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September 02, 2010

Vintage Game Club: First Thoughts

PoP: SoT

Earlier this week I was thrilled to receive Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time for the Xbox from friends in the mail. I had bought the game for GameCube on release day, and at some point¹ loaned it out never to see it again. I’ve since played through the second “save point”, so I have played only 5 percent of the game; I have acquired the Dagger and learned about the rewind mechanic.

Immediately I was welcomed back with something about the game that I had intensely loved, and which was made more pertinent by the game’s ending -- the idea that you are listening to a story told by the protagonist, but that mistakes in playing the game are actually simply errors in the retelling of the story. This aesthetic also makes its way into the user interface (particularly the save system, where he’ll say things like “Next time I’ll resume from here”) and the idle animation, where he’ll occasionally say things like, “Shall I continue?”

The combat is still far from the star of the show -- I enjoy the acrobatic leaps over my enemies’ heads, but it’s definitely repetitive. It’s not so much that I don’t enjoy the combat, it just seems out of place with what I want from the game. I know that Ubisoft amped up the combat in the sequels, which is largely why I didn’t play them, and so it was a long drought between this game and the current-gen title, simply called Prince of Persia.

Even though I played this game only eight years ago, there were surprises when I returned to it. One very nice surprise was the addition of 5:1 surround -- when I had played it before, I had no surround set-up, and so the audio experience replaying it is significantly different and wonderful. The environment really comes alive; I’ve had one of those moments when a sound seemed to come from the left and behind me in my house, but turned out to be simply coming from the left rear speaker.

But the biggest surprise is how quaint some of the aesthetic choices seem now. For example, the camera changes that occur when you’re wall-running will often make fairly dramatic changes in the position of the camera, such as to watch the Prince from below, or from a very high angle apparently to accentuate the difficulty of parkour. It’s almost as if the developers are saying, “You get this, right? We’re running on a wall. A wall! That’s just crazy!” It takes me out of the moment-to-moment experience a bit when cameras are moved purely to accentuate the acrobatic nature of the Prince, rather than staying close and maintaining my flow.

Similarly, the post-combat animation where the Prince sheathes his sword on his back breaks both a potential aesthetic tension, in that one now knows that there aren’t further immediate threats, and flow, since it involves a camera change and a bit of time. It’s viewed from the front; the Prince adopts a slightly strange posture and keyframes into a sword-sheathed pose. While from a dynamics perspective it’s nice to know that the next threat will be of a platforming/parkour nature, it’s still disconcerting how it slows the pacing.

Those couple of “quaint” items really remind me of watching old television shows or old films, even from as late as the 1980s. We’ve moved to entertainments that move much more quickly to establish themselves -- whereas “going to the store” in an early film might involve a character exiting his apartment, getting in the car, jump-cutting to driving the car, and parking in the store parking lot, we’ve moved to putting that mental work on the audience by inference or implication -- nowadays we’ll simply jump to that character at the store, browsing for the meaningful thing that will show up later in the storyline.

These elements in PoP:TSoT feel unnecessary now, though I can’t remember finding fault with them before; indeed, I particularly remember certain camera jumps as accentuating the experience. But then, I hadn’t had the experience before, and so a little accentuation perhaps was warranted, to increase my game literacy, to be able to understand just how far the Prince could wall-run, for example, or to teach me what the distance looks like from below, so that when I encounter puzzles where I’m climbing up the walls in a sort of spiral pattern, I can have a sufficient mental model to be able to plan that navigation in advance.

In any case, it’s really terrific to visit with an old friend, and I’m really thankful to The Brainy Gamer for a framework that makes me want to join in and play it again. I look forward to the next several weeks of play.

¹This would have been in the last days of LucasArts, reboot #1, at the end of 2004 -- by my count they have downsized thrice more since then. My heart goes out to any who have been caught up in that this week.

Posted by Brett Douville at September 2, 2010 07:42 AM