Prince of Persia

It's easy on the eyes, even if the watercolor visuals do occasionally look like they were left out in the rain. The gameplay is always diverting and sometimes exhilarating, and is served in very generous portions. The kind of generous portions that leave me with sour acid in my throat, like those under-flavored, under-heated scrambled eggs I always over-consume at breakfast buffets. Even while I was entertained, the experience of playing the game felt somehow hollow. I'm not sure I can put my finger on why, but I'll try.

Consider just one detail: the "light seeds" you're expected to run around collecting. Within the larger sadness that is video gaming, this strikes me as especially sad. These abstract balls of denatured fluff are amazingly frank about their own meaninglessness. It's almost as if the game designers, like behavioral scientists behind a one-way mirror, want to see if we'll still pursue these things even with the usual disguise of gold coins or jade idols peeled away. The pure essence of a reward unit hangs there in space, embarrassingly naked. The eye-catching glimmer has been carefully separated from the thing that once glimmered it. I impulsively reach out to grab it, but open my hand to find it empty. The scientists scribble their notes behind the glass.  It's a Pavlovian trap--all bell and no dinner.

Then there's the design of the game world. To me it gave the impression of a vast training facility or amusement park, certainly not a plausible or living world once inhabited by actual people. The world map is too symmetrical, too schematic. The same way that faux plaster "ruins" might be arranged haphazardly around a roller-coaster to lend it an ancient Persian theme, the world of the game is too obviously custom-built to be the prince's personal playground, only after the fact dressed up to look like incongruous floating chunks of tombs and palaces. Yes, I know: all games are custom-built playgrounds. But for me, one of the chief pleasures of the earlier Prince of Persia games (and the Tomb Raider series among others) is the way in which landscape traversal puzzles are intricately folded and hidden within plausible, if exotic, landscapes.

As far as I know it's impossible to die in this game. If you miss a jump, the teleporting princess warps to your location, grabs you, and warps back to the last restart point. From a gameplay standpoint, this isn't functionally much different from dying and immediately reincarnating at the last restart point. But it drains a lot of the excitement out of the narrative, because the main character floats in a shimmering bubble of immunity, never in any danger and never risking anything. I suppose you could make the case that the character doesn't know he can't die; for all he knows the princess could botch the rescue on the next jump. But this brings me to the matter of the prince's overall attitude, as rendered by Nolan North in a bantering, nonchalant performance that hardly ever varies in tone. The whole Han Solo routine, grinning and shrugging in the face of danger, might've worked if I believed the danger was real, because then it would seem like a form of courage. But since the game world feels like a playground already, and the gameplay promises that mommy will always catch you if you fall, the prince's evident lack of concern only confirms that it's all just a game for him. What's that you say? I need to f*cking chill because it is just a game? That's the thing, though; it's supposed to be a game for me; it's not supposed to be a game for him.

Finally, the cleverly-constructed ending might've been hauntingly effective had the story that came before it had any weight or the characters any pathos. As it was, it felt to me like a good idea wasted.