The video game echo chamber

Over the past few weeks, I’ve wandered repeatedly past a coworker playing his way through the new Prince of Persia. The funny thing is that no matter where he is in the game, it’s always looked basically the same: fantastic (in the “fantasy” sense) yet generic (in the “of a genre” sense) settings; a color scheme that seems somehow to be cartoonish, garish and murky all at once; and most of all, some glowy ethereal woman constantly grabbing the prince’s hand to keep him from plummeting to his doom.

Yes, much to my surprise, the new Prince of Persia is basically a less atmospheric take on Ico, with the one scene in which Yorda helps Ico across a gap now taking the place of the Sands of Time or whatever. In Ico, that was a powerful moment: the princess, who all along had been a passive burden whose role was mainly to slow you down and force you to find a way to save more than your own hide, at last shrugs off her meekness and turns the tables, saving the boy who had worked so hard to protect her. Here, it looks to be just a mechanism to prevent players from having to restart a level when they fail to make a tricky leap…which will be often, from what I can tell. A safety net in a diaphanous gown.

I highly recommend everyone rent the game so they can see for themselves what it looks like when creativity is commoditized. Or you could just play any Japanese RPG, which takes the shocking-at-the-time revelation that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father and runs with it. There should probably be a support group for RPG heroes who discover they’re the villain’s son/father/daughter/brother/alter-ego/mother twice removed/whatever. Or maybe one for those who aren’t, since they’re so few and far between.

Anyway, Prince of Persia’s bland mimicry of Ico really drove home just how recursive game design can be. I mean, look: when Jordan Mechner first created the original Prince of Persia nearly 20 years ago, it was fresh and new. It built on his previous game Karateka somewhat, sure, but it transplanted the controls and combat of the older title into a huge and challenging new framework, creating something unlike anyone had ever seen before. It was imitated by the likes of Flashback and Oddworld, but never quite matched.

When Tomb Raider rolled along seven years later, it was basically Prince of Persia in 3D. It was clumsy, but the advent of true three-dimensional graphics made it feel every bit as awe-inspiring as its inspiration had been. Then along came the actual Prince of Persia 3D and it sucked a bag of eggs. The designers imitated the surface of Tomb Raider and the general aesthetics of the original Prince of Persia, but failed to understand the fundamental values of the format or what improvements were necessary to make their game anything more than a sloppy reskinned Tomb Raider knock-off. No, that didn’t come until Ico, which added to the format an interesting new gameplay dynamic — the player was tasked not only with an escape, but also with protecting a fragile and not-particularly-athletic companion — as well as some streamlined, intuitive design and interface choices. The controls were fluid but just clumsy enough to feel real, and the hero was smart enough to know how to react to different areas of the environment without the need for half a dozen different action buttons. The level design played a big part in this: the game world was arranged in such a way that a streamlined contextual control scheme could work, because it was uncluttered and well-planned. This was the revelation the genre needed — gameplay and settings that worked hand-in-hand, with an engaging emotional connection to keep the character and player motivated.

And then came Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, which was far more Ico than it was classic PoP. The creators made it work for them, though, because they recognized the things that made Ico great: tricky world design navigable by forcing the player to take risks, but nevertheless forgiving enough not to make the trickiness a disincentive to experimentation. And of course they knew to create an emotional connection for the player to hang his heart on, which resulted in the will-they-or-won’t-they-oh-who-are-we-kidding interplay between the prince and Farah, who was the fiery A New Hope Princess Leia to Yorda’s coked-out, hangin’ with the Ewoks Return of the Jedi Leia. The developers also imitated the parts of Ico that didn’t work: namely tedious fights with annoying magically spawning monsters, which they mistakenly thought they could make interesting by making combat flashier. But no one’s perfect.

Meanwhile, the Tomb Raider series had gone horribly off the rails over the years, degenerating into self-parody or worse. So Crystal Dynamics reinvented the game with a healthy dose of Ico by way of Sands of Time. Tomb Raider Legend was pretty good, if generally uninspired. But its sequel Underworld doesn’t seem to offer anything to convince me that I should be hunting it down. And watching the new Prince of Persia — a reboot of sorts in reaction to how badly Warrior Within and The Two Thrones missed the point — made me realize that I’ve probably played this same game enough that simply remixing its elements isn’t sufficient to make it interesting, because every remix seems to diffuse the things that I liked about the iterations that worked. Yorda was one infuriating lady at times, but I won’t deny that Ico’s finale choked me up. For some reason, I suspect I won’t feel quite as strongly about a watered-down version who hovers over me like a protective Tinkerbell.

I dunno, did I say game design was recursive earlier? I think I meant incestuous. I kinda feel like Ubisoft is drawing from a very closed and stagnating gene pool here, and if there were honesty in character design the new prince would have himself an epic Hapsburg chin. Although come to think of it, he does wear a scarf/mask over his lower face a good deal of the time…maybe that’s what he’s hiding. Or else he’s Raziel. You know, from Soul Reaver. That one Prince of Persia/Tomb Raider style game with the vampires?

Yeah. Case in point.

14 thoughts on “The video game echo chamber

  1. I don’t know, I don’t mind so much that games are mostly iterative rather than revolutionary. I don’t mind that the new Tomb Raider is basically Legend but with bigger environments and better animations. It’s comfort-gaming to me, and I could play variations on the theme at least once a year. I can’t wait for an Uncharted sequel, for example, and that’ll help fill the time while I wait for another CD Tomb Raider or at least the promised DLC.

  2. My complaint isn’t iterative gaming, it’s the fact that most mimicry misses the point of what it’s imitating.

  3. It’s impossible to copy heart and soul. It’s easy to borrow elements of game design (and necessary, I think, to keep gaming moving forward) but it’s hard to put them together in a moving and poetic way. Ico will always be Ico, no matter how many Ubi games come out with variations on the theme. I am not disagreeing with the premise of the post, just adding that I’m at a place where I am still enjoying the echo chamber.

  4. You at least have to appreciate the honesty of their approach here. I don’t think I’ve seen any quotes from the developers that didn’t freely admit how blatantly they’re basing this one off Ico, to the extent I believe they were actually just calling what’shername there Yorda early in development.

    The big complaint I have though is with the naming scheme here. We’re starting, presumably, a third trilogy of games here, and just calling this one “Prince of Persia” with no subtitle. So technically we should be calling it PoP7, but then people have to go and mentally count them off. Calling it “the new one” only works until there’s a sequel. They could save us so many headaches if they’d just quit making every new protagonist a prince. “See, there’s the Prince of Persia games, then they followed those up with the Princess of Persia series, and now we’ve got the first Viceroy of Persia game coming out!”

  5. Sure, that’s fine. But “based on Ico” isn’t the same as “inspired by Ico,” which is what I’d like to see: a game uses Ico as a launching point for something nevertheless new and moving in a different way. Honestly, I feel like Sands of Time did better with that than what I’ve seen of the new one. That’s what lends the whole thing an air of staleness.

  6. Thinking too much about this, it occurs to me that maybe I’m part of the problem. When it comes to games, if a formula works I’ll keep coming back to it. I don’t expect or even want a lot of change. I look to new IPs and downloadable titles when I want a new experience — but when it comes to Lara Croft (to go back to that example) I just want refinements on something I don’t think is broken. Am I akin to the guy who buys Madden every year? Or the kids who buy Guitar Hero every two months? Probably! I understand the fatigue that’s being expressed in the post. I feel that way about movies — I’m so over formulaic movies that I find it hard to get excited about about Tuesday, something that used to be a highlight of my week.

  7. While what you’ve said is true, I think – for me, anyway – I’m interested in this new one because it looks to be closer to what I liked most about Sands of Time, and regardless if it has the same soul or not, there hasn’t been a game since that I’ve enjoyed PLAYING the same way I did that.

    We’ll see, I guess.

  8. I hate to call people “part of the problem” without tongue firmly in cheek. And really, I don’t see anything wrong with a formula so long as each new installment is made by people who understand what makes it work and how it can be better. That’s why I’m keen on, say, Mega Man 9, but not Mega Man 4-8. My post probably swung wider of the mark than I intended; really, the my core complaint is summed up in the “commoditization of creativity” comment.

    Uh, alliteration most definitely not intended.

  9. I have to disagree on a couple points…

    First of all, Two Thrones and even Warrior Within weren’t that bad. You said they miss the point of the Sands of Time, but the same fun gameplay mechanics of traversal and time manipulation remained. If you’re talking about story, even tone of the game, yeah I agree, but to me those games were all about the gameplay.

    As for the new PoP, you’ve just observed it and not played it yet, right? Maybe it’s a little too early to pass judgment on it yet.

    Finally…even if these iterative games “miss the point of what they’re imitating”, I’ll still take 1. games that draw inspiration from games i like as opposed to ones I don’t like, and 2. 3D playformers that are FUN to play.

  10. Like I’ve said before, my perspective is colored by spending my days up to my eyeballs in video games, so I’m finding my enthusiasm for pale imitations waning with increasing rapidity these days. But my lack of enthusiasm for the new Prince of Persia also comes from the fact that I’ve watched quite a bit of the gameplay and it doesn’t seem particularly fun — it seems to embody all the things I didn’t enjoy in Sands of Time without offering a compelling take on the things I enjoyed. All things being equal, I’d rather just play Sands of Time. It seemed more sincere, and more fun.

  11. I know what you mean, and you have every right to be a little jaded. I’m a little skeptical of the hand-holding mechanic myself…reversing time and trying again was great. I still found myself accidentally, involuntarily reaching for that L1 button whenever i fell off a building in Mirror’s Edge.

    One of the things that makes me nervous about the Elika device in the new PoP is something the devs said in some interviews…about how they wanted to make it like Ico, but have your companion character be not worthless. Well…
    1. Yorda wasn’t worthless. She opened up those magic gates for you. She was the only way you could proceed.
    2. The fact that Yorda was vulnerable and that you had to take care of her was half the fun…and all of the heart. I felt like I really cared about her because it was up to me to keep her safe. I was responsible for her.
    Guess we’ll see.

  12. Hey, let’s just make another platforming game with save points, which force you to redo the same passage over and over again until you complete it successfully (and reach the next save point), nevermind if it makes absolutely no narrative sense!~

  13. As much as I dug Sands of Time, I have to concur with the complaint regarding “tedious fights with annoying magically spawning monsters”. Every time I’ve talked about the game with people, I’ve had to make a point to say “…but I hate the combat.” Case in point was when you come out of the long climb up the well from the dungeons. I’ve just completed a great section of interesting gameplay only to spend 15 minutes dealing with what seemed to be an endless supply of spawning monsters. At least Two Thrones cleaned that up a bit by giving you the stealth kill mechanics. I’m excited for the new one based on what I’ve seen, although I concur with the strangely conflicted art design.

    That said, experience has shown me that only Ueda/Team Ico can seem to recapture the magic of Ico in a reliable way.

Comments are closed.