Little Blog Adventure

A gaming "sketchblog"

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Narrative and Time in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Choose a game which you feel attempts to incorporate strong narrative elements.

To answer the above discussion question, I've chosen one of my favourite games in recent years- Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. The game is an interesting one to look at because of its unusual (for a game, anyway) narrative technique and one of it's main gameplay features- the player's ability to manipulate time (albeit in a limited way).

Discuss the tension between agency and narrative structure within the game. Do you agree that narrative and interactivity can never co-exist? Why/why not?

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is an unusual videogame (at least in my experience) because the entire story is told as a flashback, narrated by the Prince himself, who you take control of in the game. This is interesting because it implies that everything that you're playing through in the game has already happened. If you die, the Prince will exclaim- "That's not how it happened!" and the game will allow you to restart from the last checkpoint. During non-interactive cutscenes (and during some gameplay sequences as well), the Prince will interject a few comments about your current (which of course is his past) situation.

What's interesting is that despite the storyline implying I had no global agency, I never actually felt that way. Two factors lead to this, I believe. One is that the actual gameplay, consisting of a series of what are effectively obstacle courses that must be traversed by skillful application of the Prince's acrobatic talents, was really compelling. The second is that the player, despite playing as the Prince in the game, is actually put in the position of the (invisible til the end of the game) audience to whom the Prince is speaking. At every point in the game, we don't know what's going to happen next- and so we're curious. The game, then, feels like a story that we have to play through to reach the end (kind of like an adventure game in a way).

Oddly enough, I think this partially resolves the conflict between narrative and interactivity inherent in all games of this nature. The player is no longer torn between the idea that he/she is making meaningful changes to the game world and the relentless, linear pull of the narrative. By explicitly taking away the concept of global agency from the player, it frees the player to concentrate on the local agency of each series of puzzles he/she traverses and enjoy the narrative as the linear, designed creation that it is.

So does this mean that narrative and interactivity can never co-exist? No, I don't think so. I do, however, believe that narrative-based games, in their current form, are incapable of doing this (mind you, I don't think there's anything necessarily wrong with that). No matter how many branching paths a designer adds to a game's storyline, all those branching paths are still those that have been chosen by the designer and not the player himself/herself. The kind of game that can truly bridge the gap between narrative and interactivity will have to be one that lets a storyline emerge dynamically from the interactions between a player and a game-world. "Emergent gameplay," so to speak.

How is time represented in the game? Is there a separation of story and discourse time? How does the game’s use of time allow for interactivity?

In the process of answering the first question, I think I ended up answering the first 2 parts of this question as well. So I'll talk a bit about the player's ability to manipulate time in the game. Basically, after a certain point in the game, the player acquires, shall we say, a "device". This "device" contains a number of charges, each of which can be used to reverse time by about 10 or so seconds. Thus players can save themselves from a painful death (caused, more often than not, by a mistake made during traversal of the game's obstacle courses). Later in the game, you'll also be able to use said device to slow down time (which helps out in battles) and freeze time (ditto). These time manipulation abilities are restricted, though, and the player does not affect the flow of time within the storyline at all. So we could say that the game uses the manipulation of time as an interactive tool, while at the same time giving players no freedom to affect the flow of time within the story of the game.


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