Friday, 18 May 2018

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time - How to Create A Classic

Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher: Ubisoft
Platforms: PC, PS2, Gamecube, Xbox

Games age, regardless of how good they are. Resident Evil 4 is still a masterpiece but many of its controls feel dated (whether or not this adds to the experience is up for debate) when compared to the gamut of third-person shooters and similar horror titles that came out in its wake.

By contrast, The Sands of Time remains surprisingly “modern” in many respects. Its ability to weave its writing into its gameplay in particular is something that I think few games have done so well in the past decade.

It’s also important to acknowledge just how influential the game was in defining what would arguably become Ubisoft’s “house style” of game at the time, alongside Splinter Cell and Beyond Good & Evil. All three titles merge their chosen genres with a distinct attention to a strong narrative that underpins the gameplay.

And then there’s Assassin’s Creed. It goes without saying that if it wasn’t for the revival of Prince of Persia there’d be no Assassin’s Creed. Both series share much of the same creative DNA, not least in both being series where you play as acrobatic warrior-ninjas traipsing about historic environments. It’s not difficult to look at Prince of Persia’s intuitive, context-sensitive move set and see how it would evolve into Assassin’s Creed climb anything, jump anywhere parkour.

I mention all of this because, whilst many games that are rightfully held in high regard, or are remembered for being historically important to the medium or evolving a particular genre mechanically, The Sands of Time was not a run-away success. Read up about the game’s development and you’ll find oodles of information about cut content, a rushed work schedule (a relative norm in games development, unfortunately) and a team that was committed but incredibly apprehensive about the game they were working on.

The Games Mechanics: The Anti-Lara Croft 
"I absolutely did not want to hear about making another Tomb Raider clone” - Jordan Mechner 
I went back to play through Tomb Raider last year, the 1996 original. I’ve made attempts to revisit the game several times now and no matter how often I play it, it never gets any better.

That’s not to say that the game is terrible, I can appreciate the challenge it faced being one of the first attempts at 3D platforming. It’s not however, simply a case of a game ageing poorly. Soul Reaver for instance, utilizes many of the same mechanics as Tomb Raider, handles them much better and came out only two years later.

By contrast Tomb Raider’s level design is repetitive, its combat more of a time waster than anything possessing strategic depth (jump back and keep holding the fire button). Most frustrating of all however, is its core platforming, its central mechanical premise.

Lara jumps with that awkward feeling of anti-gravity, floating towards her target rather than leaping towards it. There’s the irritating delay between pressing the jump button and then Lara actually jumping, meaning you have to factor the delay into your button timings. All of this is to some extent intentional, of course, to convey the weighted sense that your controlling a “real” person rather than some artificial avatar.

For me however, it always reminded me that I was playing a game, factoring in its mechanical systems into my jumps and ledge grabs rather than immersing myself in the environment I was playing through. By trying to focus on the “realism” of the platforming it’s always counter-intuitively taken me out of the game. It also doesn’t help that Lara always felt like controlling a fork-lift wearing a backpack. That was true just as much in 1996 as it is now.

This is somewhat important to discussing Prince of Persia because Sands of Time is arguably the anti-Lara Croft.

Following the ill-fated release of Prince of Persia 3D in 1999, the first attempt to revive the series, one of the biggest influences on Sands of Time was for it to not simply be another Tomb Raider clone.

It succeeded in doing that. One of the biggest successes of the game is how effortless its move system is. There’s little thought needed to carry out the Prince’s actions, because so many of them are context-sensitive. Many are carried out with the same button. One button jumps, rolls and so on, and another handles the wall-running. The entirety of the game’s platforming is essentially governed by only two buttons.

Sands of Time does what I’d argue is one of the most useful techniques when creating interesting gameplay scenarios; building its challenge through very simple mechanics that it then asks the player to combine in multiple ways.

The wall-running was, of course, a big cinematic focus of the game; no other title had done anything like it. Mechanically however, it allows the game to incorporate lots of variation by simply combining its simple control scheme in different ways to test the player.

Early on, you’re tasked with wall-running or some simple climbing. Once the game knows you can handle that, it then ups the challenge. First, you wall-run and jump, then, you do the same but have to time your wall-runs to avoid the various traps coming out of the walls. The traps themselves obey another very simple “rules” system; there’s the saw, the bladed pole, the spinning sword and the spike trap, each has a very clear trick in order to avoid it and by simply adding those things onto one another the game can adjust its challenge in a way that’s effortless and, most importantly, very intuitive.

This all works to give Sands of Time a very effective way of modulating its difficulty. It’s not an especially difficult game, but I’d argue that’s not simply from being less challenging. Its subtler difficulty enables to player to immerse themselves into their role as the Prince, reacting to the game’s challenges in a responsive manner.

To go back to the idea of the game being the anti-Lara Croft; when playing Tomb Raider I’m forever thinking how I should control Lara, how she moves, when to time jumps. When playing Sands of Time I’m simply reacting; there’s less separation on an instinctual and mechanical level between me the player and the Prince on screen.

The Enemies

As with essentially any action-adventure game, Sands of Time divides its gameplay between platforming, its primary focus, and combat which forms the second half of its core gameplay loop.

It’s here where the game risks repeating the flaws of its predecessor. Tomb Raider and its ilk suffered from dreadful combat; a mindless bullet/time sink that simply broke up the next bout of running and jumping.

Sands of Time attempts to buck this trend by melding its acrobatic platforming with acrobatic combat. The logic goes, if the Prince can wall-run, flip, jump and roll through environments, then he should be able to do the same during combat encounters. And that certainly works to a certain degree. It was impressive back in 2003 to watch the Prince flip over an enemy and slice him from behind, especially when combined with the Matrix bullet-time slow-mo to add even more style.

Yet, to call the game’s combat good would be perhaps letting it off the hook. It’s serviceable, but was never that good to begin with and definitely looks worse for wear fifteen years on.

Initially, the combat uses the same “rules” system that layers up the game’s platforming challenges. The early enemies will let you kill them pretty much however you want, knocking them down so that you can hoover up their sand essence with the dagger. Around a quarter of the way through the game you encounter the blue glaive-wielding soldiers who will knock back your attempts to vault over them. Great, you think, each enemy will respond differently to how you attack it, simple but effective.

Except, it doesn’t go anywhere. New enemy types are introduced; sword-wielding women, the chain swinging guys, the burly hammer monsters, yet none of them react any differently. All of them must be killed in the exact same manner (read: spam vault attacks or the wall lunge). It’s gets dull surprisingly fast because it lacks the clever design considerations that make the platforming so good.

It doesn’t help that the game homes in on it in a way that really doesn’t do it any favours. Combat is heavily stressed as the game goes on, breaking up each new platforming challenge and padding out the game’s runtime. Fights frequently overstay their welcome and even by the halfway point have lost any interest they might have had. This is because they’re all solved the same way and lack any real challenge other than “kill them all and don’t get hit”.

In some sense the poor combat is understandable. During development, enemy AI development was something that was cut back on in order to focus on other areas. The other non-human enemies you encounter are even more of an afterthought. For a game that places such a flashy emphasis on its combat sequences and ninja-style fighting, it’s easily the weakest aspect of the game.

Initially, the player was meant to encounter a Griffin boss multiple times throughout the game, before the idea was scrapped due to time constraints. That being said, the cut content did weirdly help the game in some way; it came up with a better boss fight.

The Prince loses the dagger during the final portion of the game. The “all is lost” moment if we’re following a basic Archplot story structure.

After this, the player is tasked with clambering up the final tower in order to get the dagger back, restore the sands and set everything right. It’s the only sequence, bar the opening tutorial segment, that has the player not able to use the sand’s powers.

This is the game’s only real boss battle.

The game understands that being a “boss” in a platforming game doesn’t have to be about forcing the player into a hamfisted conflict with a giant enemy, but can instead be brought about by emphasizing the core challenges that make the game work. You’ve gotten this far whilst having the safety net of the sands, learning the intricacies and nuances of its platforming system,  now you’re tested on your ability to survive without that safety net in place.

Even the darn combat improves in this last sequence. Rather than bog down combat with enemies that have to be hoovered up with the dagger, you instead have a one-hit kill sword of death and waves upon waves of enemies to take down. Fights are faster, finish quicker and actually play out more tactically since your primary goal is not getting surrounded with sheer volume of enemies that show up on screen.

The game manages to make a boss out of a sequence that doesn’t have a boss, so to speak. It unfortunately undoes this with its dull final encounter with the Vizier but I’d point to this climax sequence as the game’s “real” boss fight. Not only is it a novel way to craft a final challenge, it does so simply by removing one of the game’s primary mechanics: the sands.

The Sands: A Lesson In Lives 
"And if you make a mistake, you should be able to rewind, like rewinding a videotape, go back to the point where you think you went wrong, and begin playing from there. And I think it works." 
That quote is from designer Jordan Mechner, who helped design not only Sands of Time but also created the original Prince of Persia games. In that interview he’s not talking about Sands of Time but his previous game, Last Express on PC.

It makes it clear that the idea for being able to undo mistakes, to rewind time and rewrite your progress was a concept that didn’t  come about simply for Sands of Time. However, it was a perfect addition to the game as a mechanical conceit.

Platforming games are inevitably fraught with failures. Players mistime jumps, fall down pits and so on. They inevitably zig at some points, when they should have zagged. As a result there’s a frequent return to a fail state, “start this bit and do it over”. This is true of the majority of game genres but is especially true of platformers and action-adventure titles; they demand a base level of player perfection.

This can, inevitably lead to some frustration. I’m not going to get into a discussion on difficulty here, that deserves an entire post all on its own. Rather, I want to touch on how the sands in Sands of Time make the game easier, less frustrating, but do so in a way that’s both interesting for the gameplay and is made narratively coherent.

Rather than give the player a set number of lives, like an older arcade-style game might do, your “lives” in Sands of Time are your number of available sand tanks. Each available store gives you one more attempt at redoing a difficult jump, dodging a particular trap or whatever problem you happen to be struggling with.

To go back to what I said earlier, about how the game’s platforming mechanics are simple in a way that allows the player to directly invest in the character in an immersive way, the sands help amplify this. Rarely do you get antsy before a sequence in Sands of Time because you’ll almost always have at least one rewind handy in order to have another crack at it.

Likewise, they also serve as a resource that the player can manage. More proficient players are less likely to need to rewind as often and so can save their tanks for later. For newer players there’s still a challenge, when do you burn through a sand tank to slow down time, making a sequence easier, that’s one less rewind available when you need it.

In effect the game provides you with your extra lives and then builds them into the game as a mechanic by making them a spendable resource. It’s a simple, elegant way of making failure in Sands of Time less likely but also adding to and informing the gameplay.

Here again we see how the game’s combat gets the short stick. Sand manipulation is technically tied to combat. Slowing down time does make fights somewhat easier, but the rest of your powers during combat are cordoned off and draw on a separate “power tank” resource.

I actually find the combat-based powers in Sands of Time rather funny because they’re solely based around killing things as fast as possible, as if even the designers know that the fights are rather dull and want to speed them up. “Mega-Freeze” as it’s called, the ability that the Prince unlocks later on and allows him to zip around at high speed carving up enemies as he goes is great simply because it shortens the length of the next fight.

There’s no tactical consideration here, since the Freeze powers burn through your power tanks rather than the sand tanks used for rewinding and slowing down time. It’s simply a case of popping that button and getting through the fight faster.

The sands are a fantastic addition to the game, but their interaction with the game’s combat only highlights how weak that aspect of the game is in relation to everything else.

The Writing

Sands of Time has relatively few cut scenes, the ones it does have typically last less than thirty seconds, and yet it’s a game that is glued together with its writing.

The story is never the focus of the game, that’d be the platforming. Yet, it’s a game that I think owes a hell of a lot of its success down to how it uses storytelling to enhance the game as a whole.

There’s a somewhat self-aware, knowing wink that the game has from the beginning of its first level. As the Prince storms the Maharaja’s palace, he’s every bit the typical video game hero; here to do battle, grab his McGuffin of choice and woe betide anyone that gets in his way. He wants to bring “glory and honour” to his family and the only way to do that is by carving up everyone that he meets as his country wages war.

It’s an interesting arc for a video game character to go from this to a character that’s jaded and genuinely guilty at what he’s done. Its plot couldn’t be simpler: “go here and get the thing”, yet it understands that complexity doesn’t need to come from a complex plot, but can come from a more well-rounded main character.

Numerous games, even in recent years, owe a lot to the way Sands of Time chooses to tell its story. Rather than interrupt its gentle flow of platforming and exploration with forced dialogue, the game instead allows it to hum along in the background. The central relationship between the Prince and Farah is brought about not through forced scenes but directly through the gameplay.

The Last of Us, Uncharted, the new God of War, umpteen games owe a lot of how they tell their stories to Sands of Time. It’s one of the first games that I can recall that attempts to tell its story whilst the players interact with the environment. The Prince and Farah bicker, they comment on things in their surroundings whilst you solve a puzzle or clamber up a ledge. It’s organic and effective storytelling. Cinematic in many respects but playing to the strengths of video games rather than rendering them sub-par films.

This isn’t to say that there’s a clear “best” way to tell stories in games. For every Sands of Time there’s Metal Gear Solid or Telltale at their best to show that you can directly ape films and still come out with something that’s interesting and engaging from a writing perspective.  No, I think what makes Sands of Time’s writing so effective is how it runs with its concept throughout all of its design.

Combat might be the game’s weak point, but the way it utilizes Farah is one of its ingenious decisions. It would have been too easy for the game to simply turn many of the combat encounters into escort missions; transforming each of the game’s fights into a turgid “protect the princess” scenarios as you ward of the enemy’s attempts to kill off Farah.

Instead, Farah has her own agency. In combat she’ll interrupt enemy attacks with bow fire, opening up adversaries to follow-up attacks from the Prince. Be too slow at killing off enemies and she will get killed eventually, but the game rarely makes this a central concern during a fight. The two characters are depicted as equals rather than one being forced to run around protecting the other.

It’s an organic way for the relationship between the two characters to grow and evolve. We don’t simply see them grow closer through some clever bit of dialogue or dramatic cutscene but through the central mechanics at the game’s disposal: its combat and its platforming.

Which brings me back to why the game remains so important. Like I said at the beginning, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see just how ahead of its time it was; both in terms of its intuitive platforming and its unique approach to writing a story that works for a video game.

Sands of Time is, no pun intended, timeless.

Of course, the slow and steady sales were enough to make Ubisoft happy, and just a year later, we got Warrior Within...but that’s a tale for another time...

References/Further Reading 

Postmortem: Ubisoft’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

The Sands of Time: Crafting a Video Game Story 

Game Design: Theory and Practice Second Edition: “Interview with Jordan Mechner”

IGN Presents the History of Prince of Persia

The Final Hours of Prince of Persia 


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