I presented this last weekend at a conference here in Vancouver. It was 9 am and raining, so not really that well attended, but I got a generally good response from the audience. I wrote it specifically for people who weren’t necessarily familiar with the theory or game, so it should be readable to a lay audience.
I’ve been trying to write more criticism that can be used directly to improve people’s game designs. Extra Credits is a nice show, but they work in far too general frameworks to really be useful as a way to think about games in the specific, in the way that authors trained in criticism might consider certain branches of criticism when writing. Ditto a lot of criticism, which to this point has been mostly works which try to define how video games work. There’s precious little decent criticism on specific games that is geared towards actually figuring out the implications of design decisions as they are made in a production environment – probably because few academics know much about development (academics in the general – the most I’ve seen at conferences is ‘my son plays Xbox’) and few developers really care that much about critical theory. Here, I’m trying to apply Bogost’s theories of how games work to Prince of Persia, and trying to tease out the implications of design decisions beyond the fun factor.
This definitely doesn’t go as far as it could, and by no means is my argument perfect. I don’t pretend to out-academic anyone, much less people like Bogost and James Portnow. I’m going to try to expand this for my MA project, so comments and criticism are expressly welcomed.
Times Out of Joint
June 18, 2011
Play Out of Time: Atemporality in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
Heroism is a basic assumption of action-adventure games. Games where the player is asked to defeat hordes of enemies typically imply that she is doing it for some greater purpose; whether it’s the defense of an entire country or the rescue of an estranged wife, the genre exemplifies the idea of an overriding purpose. Take the ill-fated adaptation of Dante’s Inferno, for example, where one plays a Dante refigured as a knight of the Crusades, condemned to damnation. In the introductory sequence he fights the Grim Reaper and steals his scythe so Dante can kill his way through the circles of Hell to defeat Satan in single combat and rescue his virginal wife. It’s not what one would call an accurate adaptation, but it is conventional – the “save the girl and kill the villain” plot is endemic in video games of this stripe. However, game designer and screenwriter Jordan Mechner, the mind behind Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, has never been one to engage uncritically with genre; every game in his publication history has innovated or challenged convention in some way. In an essay about the development of Sands of Time subtitled “Creating a Video Game Story”, he writes repeatedly about his desire to challenge convention, citing influences as diverse as film noir and Ridley Scott’s Alien. Given that impetus, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is arguably not a conventional game. Although at first it engages wholeheartedly with conventional action-adventure gameplay expectations, the central mechanic by which the game operates is time manipulation. I intend to argue that Prince of Persia’s game mechanics imply an initial premise which is then subverted over the course of the game through the development of time manipulation, thereby interrogating the basic assumptions of gameplay and proposing a rescued model of video game heroism.
Of course, analyzing video games requires a critical method suitable for the medium. I will use Ian Bogost’s theory of procedural rhetoric, as set forth in his book Persuasive Games. Building on his earlier book Unit Operations, which is a theory of game mechanics as “processes of the most general kind… characterized by their increased compression of representation” (Bogost 8), Bogost summarizes procedural rhetoric as “the practice of using processes persuasively, just as verbal rhetoric is the practice of using oratory persuasively and visual rhetoric is the practice of using images persuasively” (Bogost 28). He emphasizes that, despite the modern connotation of rhetoric as empty of meaning or pointless, he uses it in the Aristotelian sense of argument with a persuasive aim. While procedural rhetoric is figured by Bogost as useful in any situation in which procedure might serve a persuasive function, such as advertising or politics, he also spends a significant amount of time developing the theory for video game criticism. The rhetorical figures of the syllogism and enthymeme are central to Bogost’s formulation of procedural rhetoric; the syllogism is a deductive conclusion following from an initial proposition, such as “Politicians are untrustworthy; John is a politician, therefore we cannot trust John,” while the enthymeme omits the premise, instead implying it, as in “John is a politician and therefore untrustworthy” (18). Bogost relates these figures to procedural rhetoric by saying that “a procedural model like a videogame could be seen as a system of nested enthymemes, individual procedural claims that the player literally completes through interaction” (Bogost 43). In an extended analysis of Grand Theft Auto 3, he examines the hunger system of rules: over time, the player character gets hungry and must eat, however, the only food available is fast food which is fattening but cheap. Implicit in this restriction is a statement about the relationship of class to health (113). This demonstrates that, in Bogost’s words, “the games we create can support, interrogate, or oppose [the] cultural contexts [in which they are experienced]” (54). The player grows to understand the implied premise of the procedural enthymeme by learning to play the game and discovering the constraints imposed upon her by the game mechanics.
Which brings us to Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. The player takes the role of the titular Prince, the son of a Persian king who accompanies him on the warpath. The prince narrates the game as a framing device, often introducing gameplay situations or locations for the player. Without going into too much detail, the game begins with the sacking of a rival city and the capture of a princess. The Prince steals a magical dagger and is tricked by a traitorous advisor into using it to cause a disaster, turning everyone into monsters except for the princess and advisor. The magical dagger initially allows the player to reverse time for up to 10 seconds for a limited number of uses. The weapon grows more powerful over the course of the game as the player kills enemies, giving the player more control over time manipulation and the ability to use the dagger’s powers more often. Unlike the framing narrative, which intrudes whenever the player dies, saves, or quits the game, the dagger’s power explicitly affects the game world and is a central gameplay mechanic.
At the opening of the game, the gameplay systems are quite similar to other games of the action-adventure genre, involving parkour-like acrobatic challenges and swordplay. This opening tutorial section asks the player to guide the Prince as he steals the dagger, much in the same manner as Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark – except with more backflips. Shortly thereafter, the time-reversal mechanic is introduced in an extremely limited capacity, leaving the generic gameplay largely untouched. In the player’s introduction to the new mechanic, it is figured primarily in terms of avoiding mistakes; if the player accidentally runs the Prince into a giant rotary saw or falls into a pit, the time reversal allows her to correct her mistake before she reaches a ‘game over’ screen. However, this is the extent of the usefulness of the time manipulation mechanic, given that the environments are limited to physical obstacles which must be overcome using the same skills used before the dagger was introduced. At the conclusion of the introductory segment of the game, the dagger is basically unnecessary.
At this point, what enthymeme is the game presenting in its procedures? The window of time reversal is fixed at a tiny duration, enough to reverse a death or a mistake when jumping around, but not beyond that. As Bogost notes, we recognize gameplay generically through repetition of the constitutive procedural representations of gameplay (14); broadly, the gameplay systems at this point in the game seems to differ only slightly from other games in the action-adventure mold, being centered around agile dodging and precisely timed strikes. Given the broad generic expectations of the action-adventure game, it seems that the protagonist is firmly fixed in the role of vengeful hero, who must track down the advisor in order to kill him. The dagger’s power is too limited at this point to be that useful; at this point, the player is still learning the limits of the procedural enthymeme, proceeding under the implied premise that Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time functions similarly to most other action-adventure games. In other words, by enacting conventional tropes of combat and exploration in gameplay, the player completes the enthymeme with the conventional proposition of the heroic overriding purpose.
Conversely, at the end of the game, the prince uses the – now extremely powerful — dagger to reverse time all the way to an unspecified date previous to his father’s attack. He finds the princess and tells her about his experiences, completing the internal narrative and returning to the frame narrative. It transpires that the corrupt advisor has been eavesdropping the entire time and attempts to kill the Prince. The player keeps the developed powers of the dagger for the final battle, able to pause, reverse, slow, and accelerate time in order to gain an advantage over the advisor. Although the advisor was once untouchable, with the aid of the dagger the battle becomes relatively trivial.
How does this complicate things? The developed time mechanics subvert the generic constraints of the action-adventure genre. In a game like God of War, for example, the game is designed with the assumption that gameplay time proceeds at a steady rate. While the player might be surrounded by enemies, her tools for dealing with the situation are restricted to various martial attacks. She can move about to dodge attacks, but she is restricted to physical movement. The avatar increases in power over the course of the game, but only in ways which reinforce the central dynamic of the game. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time’s allowing the player to control time fundamentally changes the gameplay dynamic. The difference between the combat in the tutorial section of the game – during the sacking of the city – and afterward, with the time manipulation power, is significant. Rather than the steady beat of swordplay, the prince is able to move in a dimension unavailable to his attackers, temporally repositioning himself or freezing his enemies, allowing the player to strike at her leisure.
As the prince grows in power through use of the dagger and the temporal actions available to the player multiply, the complexity of the procedural rhetoric increases as well. Bogost suggests that sophisticated gameplay benefits procedural rhetoric, because “sophisticated interactivity means tighter symbolic coupling between user actions and procedural representations” (42). Here, the increasing sophistication of the time manipulation powers mirrors both the protagonist’s character development and the overall narrative structure of the game. As the player’s understanding of the game increases as a result of playing the game, so too does the protagonist’s self-understanding. Consequently, the goal of the game is retroactively redefined: while initially the player, like the Prince, was playing to solve an initial problem, at the end of the game the objective is deferred to a mission of prevention. The ability of the player to halt or manipulate time in the combat and parkour sections prefigures the narrative’s strategy of halting and reversing diegetic time. This allows the protagonist to prevent the initial problem instead of seeking revenge. The increased potency of the player’s time manipulation abilities allows the player to complete the enthymeme of the game’s fundamental assumptions, this time with a full understanding of the game’s ruleset, interrogating and opposing the initial premise.
The significance of this rhetorical move might seem trivial. Given videogames’ position of being respected to a fault in terms of cultural commentary, it is tempting to conclude that the ultimate premise that the player is left with is “don’t accidentally kill everyone you love,” making the syllogism of the game “you shouldn’t kill everyone you love; you have killed everyone you love; reverse time to make it better.” While a laudable goal, some might accuse it of being obvious, and worse, improbable. However, to make such an inference is to deny the deliberation with which the gameplay systems were designed; quoting Bogost, “The underlying models of a video game found a particular procedural rhetoric about its chosen subjects. Put differently, rhetorical positions are always particular positions; one does not argue or express in the abstract” (Bogost 243). The underlying model of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time goes beyond simple exhortations against homicide; allowing the player to turn back time to use her prescience to her advantage not only speaks against the generic conventions of the action-adventure game, but lays bare the syllogism underlying that mode. Where the initial gameplay impulse of the Prince of Persia is towards death, glory, and revenge, his gradual conversion into a figure of justice, redemption and sacrifice throws the motivations behind most other game protagonists into sharp relief. Standing next to contemporary franchises like Duke Nukem or Bulletstorm, founded on testosterone-laden competition and indiscriminate gunplay, the time-travelling Prince is representative of a hero little seen in modern video games. If Bogost’s final assertions are correct, and “the way we make our games […] is the way we want our world to become” (340), then Prince of Persia attempts to rescue our conception of heroism from itself. By questioning the unhealthy assumptions upon which much of the action-adventure genre is based – that vengeance is just, that princesses need saving — the world that the game design of Prince of Persia points to is one where the overriding motivation is no longer “kill the villain and rescue the princess.” When the Prince recognizes his role in the apocalypse which starts the game proper, we are made implicit – it’s the player, after all, who guides the Prince to steal the dagger. The player’s investment in the enthymeme is reciprocal: when the prince travels back to the beginning of the story, it’s not just his actions that he is reversing, but those of the player as well. By completing the enthymeme of the game in its final moments, the player is shown a new rhetorical conception of video game heroism: one which offers the possibility of renewal, not just for the in-game world, but for this one as well.
Bogost, Ian. Persuasive Games. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 2007.
Harrigan, Pat and Noah Wardrip-Fruin. Second Person. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 2007.
Wolf, Mark J.P. The Medium of the Video Game. Houston, TX: U of Texas Press, 2002.