Last month’s E3 sparked a debate about video games dumbing down since their rise in the previous decades to a multi-billion pound industry with mammoth budgets and an unrelenting guarantee to return on investment. Much has been made of the sheer adolescence of E32012, the torture porn of the Tomb Raider reboot, the gory Elephant-man-thing decapitation of God of War and the general chronicling of the minute differences in blowing stuff apart since last year.
Matthew Burns made the point on his blog Magical Wasteland that a jarring centrepiece of games continues to be just how dumb its inhabitants are. The character of Drake in the Uncharted series is so lauded as being a fuller emotional and entertaining centrepiece, yet still murders thousands of bystanders without the batting of an eyelid, let alone a coherent expression of remorse.
…seemed to epitomise a dearth in creativity…
In Ubisoft Montreal’s 2003 multi-platform release, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, the Prince, after encountering a crowd of Sinbad style zombies, does the unthinkable and expresses sadness and regret for releasing the eponymous zombifying sands, and for his brutal vanquishing of his former friends and subordinates. This from a game that, even in its conception, seemed to epitomise a dearth in creativity. Not only was it unoriginal, resurrecting Jordan Mechner’s 2D platforming series that debuted on the 1989 Apple II computer, but it was being released across all platforms back when this was a practice usually reserved for sports games and movie tie-ins.
When its release came, Sands of Time stunned everyone by being actually fantastic: capturing that sense of adventure and wonderment at the heart of a range of narratives (from The Arabian Nights to Indiana Jones). Its central protagonist was not only capable of breathtakingly fluid parcours and smooth cinematic combat with time-altering elements, but he was witty, charming and, surprisingly, British! In later games, the pantalooned Prince ceased to be a dashing Brit and reverted to a predictable rugged, black leather-clad, gruff American; this first instalment’s refusal immersed the player in a beautiful old world adventure.
…a genuine sense of attachment formed…
Nine years later in 2012, it is deemed necessary for Lara Croft to be threatened with rape to make her origins ”believable”, Sands of Time’s Farah was not only beautiful, but tough, resourceful and essential to your quest. Fulfilling all the standard functions expected of a video game sidekick (pulling levers, standing on switches, squeezing through gaps), the speed of the game engine in recognising when it needed to do something, coupled with the tightly written interchanges between the wily Prince and his aloof companion meant a genuine sense of attachment formed.
Sands of Time did something seemingly forgotten in Uncharted : it made the sidekick vulnerable to the environment and assailants. Admittedly it is quite easy to see the logic of a sidekick’s invulnerability: no one likes to have to trudge back from the most recent checkpoint because the game engine decides that it was time for your sidekick to take an axe to the face; but when your partner is more than capable of holding her own (and more often than not saving your skin) it is actually possible for a real sense of camaraderie to develop. If for once your companion is actually a fairly normally proportioned female with a grasp of her own agency, then even better.
Available at ludicrously cheap prices second hand and available for direct download on PSN and PC, it is worth reminding yourself that it isn’t always necessary to appeal to the lowest common denominator to secure financial reward: every once in a while something comes along that creates not only a blockbuster franchise, but is kind of smart.