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.