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  • The Role of Interpretation in Prince of Persia

    [12.08.09]
    - Finn Haverkamp
  •  This article contains significant spoilers for Ubisoft Montreal's 2008 title Prince of Persia.

    The Beginning is the End is the Beginning

    Interpretation plays an important role in our world. Religious interpretation, political interpretation, economic, medical; concerning almost everything, perception greatly affects how people choose to react. The effectiveness of something is wholly dependent upon how people perceive them, rather than their intention otherwise. As well, the effectiveness of story is dependent upon the interpretation of given information. As such, video games, too, are subject to the power of interpretation. Ubisoft Montreal's 2008 Prince of Persia is an excellent example of how interpretation can affect satisfaction with a game.

    Ubisoft Montreal has a history of writing impactful, surprise endings. Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Assassin's Creed -- each game made an attempt to shift the story and emotional experience at the last minute. The newest Prince of Persia follows this trend, but Montreal's success is debatable.

    Prince of Persia opens with a vision, one that is to reoccur in various forms throughout the game. The vision, to which Elika, the Prince, and players are all witness, reveals that the game's female lead, Elika, had previously died. But because of his love for her, the King, Elika's father, makes a pact with the god of darkness to bring her back. "If you shall have your wish, then give me mine," commands Ahriman. And the King, to revive Elika, frees Ahriman from his millenia-long imprisonment, choosing to sacrifice not only himself, but the world as well.

    At the end of Prince of Persia, Elika is able to reseal the evil god Ahriman into the Tree of Life, but in doing so, she is forced to sacrifice herself, losing her life for a second time. The foreshadowing was there all along. Elika would become weak after each healing and continuously reaffirm her absolute determination to seal away Ahriman.

    Additionally, though the recurring vision is most specifically a memory of her first death, it also haunts the characters throughout the game, predicting her second. After she dies, control is returned to players and, with Elika in their arms, players walk slowly to a dais outdoors, where Elika is laid to rest. Players are led to believe the game has ended, that walking Elika to the dais is their final action, because the game credits roll as they do so. But then, the vision of Elika's death and revival plays again, and all becomes clear.

    I liked the ending of Prince of Persia. Everything you and Elika had worked for, was it all so easily undone? Could you bring yourself to release Ahriman into the world? Was Elika worth that much to you? Or rather, was Elika worth that much to the Prince? Or, maybe, how much choice did you or the Prince really have anyway?

    Character

    Felt throughout Prince of Persia is a shadow of questioning. The Prince defines his own character quite often during this adventure, particularly if players take the many opportunities to speak with Elika voluntarily. The Prince is selfish, objectifies women, and is constantly concerned with gold and treasures. All that the Prince really wants is to find his gold-loaded lost donkey. Or at least that's what the Prince would have players and Elika believe. But because of the demeanor in his voice and his assistance of Elika, players continually wonder if the Prince is as selfish as he claims. Players are curious to discover if the Prince, via his experiences with Elika, has the capacity to change forever for the better.

    At the same time, four Corrupted enemies and Elika's father demonstrate the capacity for human egoism, greed, and vanity (though, one of the Corrupted, the Warrior, turned towards darkness altruistically). The Corrupted taunt at players, causing them to ponder on the Prince's own potential for evil. In particular, the constant jeering of the Concubine during her battles, tempting the Prince to join her and give in to his true self, causes Prince, Elika, and players alike to be wary of the Prince's guarded attitude and to question his ultimate desires.

    Contrastingly, Elika sharply denies any similarity to the Concubine, stating definitely, "I'm nothing like her." And really, she isn't. Elika's character, motives, and desires are never doubted: she is pure-hearted, noble, selfless, and determined in her singular goal to seal away Ahriman and save the kingdom of Ahura. Her one-dimensionality serves as a light before which the Prince stands silhouetted, revealing both his goodness and otherwise.

    However, Prince of Persia features an open world structure and branching game goals. Being able to go to anyplace and fight the Corrupted in whichever order, the Prince and Elika and the relationship between them is constricted to consistency. Whereas most stories are structured linearly and allow for dynamic character development with peaks and valleys in their progression or descent, Prince of Persia prioritizes gameplay structure over linear emotional development, forcing the personality of the characters to follow suit. Since players are free to witness most story events in any order, Elika and the Prince are restricted to flat, static, roles. Given this narrative style, however, Ubisoft Montreal did an admirable job of conveying the complexities of the Prince, by using Elika and the Corrupted as continually representative of his potential to develop either comedically or tragically.

    Fate

    At the beginning of this adventure, the Prince, lost in a strange sandstorm, stumbles upon the forgotten kingdom of Ahura. As the Prince struggles against the storm, pushes against it, a narrator speaks to players: "The wind is free, but the sand goes where it is blown, unaware of the world around it, whirling on the breath of the gods on the mercy of the storm that engulfs it. What is one grain of sand in the desert? One grain amongst the storm?"

    The Prince doesn't like fate; he also doesn't believe in it. He says so several times throughout the story. The second time the Prince is witness to the vision (when players acquire the second power from the temple), the Prince has not yet realized that the vision is a memory, and believes it to be a prediction. The Prince says to Elika, "Just because we saw that doesn't mean it will come true. [. . .] They don't have to be true. No one can tell you the future." Though the Prince claims that nobody may dictate his future, whether or not his claims are true are open to interpretation. In fact, both the ending of the game and its ultimate message are open to interpretation.

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