I’m not sure at what point I started to get so picky with videogames that I felt I could discard them in the first hour or two of playing. Yesterday I deleted Prince of Persia (2008), a game that’s misnamed twice with big structural problems that once again reminds me that as a PC gamer, I am a second-class citizen.
See, when the game was made, clearly for a console, it was made with a lot of context-sensitive press-the-right-button controls, which in a console gives you four buttons of reasonably identical access, all underneath your thumb. For a console controller, you can smoothly step from A to B to C To D, and the buttons have a clear place in your brain, if you’re a console gamer. When you see an ? or a ? you just know what to press and that means they all move together nice and smoothly. Those four buttons associate together well, and tightly.
On a PC, the buttons are, in order of introduction, spacebar, left mouse button, R, and E. They are represented by a green circle, a slightly left-leaning line in a grey circle, a red circle, and a yellow circle. Also, the right mouse button is used for something that the shoulder buttons do, and it’s represented by a little grey circle that’s meant to mirror the left mouse button icon. Thing is, these are brand new symbols to me. I am not used to thinking of my spacebar as a green button. It’s not a green button, it’s a black button.
What this means is that in the crucial opening of the game, in which they introduce to me the system whereby I am going to interact with their world, instead of telling me ‘Do this, by doing this,’ they instead say ‘do this.’ and wait like a fussy babysitter for me to do the correct thing. Worse, in the tutorial sections, the tutorial techniques aren’t the only way to do things. I cleared a jump without doing the wallrun it wanted me to do, and the game stayed with the big tutorial decals around, waiting for me to go back and Do It Properly. This attitude of Do It Properly carried over to the combat. The tutorial stopped short and told me exactly what moves to do and when, and when I didn’t do them its particular opinion of what was the ‘right’ way, rejuvenated the enemy health and started me over. My dispatch of two inconsequential guards on a road in the middle of nowhere had to be done with a suitably impressive style and flair to appropriately impress Elika, apparently.
This interface shit just gets worse as the game unfolds. When you get to a map interface, where you have to move a cursor over to a spot, and press a button, any PC user would tell you that the button you push should be the mouse button, but it’s not. It’s the fucking R button. R! The letter on the keyboard that’s next to E and T!
The tutorials keep going, too – after an hour of play, I was still getting things tutorial’d at me, as if the in-game explanations that were offered for plot events in the cut scenes and quick-time events I had to do weren’t obvious enough. It wasn’t just flashing up nice, subtle ‘do this to do this’ entries like, for example, Fallout 3’s interface did, it actually explicitly opens a simple, point-and-click map interface that is completely understandable to anyone who’s used Steam or Windows at all, with Welcome To The Map Tutorial. Know what it needs to tell me? ‘You can’t access these places until you’ve accessed these places.’ Cursor-over-this-and-button is the most basic form of interface, but Prince of Persia’s sneering attitude hovers in the background of even this exchange and figures that it has to tell me how to use it.
I’m playing this game while it sneers at me and wonders just what kind of person I think I am, even if I know I’m good enough to shit my way through its puzzles and challenges, insistant that I’m cramping its style. It wants the play experience to look good, but instead of encouraging that by giving me the means to make it so, it stands on the wayside and passive-aggressively refuses to proceed – whether to a success or a failure – until I execute things the way it wants me to, and the way it does it is so awkward. It’s not sword-slash-claw-jump looks cool on its own, it’s that sword-slash into claw triggers a little pre-rendered cinematic of me slashing and throwing the guy, which wouldn’t have happened if I’d gone claw-slash, and then the jump triggers another one. Rather than making it feel, through projection that I’m hitting a guy, putting me a step forward into the game’s world, this experience puts me a step back, by reminding me that I’m not actually acting, I’m asking the computer to act for me.
Now, in a well-made character-driven narrative game, the characterisation drives the mechanics and enhances your experience of them, rather than vice versa. When you’re controlling the sniper, your ability to snipe guys is better, for example, or when a particular space-ship pilot is better at mapping paths meaning you forget about petrol, because they’re taking care of it, or etcetera. Prince of Persia suffers the exact opposite problem: They have a narrative they need to get through, then the mechanics need service, and finally character is used to wrap around these tent-posts like duct tape. Elika jumps wildly in characterisation from a nimble, spry waif to a magical problem solver, to a gutsy action girl, to a sassy flirt, to a pure maiden of pure pureness whose wonderful soul sacrifices itself to the blah bleh blee blah, and you could make a character who was all those things, but those things would need to be executed well, rather than in tiny blocks that can be cut up and thrown together in any order or sequence. Elika’s characterisation leaps around wildly, and with it, our protaganist.
The protagonist, who I assume is a Prince, is wandering nowhere, with a donkey covered in gold, wearing a gigantic fucking claw and carrying a sword while dressing quite outlandishly in a way that has a clear visual motif that nothing in the game I experienced seemed to play into, which instead makes me feel like it was a good idea that got thrown away. We don’t know much about him because in the first hour of play the first thing of him I see that indicates any character beyond basic ‘adventurer’ is that when relating a list of things he wanted to do with his pile of gold, he mentions carpets more than he mentions women, which could indicate something neat about his feet or maybe even his expectations and perspective on women. That’s all I have. In the establishing two hours of play, I wasn’t able to get any more of this character beyond a vague fondness for feet, and I’m a player who has a near obsessive interest in gleaning character details! You know more about Elika’s dad than you are about the guy whose voice is meant to be flowing from your lips!
The character of the Prince being a nobody about whom we know nothing begs the question to me as to why this is a Prince of Persia game anyway? It doesn’t have any connection to the previous games beyond parkour and desert environments, along with what should be a refreshing understanding of punishing failure in platforming. That is to say, it could have been an Assassin’s Creed tie-in with the same amount of connectivity. It’s even worse than that, though, because the character who gets all the development, has the impetus to progress things and even the abilities that are key, is Elika, and you even control her at several points, using a button to activate her abilities. Why is she not the main character? Why not give us a new, different take on things?
Incidentally, this game, a little research tells me, is not Prince of Persia 4 (Sands-Warrior-Two); there were two Prince of Persia games on the Amiga, one more on Windows 95, the three Gamecube-generation games and four games on portable devices. That makes this not Prince of Persia, not 0, not four, and probably Eleven. With no connection to its prior universe and subsequent universe, it should not have been what it was.
Of course, I can’t steer the conversation, but maybe by saying all this shit and spitting angrily about that, I will get away with feeling okay about ditching a game that cost three dollars after only investing two hours trying to enjoy it.