scrambling to figure out what it was before it hit.

Things get interesting when the story and gameplay intersect. If you fall down a hole and die, then the Prince pauses, says something to the effect of “No, no, that’s not how that happened,” and then continues from a prior point in the story. Your deaths aren’t just mistakes on your part. They become mistakes on the Prince’s part, an accidental digression or mis-remembrance that derails his story. He
admits his mistake, pauses, and recovers, and the game goes on. The story is still being told.

The rub comes at the end of the game, when it’s revealed that he isn’t telling the story to you, the player. He’s telling it to Princess Farah, the woman he has been trying to rescue over the course of the game. He’s time-travelled back to a time before the game began and is trying to convince her that he’s telling the truth. Now becomes then, and what we previously understood as then becomes vapor. The events of the game happened to the Prince, but they didn’t happen in reality any more. They were yesterday for the Prince, and never for everyone else.

It twists the story of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time into something like Schrodinger’s Tale, a story that is simultaneously true and untrue. This was new for me, and while I’d been through plot-heavy games like Final Fantasy VII and Metal Gear Solid before, this felt ground-breaking. I’d never played a game where the plot complements the story so well, and vice versa. There’s a twistiness to the story that’s both simple and forces you to reconsider your actions over the course of the game. It makes you think, and not just in a “Oh, this has a moral” sort of way. It makes you think about the story that was just told, and what choices the writers made in constructing it.

The ending turns Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time into a story about stories. Through the Prince’s narration and the unfolding of the plot, the game explores how we tell stories, what stories are good for, and how to craft an entertaining and convincing yarn. Transforming basic gameplay
mechanics like checkpoints into things that tie thematically into the story is just icing on the cake.

When I think about what video games are capable of accomplishing, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time looms large in my mind. You can create a game with fantastic gameplay and great storytelling without either aspect working against the other. It’s a simple story that is well-told and
buoyed by gameplay that requires quick and inventive thinking. It hits several different buttons that video games are known for, from quick reflexes to problem-solving to sussing out a tricky story, and nails them.