Ah, noble traveller, come, sit a while. I see you’ve journeyed long on this storied path through deserts of blogging and have quested long and far from the established trade routes. Is it their hollow words, the jangling imprints on their coins that remind you of all the exchanges that led them to your hands? Ah, no matter. Here, you will find rich fruit, sweet and strong, and words that have been poured simply from my lips into your ears.
I am not a man given to extravagance; a game given is a game preciously saved. If I am to be honest, it takes quite a bit to make me loose my purse-strings and spill gold in the name of a purchase for myself… But with this game, ah, this one… I bought it for myself; then I was given it, and bought it three more times, for friends to enjoy. This is a rare prize, a jewel, indeed.
Come, stare in the fire, and listen.
The Narrative Must Flow
Starting from scratch, Sands Of Time is the story of a poncy Prince’s worst weekend told through the medium of an Arabian-Nights style wander through a beautiful but decayed palace, populated with dreadful sand zombies, a byproduct of a timekeeping accident gone dreadfully wrong.
Sands Of Time is pretty much a platform game, but one which made the transition from two dimensional space like its ancient forebear to three dimensional space with excellent grace. Rather than make the platform jumping experience all about timing and frantic speed, this game instead seeks to make it about flow, changing the tools and focus of your movement even as you move. This experience – flow – is very important to the game and one that you’ll find the rest of the series expands on adequately well, and often in interesting directions.
The parkour genre of games is one defined by a mechanical expression of a feeling of freedom, and since videogames are videogames that feeling of freedom is also tempered by the sickening crunch of feeling your shinbones shoot up through your hips. Freedom brings with it a chance to fail, and Sands Of Time is one of the paramount parkour games of its generation. Where most parkour games play hard and loose with failure, though, Sands Of Time has this wonderful mechanic where, Braid-like, you can simply choose to reverse time and try again. When you present a player with a vast landscape of ledges and pitfalls and say go nuts the threat of immediate gravity-related death is usually enough to keep players from doing anything silly, and therefore, fun. Not so in Sands Of Time – you will try odd things and sometimes they won’t work, and you’ll see they won’t work, and juuust in time, you’ll thumb on the reverse-time button and jump back to the place you last felt safe. It’s amazing how convenient and fluid this feels.
Normally a mechanic like this is either artily interpreted or ignored in the story. In Sands Of Time, though, they took it a different route.
But It Must Also Stop
As a veteran of the Jordan Mechner ‘franchise’ such as it was originally, I hadn’t really expected much in the storytelling from this game. There was certainly a bit of common thread from Prince of Persia to here in play, where dungeons were elaborate puzzles of nested platforms, and the limits of how a human could run and jump made navigation up and down and through a level challenging in a new way. But story? Well, the original game did actually do things with its minimalistic storytelling elements, where only a tiny number of non-play experiences interjected in levels to add variety. The sequel had more elaborate plot sequences and a little bit more storytelling through action, but broadly speaking, I was not expecting Sands Of Time.
First, Sands Of Time has a narrator, something I hadn’t really experienced in an action videogame before. While he’s not Rucks from Bastion, the Prince’s storytelling tone lends the narrative this lovely feeling to it, where the voice shares a subjective experience, but also lets slip extra information. There’s even a lovely interaction with two of the themes in this game – of manipulation of time and of failure, where if you die, the narrator covers for you, but saying, wait, it didn’t happen that way. This sort of language creates paratext in a way most videogames can’t – where the failures are woven into the main story without detracting from the main narrative. Every fuck-up, every death, is meant to be part of the greater story, of the Prince rewinding time and trying again, so much and so often he can’t even quite remember how the story goes.
I’m sorry for bringing up memories of high school English classes for you, but just as the voice of Haulden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye serves to contrast the his actions with his later opinions of those actions, so to does the Prince’s narration colour the way he acts later.
Farah is a thornier issue. In this story, Farah is definitely the deuteragonist. She confronts the Prince, she objects to his opinions, she forms her own, and in one case, even takes advantage of the Prince and establishes her own plan. I actually quite like those elements, and found myself very fond of her. Still, even though I like her, and like how she’s handled in the story, there is that ugly point that she is ultimately rescued by the Prince, and her attempt to commandeer the story goes wrong. So does the Prince’s, but he’s still the one with the protagonist pants at the end of the story. While I quite like Farah, and her dialogue, and her relationship with the Prince, it still feels like a strong pass, rather than something to exalt as an example to other storytellers. And the story arc does fall down in the end.
And It May Also Crash
For a game I enjoyed so much, though, in hindsight, I had plenty of reasons to be mad at it. First, the controls on the PC were pretty awful, with this bizarre spread across both hands that I was not used to at all. Broadly speaking, I was used to my mouse hand being used for engaging and interacting with the world, but my keys hand doing the job of moving me around that world. Thanks to moving a trigger button to the mouse, Sands Of Time asked me to instead use my right hand to interact with the world.
The big finale boss fight wasn’t even anticlimactic. I honestly felt like a cutscene death, just grabbing the Evil Vizier by his robe and stabbing him in the chest, should have done the trick. I understand some of the motivation to avoid an ending like that is so that, from the audience’s perspective (both the player and the people in the scene) our Prince doesn’t just look like a straight-up asshole murderer. Thing is, I would have assumed, by this point in the game’s development, the people responsible for the combat system might have said to one another: Hang on, we suck at this and decided to replace it with an atmospheric cut-scene.
Yes, it’s one of those games where a central mechanic sucks, and it sucks in part because it’s been shoehorned into a story and doesn’t, in all seriousness really have to be here. There’s one point of dramatic tension introduced by combat – where the Prince has to re-kill his sand-zombie-ghost dad, but beyond that, all the most memorable parts of this game were shown in the non-combat sequences of parkour and exploration – long, elaborate puzzles.
You might wonder if a game that’s entirely about parkour, rather than parkour as connecting sinew between dangerous combat bits could be considered fun. I’d point to Mirror’s Edge and tell you to stop being silly, I suppose. Either way, it feels like the skill set that lets you put enjoyable parkour experiences in videogames are completely alien to the skill set that lets you craft enjoyable combat sequences, so why not let Sands Of Time stand on what it does best? Well, far be it from me to complain too much, as it seems the complaint everyone had about Sands Of Time was that its combat was awful and the sequel, The Warrior Within tried to address this while also doing everything badly. But we’ll talk about that another time.
Not next week, though!
You can get Sands Of Time at Good Old Games and Steam. I had a slightly better experience playing it on the Gamecube, where the controller was more immediately responsive and familiar than on the PC, but having gone back to replay it, the problem there was me, not it.
I mean I shouldn’t mention it but…
Look, I may possibly be talking about The Forgotten Sands sometime in the next few weeks. I’ll give away up front that it’s not a bad game but it’s also not a great game. If you want Sands of Time on Steam, though, you can buy Forgotten Sands, get some goodies, and also a copy of Sands of Time as well. Just saying.
Buy it if:
- You like fluid, flowing parkour.
- You’ve any interest in playing other Prince games and want to know where to start.
- You like foppy, prancy boys who fail a lot (it’s a genre).
Avoid it if:
- You dislike fixed-camera parkour.
- You need a lot of freedom in your platforming.
- You’re easily made car-sick by shifts in movement.