Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Stories in the Most Unlikely Places No.1: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

This is the first in a (potential) series of posts aimed at celebrating and championing games which don't just further the art of interactive narrative design, but do so either from unexpected places against unlikely odds, or despite their continuing obscurity. No serious spoilers.

Sands of time was shockingly good. A reboot of an ancient licence, it was handled by an internal development team who up until the previous year had been best known for the N64's Tonic Trouble, and in the six months between announcement and release screens of hack & slash combat had done little to demonstrate any sense of ambition was at play.

Writing aside for a moment, Sands of Time reinvented platforming in a way (arguably, of course) only Mario 64 and Tomb Raider had done in recent memory. The natural grace and stunning agility of the Prince's movement was both sumptuous and rewardingly challenging. Even the combat - though overused and far from nuanced - was at least satisfying in a way every iteration since has failed to grasp.

But let's talk story. That Jordan Mechner - the original PoP's youthful auteur - had only one post-Prince credit to his name has since become moot. When that game is the much-overlooked Last Express, and when his work since has included the Disney iteration of the franchise and award-winning documentary Chavez Ravine, it's easier to see why the project was such a success.

Mechner was brought on as Creative Consultant, and then Writer / Designer, and it's clear from the very first screen that the man meant to rinse the opportunity for all its worth. Unlike a mind-bogglingly large number of even contemporary releases (I'm looking at you, Bioshock) Mechner understands enough about interactive story telling to give the player control immediately, even in the framing device.

And what about that framing device? The Prince steals into Farah's bedroom and proceeds to tell hear a tale unlike any she has heard before. Every level in the game proceeds as a thread of this story, even the Game Over screen is flicked away with a casual, "Wait, that's not how it happened." By the time he finishes his story (and the player the game) we understand just what he's been through and lost, and why it's so vital she believe him.

Despite its innovative rewind mechanic (ultimately a quick-save gimmick, but one so useful and so integrated into the fantasy that the term hardly seems fair) it remains the dialogue and the characters that really mark the experience out as something special. In an industry where gruff talking space marines and broody ninja bitches continue to rule the roost the down-to-earth backtalk...
[after Farah has accidentally shot the Prince during a previous fight
You go ahead. I'll cover you!
Please don't. You're liable to hit me. 

...and resentful bitching...

I'll just ask the first Sand Creature I run into, "Could you direct me to the baths, please?" Well, thank you. "Don't mention it, I used to be a bath attendant back when I was alive... "
...remain a breath of fresh air. The relationship is plausible and fun enough (albeit in a very Hollywood fashion) to invest in, and I genuinely was made to care about the conclusion (of the story, not the inevitably rubbish boss fight) in a way few platformers have managed before or since.

It speaks volumes to the timeless quality of Mechner's writing that no sequel has achieved the same heights. Ubisoft demonstrated startling ignorance of what made the original great when they went all emo with Warrior Within - dislodging Mechner in the process - and even managed to lose much of what made the platforming so sublime in the 2008 reboot-reboot. I appreciated the return to a more likeable hero with first Andy Walsh's 2008 script and then The Forgotten Sands interquel, but it's proved too little too late.

The Sands of Time remains a very personal favourite for me, not to mention a surprise outsider. It plays as well today as it did seven years ago - but it reads even better.


  1. ^^^Most uniform paragraph length ever.

    Sorry the blog's been a bit quiet recently. Too much partying.

    So, what do you think of the 'Unlikely Places' concept? Is this something you'd like to see more of? Got your own suggestions?

    Incidentally, if you've nto read Mechner's interactive narrative rulebook, do it:


  2. I personally would like it, though to me 'Unlikely Places' seems like an odd title. I was surprised by how good the story was in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (though, arguably, it was more the character development that was good than the plot, but then again those can be the same thing...)but it wasn't because the story was unlikely to be there as much as the story was such a breath of fresh air in the games industry in general at the time...

    Basically, to explain without rambling, the title implies that I shouldn't have expected the story to be good, which is in my opinion wrong.

    Also, yes, those are impressively uniform paragraphs.

  3. Tom I have a copy of Sands of Time around here but I still haven't got round to putting it in. I'm always impressed when the heroes of games aren't your standard soldier/big man archetypes.

    That's what always attracted me to Half-Life - you know, apart from the GAME. Not only is your character a humble physicist, but he doesn't say a damn word.

    I'd be interested to hear what other "unlikely places" will turn up on your list.

  4. I've always felt that while Half-Life did introduce a number of interesting story concepts the actual implementation of the concepts is far less well executed than people claim.

    It was wonderful at building a world, but the actual plot was...less than pleasing. As was the writing. But, whatever.

  5. I love series about unlikely/underrated things in gaming!

    I also understand the addictive beauty of uniform paragraph lengths. Pretend the uniformity is an ironic counterpoint to the uniqueness of the writing you discuss.

  6. I'm completely onboard with the idea behind "unlikely places", but unless you have an ace up your sleeve I'd say you kind of shot yourself in the foot by starting with SoT, since it's probably the apex of the concept --like you sort of say yourself, a big part of its impact back then came from the fact that noone saw it coming. In fact, I'm not sure I can think of any other game that fills the bill like this one. Portal, maybe.

    Question: What are you looking at BioShock for? I'm not sure I understand what are you accussing it of.

    @Anonymous: "arguably, it was more the character development that was good than the plot" <-- This is exactly the reason why I often use SoT as a prime example of how good storytelling is preferrable to a good story. As someone said, or maybe forgot to say: "I rather having a well told bad story than a badly told good story".

  7. Glad to see the concept's garnering some discussion.

    I'd agree with anon that the plot itself remained extremely video game-y: beyond the book ending and character relationships it was still go here, fight this, go there, solve that.

    Hah! Retroactive artistic sentiment, the very best kind.

    Don't worry, I have plenty more suprises in mind, largely along the more obscure titles route, or looking at games which wouldn't ordinarily be considered in a narrative light.

    I'm bitching about Bioshock (as usual, though I am using Bioshock 2 as the primary AAA text in my writing classes) because both Bioshock and its sequel open and close with cut scenes.

  8. I've been trying to convince a number of people of what I consider to be a fact...that in most medias (I would consider novels and the like to be different...) character development and interaction is far more important to the quality of a story than the plot is.

    There are, to a certain point, a limited number of interesting plots, but there is a near unlimited number of ways that people can interact with other people (or characters, creatures, etc...).

    I apologize that I'm addicted to parentheses.

  9. @anon

    Fair call, though I'd like to clarify exactly what you're proposing. I teach in my theory classes that yes - there are only so many plots. Due to the nature of what a plot is (a structure which generates drama) you can't mess with it too much.

    What differentiates something great is all the other stuff - dialogue, thematics, character etc. Plot is the skeleton on which you hang all the interesting stuff that makes your story unique.

    This isn't to say that plot isn't important to the quaity of the story. It's vital. It's just that it's not really that exciting for the writer.

  10. Perhaps the best way to put it is to say that the goal should be to choose the plot that will result in the most interesting interactions between the characters?

    I wish I could take your theory class, in all honesty. (I have far less writing experience and knowledge than I would like...)

  11. Bang on. The plot's there to draw out your character interactions, to generate drama around your controlling idea (which is the term McKee uses for whatever the driving thought is behind your creation).

    Ah, anon, you flatter me. But better than any theory course on the planet is simply reading and writing every day, and joining a critique group to get feedback on your work. Cheaper too ;-)

  12. I'm a bit late to the party but this is a feature I really like the sound of. It's always great to hear about overlooked works that have influenced or left a big impression on creatives -- especially ones that I respect.

    I actually started Sands of Time on the Gamecube but the sound quality was so woefully bad that I decided to reserve the experience for the PC. However, like Harbour Master, I haven't got round to playing it yet. This has certainly put it back to the front of the queue and considering I'm on the brink of finishing Uncharted 2 -- a game which features some really dull platforming -- this might just be the answer. Thanks!