After Pressing Start: Prince of Persia Sands of Time
One of my favorite things about Prince of Persia: Sands of Time is the ability to rewind time. It’s immensely enjoyable to undo your small mistakes rather than having to restart a level or reload a saved game. It’s a mechanic that is so useful that I’m seriously astounded that every single game hasn’t been including it since the release of Sands of Time. I mean seriously, modern games, you don’t have a rewind feature? What else don’t you have, a quicksave function? Oh wait, some of you don’t; I’m looking at you, console games. Enough of my delighted rambling, those gripes are for a different article. What I really want to talk about is time travel and storytelling, and how one affects the telling of the other in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time.
Time travel is hard to do, but PoP:SoT handles it like a circus time-tamer making minutes dance for our pleasure. The keystone to its time travel storytelling is an absurdly short and initially perplexing piece of gameplay that takes place on a balcony.
The menu of the game is backdropped by a jungle at night. As soon as you press “start” the menu disappears and the camera zooms through the jungle until it you’re looking at the balcony of a palace where your character stands. You can control the Prince now. You can jump and run to your hearts content as long as your heart is content going nowhere on a tiny balcony. It becomes clear there is nothing to do except go through the curtains and into the light of the palace.
When you enter, the game cuts to a cinematic. The main character, the Prince, speaks this monologue:
Thanks, unnamed member of Persian royalty, I will sit down. You didn’t say it explicitly, but I get the feeling you also want me to eat this bag of Funyuns which are a snack unlike any I have ever tasted.
While the Prince speaks his monologue we see a sleeping woman, then the Prince running through a rainy jungle at night, then the woman wakes up in fright. The cinematic and monologue move on to how the Prince and his father invade a Maharaja’s castle with the help of the Raja’s traitorous vizier. When the cinematic ends you’re playing in the besieged castle during the day.
Wait, hold on. What happened to the balcony scene at night, what was the point of that? Why was there a sleeping woman? Why did the game start with those things and why didn’t it start with the attack on the castle? Good storytelling, that’s why.
Just bear with me in this next statement: The Prince’s story is not our story, the telling of the story is our story. So, the attack on the castle is the start of the Prince’s narrative, but the balcony scene is the start of our narrative.
Let me briefly sum up the Prince’s tale. There’s the attack on the Raja’s castle, everyone goes to a new castle, stuff happens, sand monsters appear, and during the adventures that follow the Prince teams up with a princess, the Maharaja’s daughter, and they form one of the most well written relationships I’ve ever seen in a video game. Then the princess dies. The grief stricken Prince reverses time to the night before the attack on the Raja’s castle and to before he met the Raja’s daughter. He then runs from his army’s camp through a rainy jungle and reaches the palace where the princess sleeps. We see the princess, who we now recognize as the sleeping woman in the first cinematic, and she wakes up startled. The Prince sneaks in through the balcony, which wasn’t a misdemeanor in ancient Persia, and approaches the Princess without permission from one of her male relatives, which actually was a misdemeanor in ancient Persia punishable by having your wang chopped off and fed to a monkey. Completely oblivious to these legal ramifications the Prince speaks to the princess and says, “Most people think time is like a river, that flows swift and sure in one direction…” I get it! The entire game is the Prince telling the princess his story. When he says, “Sit down and I will tell you a tale…” he’s not just talking to the audience in a bit of video game narration. He is literally talking to another person about sitting down and listening to him.
We’re not playing through the Prince’s story, we’re playing through the telling of his story. The game doesn’t take place over the course of the days and weeks the Prince experienced. It takes place over one single night as the Prince weaves his adventures for the princess, a narrative structure alluding to the famous Arabian Nights whose plot consists of someone telling stories.
That explains why after pressing start we go from the balcony to an attack on the castle. That’s the moment when we go from our narrative timeline and jump into the Prince’s narrative timeline. We’re actually traveling forward in time to tomorrow morning when the Prince’s story starts. Then the Prince travels back in time to before now, before the telling begins. His story starts in the future and ends in the past, and his story ends right when our story begins. Time travel! It all connects in a weird loop and the precise nature of that connection has to, at first, be kept a secret. If we saw the entire beginning of our story, the Prince talking to a princess who doesn’t recognize him, then the entire ending of the Prince’s story, the princess dying and the Prince rewinding time to a point before they met, would be spoiled right then and there.
So, the scene where we control the Prince on the balcony ties everything together. It connects our timeline with the Prince’s without spoiling the Prince’s story, and it still frames the game’s plot as an Arabian Nights style narrative. It’s a small scene, but crucially important and it shows the amount of effort and thought that was put into the game. Contrast that to Prince of Persia: Warrior Within where the only thing they thought about was synthetic angst and breast implants.
After Pressing Start is a series running on Nightmare Mode every Friday by resident narrative guruTom Auxier. It focuses on beginning, on the stories that happen directly after pressing start, and how those introductory stories influence the arcs of video games. This guest entry of After Pressing Start was written by Phil Rejmer. Check out some of the other APS articles: After Pressing Start