Prince of Persia is an action platforming game with stunningly fluid and lifelike animations in which you are given an unlimited number of lives, but a very strict time limit in which to complete your task. Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before. And yet it feels rather needlessly reductive to suggest that Prince of Persia is in any way a copy of Impossible Mission; whether there was a direct line of inspiration here, or if the this is just a case of parallel evolution, the feel of the two games is markedly different enough to vastly outweigh their clear similarities.
The most obvious of these difference is the change in setting from spy thriller to Arabian Nights fantasy; patrolling robot guards are replaced by dudes with turbans and swords, the evil Dr. Elvin Atombender is replaced by the evil sorcerer Jaffar and so on and so forth. But the genre transplant goes much deeper than simple cosmetic changes. Agent 4125, the hero of Impossible Mission, is the picture of sophistication, making graceful somersaults without a hair falling out of place, or a drop of martini spilled. And the world he inhabits exudes the same vision of perfection, sleek and sanitised. His deaths, when not occurring entirely off-screen, are depicted by his body dissolving into static; a hologram, a phantom. We are not meant to relate to Agent 4125, we are meant to be in awe of him.
The Prince of Persia, on the other hand, is a rather scruffy looking youth who leaps around desperately, limbs flailing, and instead of a constant robotic hum, the sound heard most in Prince of Persia is the grunts and groans of the Prince as he strains his way through another exhausting climb. And again, the game world reflects that. When the Prince dies, the game seems to take a perverse glee in lingering on the image of his broken and mutilated body impaled on spikes or sliced in half by chomping metal teeth. When you are told that you have but an hour to achieve completion, it feels less like an arbitrarily imposed time limit before the villain’s dastardly plans come to fruition and more like an acknowledgement that there is only so much punishment that the human body can physically take.
And this is only the beginning of Prince of Persia’s masterful work in integrating narrative into gameplay. In every other game we’ve covered thus far, whatever narrative elements have existed have generally been conveyed through text, either on screen or in the game manual, or in pre-rendered cutscenes, where the game momentarily wrests control from the player to explain what it’s all about, thus temporarily ceasing to actually be a game. But Prince of Persia is better than that; near every one of its twelve levels ends with some kind of plot twist, but it’s always conveyed through game mechanics, leaving you in control as the scene plays out, and it cannot be overstated how much better this works to draw the player into the plot. Not every one of these little scenelets is a winner, but I can attest that those that do work really will stick with you.
The end of each level (to begin with, at least) is a huge door that must be opened with a switch a couple of screens away, and inevitably, when you return to the door having pressed the switch, something has changed along the way to create a new obstacle; an ominous skeleton on the ground has risen to unlife and must be fended off with your sword, for instance. Or, as in level four, your path is suddenly blocked by a full length mirror with no way around it. Your only choice, then, is to leap through the mirror, and in doing so, create a shadow self that leaps back the other way. This moment could easily have been portrayed in a cutscene, but is infinitely more striking because you, the player, must make an active choice to not just tentatively step through the mirror but to charge at it full tilt and dive through without hesitation, to abandon yourself fully to the other side.
And this is far from the last you will see of your reflected doppelganger. Throughout the game, he serves as a thorn in your side, stealing health potions and slamming gates on you, before finally, at the end of level twelve, you come face to face, swords drawn in a climactic confrontation. But while your swordfighting skill has, by this point, been honed by the legions of anonymous guards you have dispatched along the way, you will soon find that this experience is of no use in this fight, because any wound you inflict upon your opponent will also be inflicted upon yourself. No, the only way to win this battle with yourself is to put away your sword, to realize that violence only begets more violence and to make a decision to break the endless cycle.
Of course, this message is slightly undermined a few minutes later when you have to pull out your sword again to fight Jaffar, and one can’t help but feel like reversing the order of these two fights would only have made the ending stronger, but I cannot stress enough that even without this change, it stands head and shoulders above the narrative efforts of every other game we’ve seen so far. This is a meticulously well-crafted game, and it should be lauded for that.
Which only makes it all the more frustrating that a game that has clearly had an awful lot of thought put into every aspect of its presentation still casts a blond white guy as the protagonist despite the setting making this overwhelmingly unlikely. I mean sure, you can rationalise it away; the ending explains that he only becomes known as “the Prince of Persia” after the events of the game, presumably through marrying the princess, so there’s no reason that he can’t be white, is there? Jake Gyllenhall would be perfect for the role! But isn’t it awfully strange how this kind of rationalisation never goes the other way, hmm? Why doesn’t this mirror reflect both ways?