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Prince of Persia (spoilers)

Posted by Nick Dinicola on December 19, 2008

The basic plot of the new Prince of Persia game is your typical “save the world” plot: An unnamed prince stumbles across a princess named Elika and must help her imprison Ahriman, the God of Darkness. However, a closer look at the characters and their back-stories reveals some surprising details. For being such a bright and colorful game with such a sarcastic and plucky hero, the new Prince of Persia has a rather dark story about loss and sacrifice.

The King’s losses began before the Prince was ever a part of the picture. His wife, Elika’s mother, the Queen, died. This sent the King into a downward spiral of depression that took its toll on his people, the Ahura. The city started to fall into ruin and the people left, abandoning their duty to protect the Tree of Life, which kept Ahriman sealed. With the Tree now neglected, the many Fertile Grounds that supported the Tree also started decaying. Elika, still driven by her duty, tried to go to these Fertile Grounds to heal them but fell off a ledge on her way there and died. At this point the King had nothing left to live for and made a deal with Ahriman: Resurrect Elika, and he’ll set Ahriman free.

As fatherly as his actions might seem, the King’s deal was quite selfish. He simply could not effectively deal with his losses; they always blinded him to the rest of the world: He ignored his city after his wife died, and after Elika died he placed his personal suffering above the potential suffering of the world under Ahriman’s rule. When he saw that he had nothing left to live for, all that mattered to him was bringing back some semblance of his own happiness, no matter the cost.

Elika also faced huge losses before and throughout the game. Before the game even began she lost her mother, but unlike the King who withdrew himself from the world, Elika could see the bigger picture around her. When she set out to the Fertile Grounds, she was placing the suffering of the world above her own grief. That selflessness got her killed, but it was a risk she was wiling to take for the wellbeing of others. During the game itself, Elika had to come to terms with many losses. During the many short bits of dialogue with the Prince, Elika acknowledged that her city is beyond saving: Its people have left, and there’s little chance of them returning, which means the buildings and structures will only fall into further decay. Her father was slowly Corrupted by Ahriman, and all she could do was watch. We fought the King multiple times over the game and for the first few fights Elika wouldn’t attack him, she refused to hurt her father, but as the game neared its end and it became obvious that he couldn’t be saved, only then did she attack him. Finally, Elika sacrificed her life at the end in order to revive the Tree of Life.

Elika is the most heroic character in Prince of Persia because of her selflessness in the face of tremendous personal loss. She lost just as much as her father and the Prince, but her sense of duty and selflessness drove her to continue fighting Ahriman. She did develop feelings for the Prince, in fact just before she sacrificed herself for the Tree she apologized to him for what she was about to do. With him at her side she could have easily walked away from the whole ordeal, making the same selfish decision the King made, giving herself happiness with a loved one at the expense of the world. She could have made a similar deal with Ahriman to save her father or city, but she didn’t. She was able to look past her own pain and understand that she had to make personal sacrifices for the greater good. That kind of thinking itself is a trait no other character has, but what make her the true hero of the story, even if she’s not the main hero of the game, is that was able to go though with it.

The Prince, in my opinion, is the most interesting character for two reasons. First, he’s the only one who really grows through the course of the story. By the time the game begins, the King has already gone through his spiral of depression and made his deal with Ahriman, so his only change over the course of the game is his transformation into a Corrupted monster. Elika doesn’t change much because her values at the beginning are her values at the end: She was driven by her duty when she first tried to reach the Fertile Grounds and died, and she was driven by duty at the end when she sacrificed herself. The Prince is different because he goes from being the I-don’t-need-people solitary hero, to literally sacrificing the world for Elika. Second, his feelings for Elika are best described through the gameplay and not the narrative.

The Prince also suffered a major loss before the start of the game. His parents died in a war, “for someone else’s cause” as he puts it. While he barely talked about his past, his avoidance of the subject shows how painful it is for him. He always cut the conversation short when the subject came up, like when Elika asked him where he comes from and he answerd (and I’m paraphrasing here) “I came from somewhere and I’m going somewhere else.” Like the King, the Prince has withdrawn himself from the world, but not in the same kind of way. While the King ignored the world and people, the Prince embraced the world but ignored people. He lived day by day and enjoyed life, but he never formed any meaningful connections with others. It’s his way of avoiding another potential loss. His relationship with Elika was probably the first meaningful relationship he’s had since his parents died. The game actually does a poor job narratively of showing his growing feelings for Elika, but if we step away from the narrative story and look at their relationship from a gameplay perspective, it’s easy to see why he cared about her because it’s the same reason we, as players, are asked to care about her. At this point our feelings and the Prince’s are indistinguishable.

We (and the Prince) rely on Elika at every step of the game. During combat there are moments  when only Elika can attack the enemy, and during the platforming sections we need her magic to cross wide gaps and activate special plates. One just has to look at the control scheme of Prince of Persia to see how important she is to us. Only three of the face buttons on the controller are used for platforming, one button for jumping, one for grabbing, and one for Elika; during combat four buttons are used, one for sword attacks, one for acrobatic attacks, one for grab attacks, and one for Elika’s attacks. According to these controls, Elika is just as important to platforming as jumping, and just as important to combat as the sword. Our reliance on her as a gameplay mechanic mirrors the Prince’s reliance on her as a partner. Nowhere is this better represented than in the final fight with the Concubine. The fight takes place at the top of a spire, at which point the Concubine makes several illusional clones of Elika, and the fight can’t continue until we find the real one. To do this we have to actually jump off the spire. Up until this point we’ve relied on Elika as a gameplay mechanic to save us every time we make a mistake, during this fight the game is asking us to trust that mechanic even if we can’t see it/her. By forcing us to make that jump, the game shows us just how much the Prince trusts her. He may use his wit to avoid personal conversations, but he is placing his life in her hands every time he makes a jump, and it’s that trust that forges such a strong relationship between them.

When Elika sacrifices herself at the end, we can sympathize with the Prince over his loss because it’s a loss for us as well. To drive this loss home for us, the player, the game makes us climb four miniature structures to reach a tree at the top we must cut down in order to revive her. There is an easy path to the top, but it’s blocked by a gap too large for the Prince to cross by himself, forcing us to take a more roundabout path to the top, emphasizing Elika’s absence. At this point, the Prince feels the same grief as the King at the beginning of the story. Both men lost the last thing in the world they cared about, and both men made the same decision. The Prince’s decision to resurrect Elika and free Ahriman is just a selfish as the King’s. Both men placed their own suffering over the potential suffering of the world. The ending, however dark it is, brings the story full-circle thematically, with the Prince repeating the actions of the King.

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2 Responses to “Prince of Persia (spoilers)”

  1. kat said

    This is really well written; great job. 🙂 Love how much you went into detail with this.

  2. ndinicola said

    Thanks, I’m glad you liked it. Feel free to add any other thoughts as well.

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