Prince of Persia (2008) final impressions (long post)
Note: this is not a full review as such, but rather a final summing up of some points I didn’t address in my initial post on the game.
We’re only a few days into the new year and already I’m falling behind in my promise to post more. If I’d been keeping up with myself, I’d have told you that I completed Prince of Persia 2008 a couple of days before Christmas. What has motivated me to post about it now is an interesting video feature about it made by Shamus Young, whose blog, Twenty Sided, is one of my daily pit stops. In Shamus’ view, Prince of Persia is “the most innovative game of 2008”. Well, with a claim as brazen as that, I just had to watch the video to find out his reasons, particularly given that my reaction to the game was somewhat more lukewarm.
I’ve only come across a small number of bloggers who write extremely intelligently about games, and Shamus is one of those precious few. His arguments regarding Prince of Persia and the accessibility of games in general make a lot of sense, and I’m even tempted to say I agree with him 100% as far as his overview of the situation goes. Where I disagree is with regard to the desired outcome. In a nutshell, Shamus would like to see everyone playing games, and he believes the best way to do this is to effectively level the playing field. He presents Nintendo’s Wii as an example of this strategy working. Unfortunately, from my perspective, the Wii is a prime example of what I don’t want to see happen to gaming on a widespread basis. Ignoring the fact that I find most of the games on that platform dull and anaemic beyond belief (something which Shamus addresses, pointing out that, while the Wii’s games may not appeal to everyone, the overall philosophy behind them can and should be carried over to other styles), I find the whole concept of a “casual” gaming platform where everything is dumbed down to appeal to the lowest common denominator repellent. True, the end result is that everyone’s in the same boat, but that’s only because the control system is so clumsy that everyone, regardless of their gaming ability, ends up thrashing around like a disabled jellyfish.
Intentionally handicapping everyone is not the answer. Nor, I think, is the Prince of Persia approach, where you literally can’t reach a “Game Over” screen because the game prevents you from ever putting a foot wrong. Yes, accessibility is a great thing, but part of the challenge of any game is trying to win. Obviously, winning is only worthwhile if the road to victory is in itself entertaining, but creating a situation in which you can’t actually lose robs the experience of much of its tension. I’m reminded of Brad Bird’s film, The Incredibles, where the underlying message seems to be that we can’t all be the best at everything. We all have to find what we’re good at and work hard at excelling in our own particular field. Creating a glass ceiling where everyone is perennially stuck at the bottom is a recipe for disaster.
To be honest, I disagree with the notion that getting every man and his dog to pick up a gamepad (or a mouse, or a Wiimote) is necessarily a good thing. I can understand it from a cold business perspective, but from the point of view of a gamer, and admittedly a slightly snobbish one at that, I personally quite like this hobby being one that not everyone shares. Shamus points out that around 90% of Americans watch television, whereas only about 50% play games. But do we really want gaming to be more like television? I for one look at the amount of dreck on the dreaded box and am thankful that, while there may be a lot of unmitigated garbage in the world of gaming, the situation as regards TV is a whole lot worse. Virtually everything on TV seems to be geared towards making things as accessible to the largest number of people possible, which leads to homogenisation and a dearth of complex material. Ultimately, I like my games to have a bit of complexity to them, simply because I enjoy being challenged, and I’m fundamentally opposed to the idea of games being simplified to make them more accessible at the expense of the core audience. Now, I’m not claiming for a moment that Shamus is suggesting all games be like this, but I hope this explains, in some way, what my fundamental problem is with the approach demonstrated in Prince of Persia.
I should probably point out that I don’t regret playing Prince of Persia for a moment. The visuals were spectacular, the level design often extremely innovative, the music - by industry veteran Inon Zur - is beautiful, and I even found myself beginning to care about the two protagonists in spite of their overload of ‘tude. At the same time, however, I can’t say I felt particularly satisfied when I completed the game, and I suspect that this has a lot to do with the game not having provided a challenge. Sure, I mistimed a number of jumps and ended up being bounced back to my previous location. And yes, a number of the various fights in the game took a long time to complete. With respect, though, these didn’t constitute challenges. Getting through each area was a simple case of repeating any missteps until I got them right, with the handy “Elika reaches down and pulls you to safety every time you fall off a platform” mechanic being little more than a more elegant implementation of the “quick-save”/”quick-load” feature that has been standard in PC games for decades. Meanwhile, the fights took a long time because the combat system is an awful, clumsy and unnecessarily drawn-out affair. The designers, in a roundabout way, even seem to acknowledge this, in that a frequent “reward” for getting through areas particularly quickly is not having to fight enemies waiting for you at the end of them. At best, the combat in this game is a hindrance that you have to slog through in order to enjoy the next platforming segment. At worst, it’s a huge pain in the neck that isn’t even remotely fun and makes me want to walk away and do something else.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that Prince of Persia impressed me to an extent, but not in the way that it did Shamus. As an example of a game aimed at a mass market audience rather than only at experienced gamers, many of its concessions to the uninitiated succeeded in making me feel like I wasn’t getting the challenge I wanted, while the combat implementation was so lousy that I often ended up feeling not unlike one of the newcomers to gaming described by Shamus - the ones who feel like giving because they are provided with such a frustrating learning environment. Interestingly, Shamus addresses the former problem in a follow-up post, where he suggests three ways in which the designers could have provided more of a challenge for the experienced gamer via optional toggles; again, I find myself agreeing completely with what he said, and I can’t help thinking that I would have enjoyed his hypothetical “advanced” Prince of Persia more than the “casual” version that was actually released on store shelves… provided they’d also succeeded in refining the combat, that is.
Overall, my final score for Prince of Persia would fall somewhere in the region of 7/10. There’s much to admire in it, but from my perspective, its design philosophy is really not something I’d like to see become the norm in games. There’s such a thing as trying to be too all-inclusive.
Posted: Sunday, January 04, 2009 at 2:09 PM
| Comments: 3
A very interesting post. I have not played Prince of Persia but a lot of your comments about 'levelling the playing' field seem universally applicable. Since I'm mostly interested in films I would bring up an example of a lady at the office I used to work in who came to me one day and said "I've just received some Bette Davis films. I'm so excited! They're in colour too so I don't have to put up with them being in black and white any more!"
All I could do was smile and nod through gritted teeth, but I would submit that if black and white puts someone off watching a film then we shouldn't change the film, or anything else, to make it more amenable to their tastes. (I'm not a big fan of westerns but I do not think adding a car chase or two would help me like them more!) I know it is a rather anti-capatalistic attitude but the differences between things should be celebrated, rather than they ways in which they are similar. I'm not the best game player in the world (only consistently being able to finish the Tomb Raider games, and don't ask me how I'm doing with S.T.A.L.K.E.R.!), but I do not feel that it is the games fault as such that I have a hard time completing it - just that my skill levels are not up to the task.
On a side note I picked up Left 4 Dead for the PC yesterday, so I left off my Tomb Raiding to test it out. The single player campaigns are quite short but I thought that the multi-player online aspect was really well done, with the ability to connect to games with players of a similar skill level to yourself, so you do not end up either continually willing against little competition or (in my case!) dragging the team down through complete ineptitude! Also, as with anything, there needs to be time to get used to the experience of playing online and I think that game does it beautifully. I ended up playing for an embarassingly long time - 4 p.m. to 4 a.m.! - which must be a sign of a good game.
Posted by: colinr, January 4, 2009 5:58 PM
Well the other side of the argument is that instead of innovation we get better graphics...More realistic graphics but dumbed down gameplay. Thats what the X-Box 360 and Playstation 3 give you....Better graphics but the variety of games on each format is truly bad with certain type of games dominating each console such as the first person shooter of which there are far too many made.
The Wii deserves some praise because it really got people who weren't into games playing them and all ages at that.
It's not Nintendo's fault that western developers have not embraced their console and made huge numbers of games for it....Frankly most western developers are dumb because they are not embracing the Wii and thus we get the same type of "games" released for it. If they did develop more for it we might start to see variety on the Wii and they might actually make more money but instead they just throw out another poor movie tie in or another first person shooter or car racing game....This generation of consoles are suffering from having far too many same themed titles with little innovation.
Posted by: FoxyMulder, January 5, 2009 2:43 PM
“The Wii deserves some praise because it really got people who weren’t into games playing them and all ages at that.”
Again, though, I’m not really sure why, as gamers, we should be celebrating this. In theory, the whole world being one big happy family of gamers is a nice thing to aspire to, but in practice it seems to lead to dumbing down across the board. And I don’t think the blame can solely be laid at the feet of Western developers for not embracing the machine: Nintendo have hardly been shy about unrelentingly pursuing the casual market - in fact, that seems to be the entire basis of the console’s existence - and their own output has been shockingly limp, barring a handful of titles that mostly came out in the early days of the Wii.
Posted by: Michael Mackenzie
, January 5, 2009 4:17 PM
Comments on this entry and all entries up to and including June 30th 2009 have been closed. The discussion continues on the new Land of Whimsy blog: