After Pressing Start: Prince of Persia 2
The original Prince of Persia games (Brøderbond) came out way back in the day when software came on floppy discs. Hey kids, do you even know what a floppy disc is? It’s the kind of disc cavemen used to install CavePaint on their wood burning, wheel powered computers. Also, they installed Prince of Persia.
The first two PoP games are considered classics for their fluid animations, acrobatic platforming, and the puzzle solving needed to navigate the various trap-filled dungeons. The second game, Prince of Persia 2: Shadow and the Flame, takes these core elements and builds upon them superbly. One of the most notable improvements is the heightened sense of excitement and adventure which you notice right after pressing start; figuratively speaking of course, since those wood burning computers only had two buttons made of whale teeth and neither of them was “start”.
The game begins literally in medias res as you’re mid air, leaping through a window, crashing through glass, and falling to the roof as an enemy guard advances on you. Instant action, instant adrenaline. Instant frustration if you’re not familiar with the controls, but that wasn’t a big deal. This was 1993, just two years before the invention of domesticated animals, so game controls weren’t difficult to figure out. The point is that right away the game tells you this is going to be an adventure; it will be a more cinematic and action packed game than its predecessor was.
After that initial window vandalism you go on to escape across rooftops, jumping over alleyways, and fighting off pursuing guards. Killing an enemy guard knocks him tumbling from the roof with a scream that ends with the unmistakable sound of a human body hitting cobblestone street. At the end of the level you escape across a dock as a ship slowly pulls away from harbor. You have to make a running jump, vaulting over the water, and catch the rear cabin window. If you miss the boat you will drown. If you take too long the boat will leave and you’re forced to fight guard after guard until you’re inevitably killed, which I believe is also what happens if you miss your flight in a modern airport. The entire level feels like something from Indiana Jones except that it’s in a 2D game taking place in a historically inaccurate Persia (medieval Persia’s prized rooftops were notoriously well guarded by genies and not human guards as the game would have you believe)
The first level of the game is so well paced, cinematically, that I’m going to call it filmic–which my spellchecker tells me is not a word although I know it’s lying. That scene of rooftop chases and moving vehicles escapes is a classic series of adventure story tropes that are delivered exquisitely.
A more timid developer would have shied away from making this the first level. It is sudden and abrupt and a player is guaranteed to die several times in their first play through. A modern developer would sit back munching on his modern agriculture, mumbling something about difficulty curves, and would have saved this level for a point when the player had the skills to be successful. That would also have robbed this level of all its punch. Jordan Mechner, creator of Prince of Persia and fire keeper of the Clan of the Mammoth, was perfectly fine with letting the player struggle at first if it meant he could make the game’s opening as epic and exciting as he wanted it to be.
From that climactic intro you go on to have other such experiences which draw upon themes and images found in both adventure films and folk legends: abandoned bandit caves, a battle against an immortal skeleton on a collapsing bridge, a magic carpet ride, an ancient ruined city, statues that come to life and come to your aid, and epic battles against masked warrior monks across a towering bridge. At one point you are teased with the distant sight of a new sword you can pick up. When you finally get there the sword clatters into the air, lights on fire, and begins attacking you. Adventure!
The theme of adventure which permeates the game was epitomized by that first level. Sure, things slow down after then. That’s because it’s still a Prince of Persia game and there are still puzzles to solve and traps to carefully avoid. With the first level though it’s almost like Jordan Mechner and the other developers said to themselves, “Let’s make one level and polish it up so it perfectly embodies all the exciting, cinematic elements we want to spread throughout the game.” And then they did.
After Pressing Start is a new series running on Nightmare Mode every Friday by resident narrative guru Tom Auxier. This guest entry of After Pressing Start was written by Phil Rejmer. It focuses on beginning, on the stories that happen directly after pressing start, and how those introductory stories influence the arcs of video games. Check out some of the other articles: After Pressing Start