A whole new world

As reviews of the new Prince of Persia started coming in, word on the street was that the game was “too easy”. I feared the worst; after all, utter lack of difficulty was one of the only complaints I could lob at Wind Waker, and this sounded similar. After spending a bit of time with it over the weekend, however, I was happy to discover that “too easy” isn’t exactly accurate.

When you miss a jump in the new Prince of Persia game, your lovely assistant / Yorda clone Elika leaps to the rescue and throws you back to the last bit of solid ground you stood on. You literally cannot jump to your death. Similarly, if you’re defeated in battle, she’ll save you before the final blow is struck, essentially resetting the battle and restoring the enemy’s health. In conclusion: you literally can’t die. Ever.

[[image: ar_121208_pop_01.jpg:The voice acting is off the charts…in fact, you could say it’s uncharted. Oh ho ho.:center:0]]
The point Ubisoft Montreal is trying to make, though, is an important one: why should you die? “Death” in a videogame simply means reloading from the last checkpoint anyway. Granted, it’s less frustrating today than the 5+ minutes reloading could take in the PS1 era, but Prince of Persia’s system essentially has you back in control faster than even Super Mario Bros. did, and that’s damn impressive. All the same things — the platforming, restarting the fight with whatever monster beat you — have to happen again, but without the waiting and frustration usually associated with failure. The game is all about positive reinforcement and relieving the player from that stress.

Of course, it isn’t the first game in recent memory to hit upon this idea. BioShock did something similar – death simply sent you back to the last checkpoint, and the only penalty was the ammo you’d expelled; heck, the enemies even retained the damage dished out before your demise. The Wario Land series stuck out when I was younger as the only games where the enemies couldn’t kill you. What Prince of Persia is doing isn’t exactly without precedent, but it’s nice to see I was worried for nothing — the difficulty level was deliberate, and the developers understand exactly why it has been designed in such a way.

This is particularly fascinating to me because it’s another small break away from what videogames generally always have been. I remember once reading that Dragon Quest VIII’s lack of an overworld map was explained as “Well, we could render everything so that we didn’t need to represent a large world that way anymore,” and being struck by the realization that so many RPGs out there were still doing it that way simply because they always had. A more recent example would be Dead Space’s use of the lights on the protagonist’s suit and in-game holograms to do away HUDs and menus altogether. (Sure, Ico did that same basic idea first, but that another developer took it and started tweaking it for use in a much more complex game is definitely appreciated.) More and more developers are rethinking the most basic structures and strictures of the games they’re building, thinking critically about what a game has to be, and that’s definitely a good thing.

[[image: ar_121208_pop_02.jpg:This area needs more Tingle:center:0]]
So while Prince of Persia is by no means perfect, it does at least deserve recognition for deliberately throwing a basic design element out the window for good reason. Not that every game needs to reinvent the wheel, or even take this same route — there’s something to be said for the satisfaction gained from overcoming a challenge, after all — but there’s nothing intrinsically necessary about dying, either. As much as I loved Mario Galaxy, the concept of a game over felt very archaic, since all it realistically meant was having to wait an extra minute or two as I sat through the title screen, loaded the file, and made my way back to the exact same level I died on. I’m starting to realize that sometimes I just don’t need that, you know? If the game is fun, then the fewer barriers to playing it, the better.

18 thoughts on “A whole new world

  1. The whole vestigial concept of “lives” in video games has overstayed its welcome. One of my biggest complaints about the otherwise stellar Bionic Commando: Rearmed was the awkward inclusion of extra lives which sometimes respawned and sometimes did not. The designers had the foresight to abandon the NES original’s “continue” model, so why not go the extra mile and just let us PLAY until we get it right or we’ve had enough?

  2. well, to take the opposite side, there is an element of excitement and pleasure that comes from overcoming an obstacle within a limitation–in this case lives. There’s far more pleasure in beating a shmup, for instance, when you have to do it with 3 lives and 3 continues as opposed to free play.

    A game with no challenge and no risk just isn’t as satisfying.
    Even if you’re going to remove death all together, at least force me to go back to a set check point instead of instant ressurection.

  3. I don’t mind for BC:R (for the most part) because it doesn’t really take a long time to go back to where you died. If anything it’d probably be more frustrating to repeat one single fight rather than being thrown out and going through the rest of the stage again as a quick break, or as a single for me to step away for awhile then come back. But a lot of games, like Super Mario Galaxy and especially Sonic Unleashed could do without them.

  4. Wow, reading this after reading an excellent review of Steel Battalion makes me weep. Steel Battalion was a game where your save game could get deleted if you died and didn’t eject from your mech in time. The game was doomed to failure (huge, expensive controller and it was a non-sports game on the Xbox), and because of this I’ve never had the chance to play it, but games with permanent death in them always give me a thrill. The cold sweat of imminent doom and the feeling that you’ve REALLY accomplished when you FINALLY beat the game are things that can’t be duplicated in games without permanent death.

  5. I agree with Anthony.. though I think there’s a place for each side of the argument in the market. The hard of core will appreciate the challenge of only being able to have a finite amount of attempts at things, whereas the more casual player will appreciate being able to just tool about with little consequence. I myself am a tooler, I hate having to repeat the same section over again just because my concentration lapsed for a moment.

  6. I like world maps, though. When exploring a game’s world is reminiscent of poring over the landmarks sketched on the inside cover of The Fellowship of the Ring, it’s a good thing.

  7. While I fully agree with what you’re saying here, every time I hear someone say “you can’t die in the new Prince of Persia” I want to hit them with a large blunt object. You can, and most likely frequently will die. You jump wrong, you plummet, the screen whitens, you just died, or you get smacked down in combat, miss your QTE safety net cue (which is a gimmick worth further discussion on its own really), you die. The hidden death counter used for achievement tracking increments, and any personal goal you have about making a perfect run through the game is ruined. Heck, one result of hitting the idle-chatter button even makes reference to it. “I think I’m getting the hang of this. Jump, fall, die, repeat, jump, fall, die repeat.”

    What we have is an in-game rationalization for why you can keep playing after you die (Elika explicitly has Deus Ex Machina Power), which has been done in quite a few other games, and we have, I believe, the shortest gap between dying and jumping back into the game ever (which should be applauded by every sane person). A lot of people gripe about a lack of challenge from not having to do anything over, which in addition to being kind of a weird complaint is also patently untrue. Dying always backs you up to the last time you were on solid ground, which honestly can be a pretty decent setback in some of the more challenging areas. The combat variation compromises and heals your enemy by a decent chunk on death instead of taking things from the top, but in practice, the only difference is you’re thrown a bone if you screw up just once right before finishing them off.

    On the other hand, between the surprisingly wide window you’re given on those escape-death QTEs in combat, and the fatal-fall white-out effect starting early enough that it doubles as an indicator of where you need a double jump, the case could be made that a level-headed player with moderately decent reflexes and a memorization of the button layout will never die unless they just plain jump/slide/wallrun into certain death trying to get a tricky light seed. That’s more anti-twitch than anti-difficulty though.

  8. I get enough frustration in real life. I don’t need it from videogames. Thank you, Ubisoft Montreal, for valuing my time enough not to waste it arbitrarily.

  9. I hadn’t heard much about this game other than the complaints about the “lack of difficulty,” and now that it’s been explained in a way that actually makes it sound appealing, it’s on my shortlist to play after I’m finished with Fallout 3, Mirror’s Edge and Mother 3. (So, basically, in 2011.) I appreciate games that realize you’ve already bought them and aren’t planning on plugging in a series of quarters just to keep going.

  10. Yeah, I’m totally with Anthony on this one. Death, shmeth, I just want to keep playing the damn game.

    Of course, I’ve gotten to a point in my life where I’m pretty much entirely divorced from the “satisfaction through difficulty” school of thought. I play adventure games for relaxation and exploration more than adrenaline these days, so when I see reviews bitching about how a game is “too easy” I usually count that as a *positive* point for me. I’m definitely interested in this new PoP, and probably would have bought it already if my Fall queue wasn’t getting out of hand.

  11. I say, leave the death penalties to smaller, score-based games and online multiplayer. I have no problems with limited lives in games like Geometry Wars and Pac-Man when you’re on your last life and desperately trying to survive for another 1,000 or that extra life. Or in a death match in Gears of War, where death means you’re out of the round until everybody else has died. That’s where “lives” still make sense to me. Games like Prince of Persia are more akin to an interactive blockbuster where linear progression is the name of the game.

  12. The lack of death I don’t mind so much; the thing that makes Prince of Persia “too easy” is the little glowy thing that shows you the exact, specific path you’re supposed to take to reach the next goal.

  13. Ubi Montreal did something similar to no death in Far Cry 2. If you planned ahead, a “buddy” will save you from death. Planning ahead meant simply meeting your buddy at a safe house and letting them know to be “Rescue-Ready” the next time you’re about to die.

    They’ll save you from any type of death too, gunshots, explosions, falling from 100 feet up, you name it. They’ll rescue you from certain death then cover you with gunfire while you heal back up and join them in the fight.

    Of course, once they’ve rescued you, they’ll need to be “reactivated” in the fashion I mentioned before.

    I like how Ubi Montreal is dealing with the frustrations and pitfalls of archaic video game design.

  14. Lack of difficulty was your only complaint with Wind Waker? Not, say, the horrible, horrible trial that was moving your damn ship from point a to point b? Man, that was the deal breaker for me.

  15. “The lack of death I don’t mind so much; the thing that makes Prince of Persia “too easy” is the little glowy thing that shows you the exact, specific path you’re supposed to take to reach the next goal.”

    This. My problem is that the platforming sequences feel like they’re on autopilot and that you’re constantly guided to the next place so you don’t really have to figure out how to get atop that high tower. The way they deal with death I’m completely fine with, it just feels like I’m constantly underestimated by the game while platforming.

  16. PoP is the WORST example of overly forgiving gameplay. Prince of Persia on the GC/PS2/Xbox gave the player a few tries to redo a mistake and then punished him for failing. It worked, it was challenging, and the way it was set up, it was never frustrating (the combat is another story). What is the incentive to play a game if everything is stuck on autopilot? Half of the fun of dangling over a pit of spikes is knowing that you can fall in and die. I didn’t mind not dying in Wario because the challenge came elsewhere.

    I still can’t believe that they removed the sands of time mechanic. Blew my mind. PoP is pretty standard without it.

    Also, DQVIII did have an overworld, only it was the natural evolution of the 2-D maps we were used to seeing. All an overworld IS is a hub to connect you to the towns.

  17. I’m surprised no one mentioned Braid. I think Braid has a great anti death mechanic by throwing everything in reverse. Its particularly appreciated since its a puzzle game as well as a platformer. Mirror’s Edge is usually pretty good about it too (with a few exceptional bad respawns).

  18. My point is that the mechanic is a gimmick and doens’t matter what it is. What matters is that you don’t have something extremely frustrating and repetitive and time consuming (whether its active – redoing a level, or passive – Too Human’s valkyries anyone?). How its done is a gimmick different people are trying make and contextualize.

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