Time Extend: Prince Of Persia – The Sands Of Time
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.