Thursday, January 24, 2019

Prince of Persia (2008) -- legacy?

I wanted some good jumpy climby fun, and I was all out of Tomb Raider, so I spent a few days replaying Prince of Persia. That's the 2008 reboot of the 2003 reboot of the series, if you're keeping track, and who isn't? It's on Steam, ten bucks.
Many many articles were written about this game and its audacious ending. I'm not certain I want to spoil it. It's a ten-year-old game, so you've probably played it; but it's a ten-year-old game, so maybe you haven't played it... okay, fine.
Big ol' SPOILER for Prince of Persia 2008: at the end, you and your NPC companion defeat the dark god -- at great cost. You are not happy with the cost. So, in a post-credits scene, you have the opportunity to undo it; and thus undo everything you've accomplished. Selfishly; self-destructively; tragically.
From a storytelling point of view, this worked great. It's in character; you're a wandering thief, you can be a selfish jerk. It's a sympathetic decision. It's plenty foreshadowed. The surprise is in the narrative construction: the character choice is not presented as a story choice. It's a force. Post-credits, you're stuck in a ruined, empty city. You've got nothing to do, literally mechanically nothing, but undo your success or turn off your computer.
Or jump off a cliff, I suppose. I didn't try that. But suicide is emphatically not in character.
So you can imagine all the reactions, negative and/or positive, from people who liked their story tropes traditional and/or subverted. Some of that is still online, you can read through it.
(Wikis remind me about the DLC episode which extended the story. I dimly remember playing this. Narratively, it did nothing but muck up the ending. You can skip it. It's not included in the Steam release anyhow.)
Ten years have gone by. What have we learned? What games have built on this idea?
I'm not talking about tragedy. Tragedy is cheap (and horror is cheaper). Two out of three walking simulators spring the reveal that you're dead, or everybody else is dead, or both.
I'm not talking about the trope where you've been terribly misled, and everything you've done is bad. Then you have to go back and fix it all, or perhaps destroy everything you've accomplished. That's a plot twist, but it still leads to a triumph. You figure out how to win and then you win.
I'm not talking about games where you can choose the good ending or the bad ending. You always know the difference.
I'm talking about a game where you can see a good ending (to the story), but the real ending (to the game) isn't that. The game says you walk on by and do something else. It's tragedy, but tragedy specifically in the interactive mode.
We normally think of this gimmick in horror games. Don't open that door! ...but you're stuck in the room, you have to open the door. Or solve the puzzle, or whatever. It raises tension or moves the plot forward; this is familiar. What's unique about PoP, I think, is using this gimmick to end the story. It's the "oh no" that you can't fix.
Soma goes down a related path. There's a good ending, but you don't get it because that's not how the universe works. Someone else gets it. It's a traditional tragedy, not something driven by game mechanics, but it left me with something of the same feeling. Perhaps because the body of the game does such a good job of showing you how the universe works.
It occurs to me that my old favorite Soul Reaver tries to pull the trick retroactively. (In the '90s!) The previous game, the original Blood Omen, ended with a good/evil choice -- cheap and unsubtle. Soul Reaver declares that your character chose evil. He decided to conquer the world as a vampire lord. Enjoy his thousand-year reign of blood and tyranny. But this does not occur within the play experience of either game.
I have to include Universal Paperclips. There's no "good ending", but the idea is the same. Everything you do in UP is awful; you do it because you know how to play idle-clicker games.
Oxenfree? Interesting suggestion. The original game is a tragedy; you are trapped. The "new game plus" extended ending offers the possibility that you can escape, but at the cost of undoing everything that you've experienced. This doesn't release evil(tm), but it nullifies all the relationships and character moments that you've become invested in through the game. That counts as far as I'm concerned.
What other examples can we think of? What narrative games mess with the concept of game-victory itself? (As distinct from "happy endings".)


  1. For what it's worth, I did try jumping off a cliff when I played it. The game doesn't let you. All the cliffs develop invisible barriers just for the ending.

    Not everything you do in Universal Paperclips is awful. Towards the beginning, you do things like cure cancer and introduce other beneficial technologies. Sure, you have an ulterior motive (where "you" means the player character), but you could in theory play up to that point and stop. But you (the player) don't, because you want to see the story, and that's clearly not how the story goes. It would be as illegitimate as refusing to cooperate with PoP's ending, or rejoining the party early in A Change in the Weather.

    Anyway, you asked for other examples. Immortal Defense is a contender, for reasons I once blogged about, but it really fits better under "tragedy" rather than "potential good ending subverted". I mention it mainly because its own author suggested that quitting after a certain point constitutes a good ending. (Also, I still haven't finished the bonus chapter, which seems likely to subvert the tragedy.)

  2. Also, Donut County basically does a PoP08 ending (using game mechanics to cause the player to choose to do something bad), but it's at the very beginning.

  3. Of course, an equally valid reading of Soma is that you get the good ending. The bad ending is for somebody else who shares your memories. That is the paradox the game wants to tickle our minds with.

  4. I should have thought of Trinity! I've always thought that it failed to hold together as an ending, but it was certainly trying something in this area.

    Donut Country is, as you say, a similar trick at the beginning. Excellent point. I guess that's a third category of use -- distinct from "in the middle" horror games, and "at the end" PoP 2008.

    > All the cliffs develop invisible barriers just for the ending.

    That's disappointing.

    It wouldn't necessarily be suicide, now that I think about it. The Temple plain has one cliff-edge that overlooks the "outside world". It would take a very small change to provide a gauntlet-grind track down the cliff face. Fade to black partway down and you've got a perfectly functional "go home" ending choice.

  5. As for Soma, I think it's just a misstep that the ending is ambiguous in that way. As I said in my post, they should have distanced the final cut-scene in some way to make it clear that it wasn't you.

    Obviously the designers disagreed, though. :)

  6. Replies
    1. I'll just pretend I didn't forget about Infidel. :)

  7. Ok, so... Gauntlet IV, for the Sega Genesis. (Warning: spoilers for a 16-bit game from the '90s :-)

    Gauntlet IV had an RPG mode. You explore 5 castles, each with 10 floors, and the last floor of each castle has a boss fight with a dragon. You can complete the first 4 castles in any order, but you need to defeat the first 4 dragons before you can enter the fifth castle.

    This wasn't a narrative game in any sense, but it had a premise given to you in text at the start. It was a pretty tired trope: There are 5 mysterious castles, presumably filled with untold dangers, but also untold treasures! Many heroes have entered, but none have ever returned! Will you be the first to succeed where others have failed?

    So you play through the game, and finally have the boss fight with the final dragon. As he dies, he thanks you for releasing him from the curse he interited, which is now being passed onto you.

    You then get one final short piece of gameplay, in which you are still in the same room, except you are now controlling a dragon. An adventurer approaches, and you are able to use breath attacks to fry him until he is dead. Then the game ends.

    Totally blew my frickin' mind at the time.

    1. Nifty. The ending of Shadow of the Colossus touches on this idea too.

  8. Sorry to be off-topic (again) but I think this is interesting: as I understand it, Soma's ending is not really ambiguous. The point is that the entire question of whether it is "you" or somebody else that get the happy ending is meaningless. If the mind of person A can be copied, then every copy can claim to be the "real" A, and they will all be right. Philosophers such as Derek Parfit have written thousands of pages on this subject, and it seems obvious to me that Soma is at least in part inspired by this philosophical debate.

    1. Sure, we agree about this. But Soma consistently offers you a single viewpoint at any given time; it never switches between two live copies or gives you the option of which to play. The whole impact of the ending is muted if you take the post-credits scene as "I experienced this". They should have picked one, and since this is a horror game -- philosophical horror -- there's no question which they should have stuck with.

  9. Undertale winds up being like this since most players saved the genocide ending for last. Even if they didn't, completing the game that way stays with you. Literally; it brands your hard drive so that the game always remembers, even if you reinstall.

    Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon might be another good example. Over the first third or so of the game, you meet three (allegedly) unsavory-looking characters, each of which you can ally with, kill for their power, or just walk past and ignore. There are five endings depending on how much of which you do, all of them victories, albeit with different flavor. However, the most conclusive ending is to ally with everyone, which has the hero turn evil at the end. Then you have to play through a special mode- with the three allies and NO hero- to fight the hero as final boss and get the true ending. (And a WTF post-credit scene that feels like developer trolling.)