Game Diary - December 24, 2008: The End Of 'Prince of Persia'

This is the last Diary entry from me for 2008. Thanks to everyone who kept with it and helped it evolve into what I think is a fun conversation-starter each day.

Fittingly, my 2008 Diary ends with an entry on the bravura ending of the last game I'll finish this year: "Prince of Persia."

This entry was written due to popular request. But do not read further if you don't want the ending spoiled. I won't be holding back:

Still with me?

I finished "Prince of Persia" on Saturday, and, as I noted earlier this week, the game contained my second-favorite ending of any game this year. (The "Fable II" ending was my favorite.)

To refresh you memories, the ending of "Prince of Persia" comes in five parts.

First is a platforming challenge that you undertake within what looks to be a dreamworld view of Persia. It requires use of all of the special powers attained in the game to fly, climb and run through a magical temple. It's pretty and another great example of how the game merges "Mario" and "Sonic" 3D design. It's easy and fun.

Second, you have your final fight with Elika's father, the man whose attempt to restore his daughter to life led led to the corruption of the world in the beginning of the game and the return of an evil god. This plays out as one of the game's standard Elika-and-Prince-vs.-opponent matches, which all look good and prove to be easy to fight once you figure out when to use the relevant grabs, throws, magic and strikes.

The third part is a fight against the resurrecting god, who emerges as a dragon inside a temple and through whose eyes you see this fight. This part is a platforming challenge, with the player charged with maneuvering the Prince through the interior of the temple to avoid the dragon's attacks. He finally plunge down the dragon's throat to slay it.

These second and third sections are spectacular to look at but unspectacular to play. The game isn't asking anything of the player that it hasn't asked many times previously, and if not for some grand speech-making by the enemies, there's little sense of finality to these encounters.

The fourth part of the finale is what makes this game's ending so special. This section begins with Elika's decision to sacrifice herself. Only by dying again does she believe she can suppress the resurgence of the dark god. The Prince, who has fallen in love with her, is helpless to stop her. And in this emotional state -- doubtless shared to some degree by the player -- the Prince leaves the temple. At this point the credits roll, overlayed on a playable scene of the Prince exiting the temple. The crawling of the credits strongly implies that the game is over, that everything else is gravy. But as the credits roll, the player still controls the Prince's exit from the temple. When he emerges, the desert before him has been restored and four distant stone platforms are now each topped with their own magical tree.

I can't recall what it is that planted the seed in my mind, but I naturally wanted to bring Elika back and knew what the Prince could do in order to do that. Time to chop magic trees.

So I began walking to the first tree, intending to cut it down. As I did this, I wondered if I had a choice. I thought back to "BioShock." Tthat game explored player free will and ultimately bound the player into one possible playable ending. Was Ubisoft Montreal going to allow more choice? Would it allow me not to bring Elika back? Was the studio leaving the choice to me?

No. Ubisoft wasn't giving me a choice. They were forcing me to play the role of a man whose heart had already convinced his mind about what his hands must do. I bought into it and played along.

Paradoxically, had I had been given more choice I may have felt less culpable. I wanted to make the Prince follow his destiny.

I walked to the first tree and chopped it down. The world darkened.

As I walked to the second and third tree I wondered how I could be sure there was no alternate path. Surely, the choice of not plunging the world back into darkness would have involved me walking the Prince out of the desert, back to his donkey. Not exactly a hard option to design. But there was no cue to do this, no path laid out for it. I realized that I could make the Prince make that choice to not save Elika only by shutting the game off. Instead, I chopped tree two and tree three.

As I approached the fourth tree I knew full well where this was going and was having flashbacks to the ending of "Shadow of the Colossus," which also involves a turn of player hero to possible evil (I won't write more on that so as not to spoil it.)

I cut down the fourth tree anyway, ending the interactive portion of the game and cueing its final beat.

In the fifth section I could only watch. Elika was back. The dark god was back. And the Prince, always a bit mysterious, always a bit of a scoundrel, walked from the desert -- either an unwitting pawn of fate who had just doomed the world because of his love for a woman ... or perhaps he'd been revealed as a liar who never had a donkey, never had gold and never intended to be a force of good.

I suspect Ubisoft wants me to go with the former interpretation. I'm happy with either.

A friend told me on Monday that much of that tree-chopping finale should have been a cutscene. I disagree. I believe Ubisoft Montreal identified the potency of forcing the player to commit an action that requires minutes of premeditation, internal conflict and pending regret. This moment is a triumph, because it assumes the player will think about the gameplay and will ponder what they are perpetrating. How often do our actions in games really hit us like this?

Consider two types of action in "Call of Duty: World At War": 1) I might come around a corner, spot an enemy and blast him with my shotgun and not think twice about what I'm doing. 2) I might hide behind a barrel, peer through a zoomed sniper scope, and wait for an enemie's head to fit within my crosshairs, then fire, not giving that enemy's pending fate much more though than that of the guy I got with the shotgun. Those are the two classic methods of video game violence. One is sudden. The other is premeditated. But neither carry the weight of pending consequence. Neither convey the idea that anything but good and progress will emerge from these actions that must be taken. Neither supposes I'll experience inner conflict.

The end of "Prince of Persia" operates differently. It gives you no choice. It forces you to play a role you likely both sympathize with (the heroic lover) and want to spurn (the destroyer of the world you spent the game saving). It's bravely realized and superb.

It's a must-play ending for anyone who is thoughtful about playing video games.

Next: My Game Diary will return on January 5. Happy holidays, everyone!