Prince of Persia and Stockholm Syndrome

January 20, 2009 at 10:17 pm (Editorial Theses)

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Ideas do not exist in vacuums. It is a principle that holds true for poetry, prose – and video games. So if Prince of Persia is released at a time when the Nintendo Wii regularly sells out in stores, it will be difficult to examine its intentions without stumbling over phrases like “dumbing down” and “the casual gamer.” After all, the game seems to play itself at times, and the boss fights (which comprise the majority of the combat) are literally impossible to lose. How is Prince of Persia not aimed squarely at the “new” gamer? How is it not a simplified platformer meant to draw in a new audience at the expense of offering any real challenge? The discussion usually begs the question: is difficulty really the bar by which we measure a game’s quality?


Yet in Prince of Persia’s case, we must grant that the question of quality is not about difficulty but interactability. You must press buttons to get through the game, for sure, but the timing and coordination required is minimal. It is akin to flipping the page of a book. You ought to do it at the right time, so as not to interrupt the narrative, but there is only one page to turn at a time and, once you perform the minor flipping motion, nothing else is required of you. You do not have to aim the page or turn it at the same time that you move the book away from you.

But if we reduce Prince of Persia to turning the pages of a book, we must also admit that Prince of Persia has reduced platforming to its axioms. You must jump – press X! – and you must traverse a platform – push on the stick! The rest, Prince of Persia says, is unnecessary obfuscation. In a way, Prince of Persia has not simplified platforming but pruned it. It unearths the fundamental draw of platforming – the feeling of movement and the satisfaction of proper timing – and lays it bare for the player. No more frustrating bits that have heretofore gone hand in hand with platforming: repeating jumps, stale combat, etc. All that is left is what makes a game like this fun. Or so Prince of Persia hopes.

Prince of Persia might actually be ahead, rather than a product, of its time. Games For Windows Magazine once wondered aloud if game death was not simply a holdover from simpler times. For the arcades, it was a financial necessity. Can games of the twenty-first century find other ways to challenge the player? GFW asked.

Prince of Persia appears to do just that. Except the player does die – if not literally. He or she falls into the bottomless pit only to be saved by Elika, but there is no functional difference between Elika and a “You Died. Loading…” screen. In the former case, canon is preserved, as the Prince himself never perishes, but Elika’s influence ends there.

Here is where we must wonder if gamers are not suffering a bit of Stockholm Syndrome when they deride the game’s “easiness.” After being forced to perish under the slimy feet of monsters for decades, they have grown to love that which they once cursed: replaying long, frustrating sections filled with unfair deaths, and so on. Over twenty years later, Prince of Persia offers them their freedom. No longer will they be forced to replay content in order to extend a game’s lifetime from minutes to hours. Yet the game is condemned for it.

It is also important to note that every jump needs to be completed. You cannot beat the game without mastering the timing. (I have no notion of what happens if you never complete the timing in combat. I assume it ends sooner or later – or you simply give up.)

If Prince of Persia is making any profound statements about the platforming genre, it is its ability to reduce the gameplay to what is rewarding whilst removing what is not. This, coupled with dialogue and characterization that is actually enjoyable, leaves one with a pleasant aftertaste. The answer to the  question of quality, however, turns out to be, “What kind of favor are we talking about here?” A minute after Prince of Persia promises freedom from frustrating retries, it sends you scurrying along a thirty-second series of jumps only to plop you right back at the beginning of the series when you screw up during the thirty-first second.

This hypocrisy is troubling, mostly because it suggests that Prince of Persia is not trying to evolve the genre beyond retries and player deaths. It has replaced death with a more narrative-proper “reset” (Elika), but it has not solved the dilemma of replaying content. If restarting the player at the last secure footing he stood on is profound, then we must give credit for that innovation to Portal – if not something even older.

What of the game’s attempts to distill platforming to its basic elements? Even if we, for the moment, ignore the combat (which is so atrocious it can hardly be discussed without changing the thesis of this essay), we will still be troubled by the fact that the game offers essentially one environment for us to experience. If the player ever accidentally travels between the Ancient Citadel and Ahriman’s Tower, she will not likely notice. Is it Stockholm Syndrome speaking to say that, well, maybe the lava world and ice world idea, effected in every platformer since Super Mario Bros. 3, is not so bad after all?

Nor does the gameplay deepen in complexity as you go, another tried-and-true method of rewarding (and challenging) the player for getting better at the game. You unlock new powers, but like the game’s lack of player death, this is really just double-speak for lighting up pads – all varieties of which ask the player to simply press triangle (PS3). Granted, you do have to dodge pillars when using half of the pads, but then that is where we find the frustrations (read: thirty-first second).

Prince of Persia has set an almost impossible task before itself. It has challenged the very axioms of video gaming by attempting to bring out only the parts of the platformer genre that are rewarding. Unfortunately, along the way it missed one very important fact of life: without pain, pleasure has no meaning. Without asking the player to perform deft feats of platforming skill, you cannot make the player feel as though he is deft at all – which means he will not care if he wins or loses. Without that feeling, you have almost nothing to offer – especially when you insist on punishing the player anyway on the thirty-first second.

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