I am not Prince Dastan, nor was meant to be…

In storytelling terms, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time – the game, not the film of the same name – is quite possibly the most elegant game I’ve had the pleasure to play. It’s not deep, it’s neither Ulysses nor Shakespearean tragedy nor Moby Dick, but within the medium it tells a story, tells it well and does certain things that would be difficult to pull off as nicely in any other medium. Differently from the film, it also knows throughout that it’s basically a tale from the Arabian Nights. It doesn’t try to complicate things. It’s straightforward, and in that straightforwardness it finds a grace the film can only dream of.

There’s something ironic in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time – the film this time – being more video game-like than the game that spawned it. It features a dagger with a big red button (okay, it’s a ruby, but it’s basically a button on a sharp, pointy gamepad) without even a sense of self-awareness. It does the whole slow-motion thing just to look cool. It has big-name actors called in to do very little of interest, but in grandiose RP accents.

What it mainly has, though, is a director who doesn’t know how to direct action in an interesting way, who doesn’t even seem to be interested in action scenes – which is fine, if you’re directing, say, Donnie Brasco (which I still like a lot), but I already thought that Mike Newell was the wrong man for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Funnily enough, that film felt like a video game to me: in this level, you need to retrieve the golden egg, in that level you must free your friends from the mermaids’ realm, and in the final level you must navigate the hedge maze and face the boss enemy. (Thing is, levels are okay in games, but in movies they make for clumsy, mechanical structure.)

There are many action setpieces in Prince of Persia: The Subtitle of Subtitles – but they’re largely handled in a clumsy way that breaks the flow when that is the last thing you want to do. Have a main character whose talent is for parkour? Don’t film and edit the scenes in a way that makes it hard to believe the guy is actually doing all those tricks. Tighly controlled continuity is key in such scenes (Casino Royale did this pretty well in its Madagascar sequence), but Newell insists of cutting after an acrobatic movement’s already begun and/or before it finishes, so what we get is disjointed staccato scenes that have as much flow as mud.

What is just as sad: the film aims for charming banter between its two main leads, but much of the time I found myself thinking, “The game had better banter.” Disregarding the plot differences between film and game (and there are many), if a computer game has banter that is better written than that of its big screen adaptation, you need to get a better script. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Prince of Persia: The Thingamy of Doodah featured horrible writing – it was serviceable for most of the time, but it was oh so plodding. It was clunky. And whoever okayed Ben Kingsley’s lines and then decided to give him the direction, “Act as if you want the audience to find out you’re actually the villain five seconds into the movie”… Well, as I said: I don’t think that Mike Newell was the right man for the job. He wasn’t even the right man for the non-action scenes. And I’m starting to think that Donnie Brasco was a fugazi. Fuggedaboutit.

P.S.: One of my favourite parts of the game – the story is told in retrospect, by the Prince who has already lived through the adventure and is trying to convince the Princess of his tale. (Great reverse Sheherazade move, that one.) When his tale comes to the point where he falls to his death, is impaled by spikes or cut in half by a spinning blade (due to player carelessness), he stops himself and goes, “No, that’s not right. I didn’t die. Let me retell this part.” He basically retells those bits until he gets the storytelling (and the player the moves) right. Lovely touch of meta.

Princely update

In case anyone’s interested, Rock Paper Shotgun has a “Wot I Think” on Prince of Persia. They say much of what I think about the game, putting it much more succinctly. I guess that’s why they are professional games journalists who get paid for this sort of thing, and I’m a lowly fan with a big mouth.

Also, after seven games and two reboots, the Prince of Persia series gets a movie  version, which will make any film afficionado rejoice. Or regurgitate. It’s one of the two. In any case, it’s got proper actors and even a director who’s made good films – which is more than most video game movies can say for themselves. It even features good ol’ Satipo:

You throw me the idol and I throw you the whip... as soon as I stop screaming, that is.

Could this be an actual video game movie that is worth the admission? Or will we be wishing afterwards that we could use the Sands of Time to rewind the previous two hours?

He may be easy, but he’s a prince

What makes a video game enjoyable? It’s obviously different things for different gamers: some like non-stop action, while others prefer games to be slower, more cerebral experiences. Some are graphics fetishists, while others say that gameplay complexity trumps visuals every time. Myself, I like a good narrative in a game, but I also want the gameplay and storytelling to be intertwined.

In the end, however, what it boils down to for most people, and in the most circular fashion at that, is that most people want games to be fun. They want to be taken out of their everyday lives for a while. Obviously that’s one of the reasons why so-called ‘casual games’ have been a major success in the last few years. Whether it’s Peggle or Plants vs. Zombies, or indeed one of the gazillion variations on the theme of Mah Jong, they’re all making money compared to what they cost that make most ‘non-casual’ games cry into their DVD boxes.

Is it just me, or is casual gaming more sexy than sweating, bespectacled nerds hunching over their gamepads for whole weekends? Or is that just evil advertising messing with my brain?

Now, old-school gamers like myself, who remember the times when a pixel was bigger than your head and the height of gaming was yellow pill addicts running through mazes and frogs crossing the street… Many of those gamers have nothing but disdain for casual games. Why? Because they’re easy. There’s little to no challenge in Puzzle Quest, they claim, so even your grandmother can play them and succeed. The most embarrassing examples of such old-school gamers will then go on a rant about the evils of instant gratification and those horrible people who feel entitled to winning a game every now and then without serious training.

Myself, I like a challenge every now and then – but to be honest, next to working 100% and having a relationship, I definitely see the appeal of games that are not punishingly hard. I see the fun in games that you can pick up, play for 15 minutes and drop again feeling that you’ve had a good time and cleared your mind.

However, there is such a thing as a game being too easy. I’m currently playing Prince of Persia, a reboot of a reboot of a classic gaming series back from the days when computers were big as houses and joysticks had one button. It’s a beautifully crafted game: it looks and sounds gorgeous, and it tells a nice story to boot. But, honestly: if I wanted a game that practically plays itself, I’d watch a DVD.

Behind every weirdly dressed man there's a woman with glowing hands. Or something.

It’s a real shame, because the game could easily have been as much fun or more while still providing a bit of a challenge. As it is, you never feel like you’re controlling your character – and for me, that’s one of the big things when it comes to good games. If it’s there, you never think about it, but the moment that control is taken from you, you can’t help noticing. In previous incarnations of the Prince of Persia series, your character performed the most amazing free-running acrobatics, but the controls were tight enough to make you feel that you were the one making the Prince run along walls, parkouring his way through Arabian Nights-inspired worlds. In this game, however, it’s enough to run roughly in the right direction and press a button at roughly the right time, and hey presto! you’re running along walls as if gravity was completely optional.

Without a bit of a challenge, without the feeling that you’re actually controlling your character, the gameplay actually becomes a bit of an annoyance much of the time. It’s like watching a film on DVD (or Blu-ray, of course!), and every time you get to a new scene you have to play Tic Tac Toe against an idiot. You’re sure to win, but it breaks the flow of the game. At what point does a game become so easy that it might as well consist of one button: “Press X to watch the next cutscene?”

But yeah… the game is oh so pretty. Behold (and if you’re a fan of the final episode of Six Feet Under, you may want to brace yourself for a tune you know very well – once you’ve accepted this as something other than utter blasphemy, it actually works quite well):

Shredding geeks

Many gamers are looking for one semi-mythic, intangible quality in games: immersion. It’s basically the ineffable property of making you forget that you’re sitting in front of a computer screen or TV, grasping a gamepad or a mouse, and feel that you’re really there. But, let’s face it, even with the most immersive games you never feel like you’re a mute MIT graduate saving the world with a gun in one hand and a crowbar in the other, or a cyber-ninja special operative infiltrating terrorist strongholds or a Persian prince able to run along steep walls and turn back time. There are worlds between playing FIFA 08 and actually kicking a football – there’s little to no comparison between pressing X or O and propelling a leather ball towards the enemy goal with your foot. Possibly the only game that offers near-absolute immersion is computerised chess, because as if you’re, like, really playing chess!

Okay, enough sarcasm – what I’m getting at is this: there are few games that make you believe you’re really doing what your on-screen avatar is doing. Fair enough, really; there are limits to how much I’d want to believe I’m being shot at by alien armies while killer zombies are trying to chew my frontal lobe. And I definitely don’t want to believe I’m actually playing football at Wembley Stadium.

There is a game (or several games, by now) that gives you a fairly convincing illusion that you’re actually doing the thing you’re playing, and that game is called Guitar Hero. I’ve had it for a while, but I’ve only recently started to play it again. And it’s great fun. Looked at objectively, it should be a humiliating experience: you stand there holding a plastic toy shaped like a Gibson guitar, pressing colour buttons and strumming a white bar in sync with popular rock songs. You’re as close to rock stardom as Third French Lord in an amateur production of Henry V is from saying, “And I would like to thank the Academy…”

But, hell, if it isn’t fun… And it does a great job of making you feel like you’re playing complex solos, totally rocking the place, dude! The game mainly works because the rock songs used make for surprisingly good videogame levels. So far, I’ve only made it to the second of four difficulty levels with any success – I’m only using four of the five fret buttons, which means that my hands are in for some pretty bad strain. But the choice of songs is almost perfect: Guitar Hero has everything from ’70s glam rock to ’80s cheese rock (is that a term? it should be!) to 21st century alternative rock. And since I don’t really listen to the radio, it’s this game that has introduced me to the following eminently cool song:

However, there’s a further turn of the screw to my geek joy. I’m very much an old-school gamer – I played games on machines that are practically Etch-a-Sketches compared to a five-year old mobile phone. My first slice of nerd heaven was a Commodore 64, a name that still brings on a hush of awe in the right crowd. The C-64 has been defunct for decades, yet there are insane people still working with them… and this is where I don’t care just how nerdy and geeky I sound, but the following is just distilled nostalgic coolness: