Monday, August 29, 2011

On Unhappy Endings

I recently played through Ubisoft's 2008 Prince of Persia game, from the long-running series created by Jordan Mechner way back on the Apple II, and last week wrote about its unique approach to difficulty; the player is given immortality, but must still fight through short segments of the game unassisted, so progress must be earned.  I was still playing the game last week, but have since wrapped it up.

This next and final thought about the game comes with a warning, as there will be some...

***** SPOILERS AHEAD! *****

Prince of Persia 2008 wraps up in the expected fashion -- we defeat the last of the four main bosses who dominate the combat sequences, take on an "ultimate" boss, and then take on the REAL boss in its native form to finish the game, with all manner of pyrotechnics and a satisfying degree of difficulty.


The game doesn't actually end there -- the battle won, our hero Prince (not necessarily a real prince) looks on helplessly as his female guide and companion, the (genuine) princess Elika, gives up her own life to seal the deal.  You see, she died once before, and her life was restored by a bargain made by her father, the King, with Ahriman, the Zoroastrian Big Bad; and so, having cleaned up the resultant mess, she must make a final sacrifice to put the world back into balance.

I like this ending -- it's heroic and sad at the same time, as the player has witnessed a growing degree of respect and affection between these two.  And it seems right -- melancholy, but completely right -- as the Prince slowly carries Elika's body out of the temple while the credits roll.


The Prince then puts her body on a slab, in the sunlight, and we see that four small trees have appeared on stone platforms in the desert surrounding the temple.  And control is returned to the player.

Now what?  Well, we can try to respect Elika's wishes and just ignore the trees, but the game won't actually let us go back the way we came -- there's an invisible barrier that keeps the Prince from leaving, or committing suicide in existential despair.  So there seems to be nothing to do but find a way to climb up to each of the trees, and then hack each one down with the Prince's sword.

Why are we doing this?  Well, when it's done, the temple doors open, and then the Prince can go inside and cut down the very Tree of Life Elika gave herself to preserve, and carry her recovered life force back to her body.  When she wakes up, she asks him, simply, "Why?"

And then he carries her off again, while the dark spirit Ahriman emerges from the temple and sweeps across the desert, leaving only darkness in its wake, and undermining everything Elika and the player have tried to accomplish during the past 15 hours or so.

It's a major storytelling misstep, in my opinion -- the player is forced into a course of action that seems selfish and anything but romantic, and whatever respect we have gained for the Prince is in the final analysis destroyed by his actions.  The only mitigating factor is a constant mystical whispering in the background, a chorus of voices that insist he has no choice -- and in truth he does not -- but because the player is in control, albeit limited to a single course of action, it feels like he SHOULD.  Why can't we show that he loves Elika by honoring her sacrifice, instead of bringing her back to life at the expense of her (and the player's) accomplishments?

In a movie, I could understand -- even appreciate -- this sort of an ending.  I have nothing against unhappy or mixed conclusions; the hero brought down by a tragic flaw can be a dramatically interesting figure.  But this is a game -- the player has come to identify with the Prince, and respect Elika's strength, and has invested quite a bit of time in getting to know these characters.  By imposing this climactic "plot twist" on the story, the game dispels much of its own magic.  If it were played out as a difficult choice, with more of a moral struggle involved -- if there were even the illusion of options available -- I would feel differently.  As it stands, it's a letdown -- neither happy nor unhappy, just ambiguous at the expense of interactivity.

I'm glad the 2010 Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands game did not try to continue this storyline -- I'm not sure I could play a game in which the hero must now try to undo his own evil, a well-intentioned but misguided deed, when he could have just walked away, if only the designers would have allowed it.

(A note: on consoles, there is a downloadable extra Epilogue chapter that reunites Elika and the Prince temporarily to fight the evil he has unleashed.  She is not happy with her resurrection, and at the end, she leaves him alone and goes off to fight her own battles.  The PC version does not include this epilogue material, but I am glad to know it exists and follows the main game's ending in a wholly appropriate way.)

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