wunderschöner text zu einem der besten videospiele, die es je gab:
The dagger plunges into the cold blaze of the glinting sand and you have a moment to breathe. A moment to sense the shapes of all the things you won’t have time to think about: the consequences of what you’ve done and the consequences of what you haven’t; the price of what you’ve lost and the price of what you’re yet to find; the things you’ve changed and the things that won’t change back. Before the shapes have time to form it starts, pulling you back past every shout of wonder, every splash of sudden sand, every breathless ache of victory: faster, faster, faster. And then the world is as it was, cool and quiet as raindrops, and you can take another breath. But by the time it leaves your lungs it has begun again – the same midnight race, the same moon-bleached balcony. A different prince. A different you.
It’s the hallmark of every good videogame – the urge to go back to the beginning as soon as you get to the end. Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time goes one better: it restarts the story for you as soon as it reaches its climax. It’s not a complicated tale – the prince, driven by his greed for glory, is tricked by a scheming vizier into unleashing the Sands of Time, which kill everything they touch. They can’t be stopped, only contained, so the game charts his mission to turn their power against them and rewind time to a point before his fatal mistake. It’s hardly a spoiler to say that he succeeds, and when he does, the game plays it straight. You return to the opening scene of the game, and no one but the prince knows what so nearly happened next. All that remains is to take steps to safeguard the Sands, and the prince can sleep easy. Simple. So simple that it’s easy to overlook how beautifully you’ve been tricked. The game is transparently honest with you from its very first moments. The prince slips from a moonlit balcony into the warm glow of a bedroom. We see a woman sleeping, hear her gasp. “You may wonder who I am,” says the prince, silencing her. “Sit down, and I will tell you a tale like none which you have ever heard.” What could be plainer? But gamers have been trained for years to mistrust
cut-scenes; what gamers trust is action. And so, once they gain control of the prince, the bedroom and the tale-telling is dismissed or forgotten. Shrugged off as a hackneyed narrative device for setting the game’s fantastical scene.
Games don’t handle time very well – saves and deaths, reloads and pauses see to that. What games communicate convincingly is the now. The better the game and the purer the connection between the player and the action, then the greater the sense of nowness. We even call it ‘immediacy’, complimenting the game on its ability to replace the passage of time with an eternal, continual present. So even if a game tells you to your face that this action which feels so urgent, this danger which feels so pressing, is actually all done and dusted, something which the participants have converted into anecdote, it’s still hard to adjust. Even the prince’s asides (“Do you wish me to leave before finishing my story?” he asks, shocked at your audacity in selecting ‘Quit’ from the menu) just seem like cheesy conceits, window-dressing for a self-conscious story.
If you ask them now, plenty of people say they saw it coming. At the time, most weren’t so prescient – their memory of the game being rewritten by nostalgia as surely as the prince rewrote his past. They were the lucky ones, for the moment of realisation waiting for them at the end of the game was like the finest unlockable ever imagined. For most of your adventure, your only companion – the only other human creature – is Farah, the princess of the kingdom your father’s army has ransacked. She is haughty and suspicious, and the prince responds in kind, taunting her with an archness that seems rather overdone: “Skinny little thing, aren’t you,” he jibes, as she wriggles through yet another crack. Their trials bring them together, of course, though not without mishap and mistrust. Eventually, they consummate their attraction in a sumptuous bathhouse, choked with steam and scent. They are threatened, rescued, separated, reunited. And then Farah dies. The prince, who has used his control over time to rewind himself from countless gruesome deaths, stands helpless over her crumpled corpse.
The Prince Of Persia series has always done flesh and bone very well. The excellence of the animation, the fluidity of the motion makes its characters human in a way few games achieve. In TSOT, this physicality extends to give Farah and the prince a tangible sexuality. You may have seen nothing more than a hint, but the game has made it plain that these are people who have loved each other, emotionally and physically. Now one lies dead at the feet of the other. But the prince is a hero, and a greater wrong must be righted than the death of his lover. And so the prince, battered and bereaved, stabs his dagger into the cold heart of the sands and in a moment, everything that is, wasn’t.
Scenes from his adventure flash before you as you rewind to the beginning, but this full circle doesn’t signal an ending. The evil vizier must be executed, the Dagger of Time protected. And so the prince sets off to find Farah and warn her. As he enters her bedchamber, he finds the woman he last saw dead alive, safe, asleep. But as she opens her eyes, you remember that she will not know him. “You may wonder who I am,” says the prince, softly. “Sit down, and I will tell you a tale.” As he says these words, your mind races back to every nuance of the story your actions have helped to tell. The teasing words which sounded so overdone all those hours ago take on a subtle charm when you realise they are being recounted direct to an indignant, uncomprehending Farah. The moments of intimacy become even more charged when you know that he’s describing every touch to a woman who can’t understand why this stranger seems to know her inside out. It’s a beautiful and elegant trick. This reversal is what makes you want to do some time travelling of your own, rewinding to the start of the game so you can hear the tale again, only this time with Farah’s ears instead of your own. The words won’t change, and nor will your actions. The palace grounds will remain the same and identical traps will hiss down identical corridors, but the story will change because you have changed.
But the tale of Farah and the prince, however bewitching, isn’t the real story of TSOT. The real story has the same shape – an extraordinary adventure that nearly changed the world, but in the end left us back where we started – but it isn’t about fictional characters. The real story is that TSOT should have changed the way games are made forever, and it hasn’t. When it arrived, it felt like a revolution. By resuscitating a stagnant genre – the 3D platformer – it formed a blueprint for how to build a future for games on the very best foundations of the last 25 years, of how to streamline and modernise everything that’s precious in gaming’s heritage. And yet, now, time seems to have reset. Now, it seems unlikely to have the influence it deserves, and the proof of that is evident in its sequel, Warrior Within.
Warrior Within preserves the movement which is the core component of TSOT’s excellence. Even now, it’s still extraordinary. Graceful, muscular, precise and forgiving, it revolutionised expectations of how liberating a 3D space could be. The whole game became a giant climbing frame, a big-top extravaganza where you got to be the star turn and the enraptured audience rolled into one. With this key feature maintained, it was fundamentally impossible for Warrior Within to be a bad game. But in almost every other respect, it turned back the clock TSOT had pushed forward. The Sands Of Time is an astonishingly simple game, lean and economical. A ten-hour trip, it pulled the player along a single line. Close your eyes and you can see your path through the whole game as one continuous, golden thread – looping out of windows and across courtyards, down wells and twining around traps. At a time when most games are fighting to boast about their replayability, branching narratives and ample unlockables, TSOT said simply: here is the game. Begin at the beginning. Fight to the end. And then you will have seen everything we have to give you, everything you paid for.
The mechanics are equally stripped down. You are a prince with a sword, and you move through a world of water and sand. Water is life and sand is death, and you’ll need both to survive. There is nothing to collect, no complex armoury to complete. The rigour of the logic behind the system gives the game a cohesion which is noticeably lacking in Warrior Within. In TSOT, your enemies are infected with the Sands of Time, which it is your goal to recover. Killing them lets you collect the sand, and the more you collect, the more powerful the dagger becomes. WW takes the same system and twists it, losing its simplicity. Time powers mysteriously become available as you travel through the palace’s portals. Enemies contain sand which you can still collect, despite no longer having a dagger to do it with. The same sand has conveniently accumulated in jars and barrels which dot the palace, forcing you into the Neanderthal game behaviour that TSOT had left behind – ‘me need, me smash’. Bonus chests dot the audience chambers and vaulted dungeons, ready to bark out ‘New Artwork Unlocked!’ in the event of you ever becoming sufficiently absorbed to forget you were playing
The contrast between the games is not accidental. Warrior Within set out to improve on TSOT and it tried to do so by listening to gamers. What gamers said was, ‘Make it more like other videogames! We want to unlock things! We want combos! We want collectables!’ But there’s a problem with listening to gamers and it’s this: the ones that shout the loudest are the smallest minority. And even if a developer could find a way to listen to every single gamer’s preferences individually, they’d still only be hearing from a small sector of gaming’s potential market: many more people do not play games than those who do. What TSOT, with its staunch purity, hazy beauty and un-videogameness offered was something for people who don’t like what’s already available.
The same process happened with the aesthetic. Both TSOT and WW are fantastic pieces of design. Imaginative and disciplined, they create worlds that are both consistent and consistently beautiful. But WW’s world of gloom and grit is a world we’ve visited before. TSOT was a revelation in billowing silk and creamy marble, splashed with the colours of wine and jewels. Nor is it just the world – TSOT’s sophisticated characters have been pulled back into the realm of videogame convention. The prince has lost his aristocratic flair and his gentle English accent. The moment in WW when he snarls “YOU BITCH!” is the moment he ceases to be an individual and becomes a cipher, a new skin to slip over every other identikit hero you’ve ever played. The females fare no better, losing Farah’s womanly sensuality in a quest to sex her up with a painted-on thong and breasts like grapefruit. It’s a desperately disappointing step back from the leap that TSOT took by demonstrating so emphatically that games can portray female (and male) sexuality in a way that isn’t degrading, adolescent and ugly.
This isn’t a question of aesthetic snobbery. There will be many who prefer the grittier look of WW to the matinee-idol excesses of TSOT, just as there are some who cursed and some who cheered when they heard of the involvement of Godsmack. Nor is it a criticism of the designers’ intentions. However welcome more of the same would have been, TSOT 1.5 would have been an unambitious and ultimately self-defeating project. Changing the story and evolving the prince’s personality to reflect the horrors he’s endured is a laudable way to approach a sequel. The frustration is that instead of moving the game forward, it moved it back. WW showed us a game world we already knew would work. TSOT showed us that games could do things we didn’t know they could; it expanded the horizons, offering something genuinely different.
After then, those horizons shrunk back. 3D platforming did not experience a glorious renaissance. The industry looked inwards, relying on men, guns, cars and crime to appease its core market - and it still does. Sex largely remains an unmentionable taboo, with little on offer beyond Larry’s leisurely knob gags and an endless parade of ‘enhanced’ female characters in impractical underwear. Games are becoming ever more bloated, blindly trying to satisfy the illusory demands of an audience who only finish every tenth title they buy. TSOT’s slow sales mean that, despite critical acclaim and continuing popularity, its innovations are considered a failed experiment: rewind, rewrite, start again. Had it stormed to Christmas number one, history may have been very different. As it is, the stronger retail performance of Warrior Within (and the whooping 100 per cents awarded it by certain elements of the press) reflected a more likely direction for gaming: macho, bloody and moody.
It is perhaps as it should be. There is nothing inherently wrong with men, guns, cars or crime. In the last few months alone, games of true excellence have been released which create sparkling and unexpected experiences from those simple, staple ingredients. And it means TSOT doesn’t have to suffer the indignity of a dozen clumsy clones, diluting its brilliance and fudging its simplicity. Instead, TSOT hangs suspended, a moment of gaming magic preserved in gleaming amber. And there it will stay forever, untouched and unspoiled, waiting for you to come and listen again. “Sit down,” it says to you, softly, “for I have a tale to tell, like none which you have ever heard...”
"Die erste Generation verdient das Geld, die zweite verwaltet das Vermögen, die dritte studiert Kunstgeschichte und die vierte verkommt vollends."
(Otto von Bismarck)
xbox live: SYMER 0083
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