The Prince of Persia franchise was a seminal piece of technological achievement in video gaming. It began with Jordan Mechner’s first game, Prince of Persia, released for Apple II back in 1989. The widespread praise and sales led to Mechner making two more sequels.
The Prince of Persia finds its roots in the imaginative fantasies of the One Thousand and One Nights stories and the swashbuckling action of The Adventures of Robin Hood.
Prince of Persia’s primary narrative focuses on the eponymous nameless Prince and his quest to save the Princess. In the original trilogy of Mechner, the former starts as a common before saving the Princess in the first game.
Later in the second game, he learns from a mysterious woman that he is of royal lineage.
After the disappointing third game, the Broderbund Company’s game division, which held the Prince of Persia franchise, was sold to Ubisoft. Mechner joined Ubisoft to work on what would go on to become Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time in 2003.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time’s critical success made Ubisoft invest in subsequent sequels. The franchise’s influence on the video game genre, in particular, is immense.
One of the most famous and notable influences of Prince of Persia is Ubisoft’s other IP, Assassin’s Creed.
Prince of Persia and its use of time
For the very first game back in 1989, Mechner used rotoscoping to create fluid and realistic animation for the first game. It is an animation technique to trace over motion picture footage to produce realistic action.
The primary caveat of the original trilogy was that the game had to be finished before a stipulated time ran out. In the first game, the main objective is to escape from the dungeons and save the princess locked in a tower.
The aspect of time is reversed in The Sands of Time trilogy. In the original trilogy, players were bound by a fixed time, but time was fluid and could be turned back in the latter trilogy.
The Sands of Time introduced the Dagger of Time, which can use the Sands to rewind time for up to ten seconds.
In the sequel, Prince of Persia: Warrior Within, time manipulation was further explored through the presence of sand portals, through which one can move either way in time, and the artifact called The Mask of the Wraith.
The Mask of the Wraith lets its wearer go back to the past as a wraith by creating two timelines. The mask only comes off when the user’s “other” self dies, and the wearer can take that place in the timeline.
The Prince and his Shadow
In the 1989 Prince of Persia, the Prince met with his Shadow after passing through a magical mirror. The latter ran in the opposite direction of the Prince.
Throughout, the Shadow acts primarily as a nuisance by stealing a life potion or closing a gate.
In their final meeting, the Prince chooses to fight him, but the Prince himself is hurt upon cutting him. Realizing the Shadow is none but himself, the Prince sheathes his sword and merges back with the Shadow.
Prince of Persia 2: The Shadow and the Flame brings back the concept of this doppelganger shadow. This time, the Shadow can now leave the Prince’s body at will. It manages to procure the blue flame required to kill Jaffar and returns to the Prince’s body.
In the Sands of Time trilogy, the presence of a double happens in the two latter sequels. In Warrior Within, as is already mentioned, at one point in the game, there are two Princes at one point in one timeline, where one is wearing The Mask of the Wraith.
Realizing his past mistakes did not change time, the Prince wearing the Mask lets his other self get killed so that he can take off the Mask and take his place.
In The Two Thrones, the Prince is affected by the Sands of Time. It has given rise to an alter ego called the Dark Prince, manifested by a voice within.
The Dark Prince in personality is quite the opposite of the Prince. It also pushes the latter to serve only himself.
The Dark Prince can sometimes take over the Prince’s body and turn into a wraith-like sand monster. In the end, Prince and the Dark Prince struggle over control of the body in the former’s mind. The whole sequence is psychedelic in its visuals, with a constant barrage of sarcastic remarks from the Dark Prince.
The Dark Prince orders the Prince:
“Do not fight me. Set down your sword and embrace me.”
It is a subtle hark back to the original game’s embracement of the Shadow. The Prince is finally led away from the Shadow by another character, Farah.
The Dark Prince screams, ‘Do not ignore me! Do not leave me behind!’ as the Prince walks away and is woken up from his reverie.
Action, identities, and the endless possibilities
At the end of The Two Thrones, the Prince begins to recount the whole trilogy by saying the same line he said at the beginning of the Sands of Time. In doing so, much like James Joyce in Finnegan's Wake, the Prince ties the whole story into a circle. Time is no longer linear but seemingly in a circle.
"Most people think time is like a river that flows swift and sure in one direction, but I have seen the face of time, and I can tell you they are wrong. Time is an ocean in a storm."
Although time is dealt with in different ways in the two trilogies, one thing it signifies in both is the possibilities.
In the 1989 game, death would not reset the timer but only the player's position back to the start, as they are punished for failing. The story does not restart, only the place of the gamer in it.
In the Ubisoft trilogy, the very fabric of time can be manipulated. It can be molded to cause annihilation on Earth. It can be used to slow down, freeze, or rewind time. It has its own history, will and wish, pleasure, and punishment attached to it.
Each time gamers rewind the game, they change the action of the play. Every rewind is another chance at doing the same thing differently. Each rewind is thus imbued with endless possibilities of action.
Sigmund Freud talks about the double or the doppelganger in his 1919 essay, “The Uncanny.” He finds the source of the double in the primary narcissism of the child. In early childhood, the child’s self-love creates projections of multiple selves.
When these return later in life, the double invokes a sensation of uncanny where the self is forced to take a look back at a more primitive state of itself. Within the double is repressed all negative traits of the self. In encountering it, the self is thrown into a state of uncanniness.
In the 1989 game, the Prince chose to embrace the Shadow after recognizing it as a part of himself. In doing so, he accepts the negative traits within himself and reconnects the two halves broken by a magical mirror.
The Shadow, there, was everything the Prince was not. It was a reminder of the possibilities of what he could be. It also shows the choices the player did not make and how they could have played and did not.
In Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones, the Dark Prince is an alter-ego borne out of vengeance and anger. Only when the Prince sees his father’s dead body and realizes the folly of his actions that he gains control over himself for the first time.
Authority for the Prince came from realizing his autonomy by acknowledging the consequences of his actions without resorting to fixing them by manipulating time. In accepting the inevitability of his father’s death and denying to engage with the Sands of Time to save him, the Prince refuses the fantastical quests of naivety. Instead, he participates in dealing with the consequences of his actions as an adult.
The final fight in the dreamscape between the Prince and the Dark Prince showcases the impossibility of killing the Dark Prince through swords. Whereas it was only a mirror Shadow in the first trilogy, a reminder of the endless roads not taken, in Two Thrones, the Dark Prince is the embodiment of all the negative traits of the Prince.
In ignoring it in the end, the Prince denies it any agency, without which it perishes. The Prince walks away from the world of dreams and fantasy. He is able to face the repressed emotions of his past and accept the folly that came out of it.
These two Prince of Persia series are a curious foray into the notions of time and the idea of the double. In one, the game explores the endless possibilities of gameplay and actions.
Provided with enough Sands, each action can be turned back and redone in probably a better way in Prince of Persia. One can never be sure which one that better way is, and thus, the Sands are finite in the gamescape. With every action that is scrapped, a future is dealt away with. Each rewind is a road not taken.
This notion of endless possibilities is then taken from actions to identities with the use of the double. A divided self shows up as what one could have been or chose not to be or has repressed within.
Amidst the fun, frolic, and Persian fantasy, these games provide a thoughtful commentary on the impossibility of running away from the consequences of who one is and the actions taken.