essay, video games

Prince of Persia’s “Why?”

I finished Prince of Persia (2008) for a second time earlier tonight. As the temple was destroyed and I carried Elika out of the area, I could not help but to think about her final question, the one spoken at the game’s ending, (assuming you did not agree with Michael Abbott’s decision to end early) and began to question everything I had done. When she asked “Why?”, I had no clear answer. This, of course, brought me to new questions.

Why… did I do it?

If the point of the game was to get me, as the player, to come to an understanding that life is important all costs, then I think I might have understood the message. As the Prince, I must carry Elika, sometimes in a very literal sense, to each Fertile Ground to have her cleanse it. The continuing journey means pain for both the player in frustration of solving each new puzzle and pain for Elika as a character.

Each section is a lesson in the cost of giving life to others and an area. The player must take Elika to a place and then force her, as directed from the screen, to accept the grief, both physical and mental, of each ‘boss’ encounter and region. The ending then of the Prince cutting down the Tree of Life that holds back Ahriman is justified in the idea that I must, as the Prince, accept the pain I might have just caused if only to raise Elika again. Life, even a single one, is justified in any cost.

Why… should I leave Elika alone?

Michael Abbott makes a good case for accepting the second death of Elika as valid canon of the story:

“After helplessly exploring other options, I realized I had no other choice. I never liked the Prince anyway, so I felt no devotion to him. I chose what I believed Elika would have chosen. I walked away. The Prince, as far as I’m concerned, can locate his donkey and find another tomb to raid all by himself.”

Following the arc of Elika’s life, both first and second, leaves the player with the sense of a life fulfilled, a life dedicated to a single purpose. I get the feeling we are supposed to believe that the Prince’s assertion that she wasted her life is right, but I do not accept that. She gave her life, both times, in order to stop a great evil from taking over not just a region or continent, but most likely the entire world.

Elika is shown to have deep belief in her duty and is willing to give over her life to keep this evil at bay. The prince serves not as a counter argument but an additional ally of Ormazd. He is proof that whenever the time comes to defeat evil, the tools — Ormazd’s plates of power — appear and evil can be sealed again, permanently. The player, coming to this knowledge through hours of playing the game, must then accept that Ormzed works in strange ways: if a life is needed to seal evil, then it must be done.

Why… is the Prince even part of the story?

To go back to Michael Abbott and quote from a different post:

“If the big outcome of a hero’s journey is that he ends a bit nicer and a bit less defensive than he began, was the journey worth taking? Better to keep such a character mute, in my view, and focus on the truly compelling story being told: Elika’s.”

It is she who sees the most change in the story. I agree with Abbott on this point. Elika goes from living in what amounts to a bubble world to coming to a greater understand of the wider world as seen through the eyes of the Prince. The point might even be made that she comes to love the Prince through their endeavours together, although it is open to interpretation of the player. They certainly flirt but may not come to develop truly deep feelings in the time span of the game. Elika is the one who faces the choice of the journey.

From a narrative point of view, Elika must come face to face with the decision she knew would come since she was first given life again: whether or not to give up her life, again. The prince only comes to face a decision — if you as the player interpret it that way — after she dies. It was always her story. She is the one facing a choice, a choice that becomes harder once she learns about the things she is missing out in the world from the Prince. She confronts this upcoming choice through every Fertile Ground she heals. Each new pain is a reminder that she faces a even greater, future one. The prince has no such emotional journey.

Why… aren’t there more people?

One of the frequent jokes about the game is that if the paths that remain in the temple and surrounding areas are how the other Ahura, the people taking care of Ormazd’s magic and responsible in trapping Ahriman, must be as much if not more athletic than the prince himself! They must run along the walls and climb among the rings too. That seems… rather silly at most. Where are the other people then?

It would seem to make sense that, as the story shows both right before the game and at the end, there should be more people around. If a single person can unleash the god of darkness by themselves, what it not make sense then that some sort of mental defenses should exist to back up the physical ones? If there is only the princess and the king, then there is every reason to suspect that one of them would, inevitably, give in to Ahriman’s whispers. Just taking the destruction of the trees by the prince as evidence, it would seem any one just strolling by the place could be sucked into the problem. All that is really needed is a sword, any hand could wield it.