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...
Farah[after Farah has accidentally shot the Prince during a previous fight]You go ahead. I'll cover you!Prince
Please don't. You're liable to hit me.
...and resentful bitching...
PrinceI'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.