Sunday, December 27, 2009

My Top Ten Games of the Decade, Part Three

8. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (PS2 - 2003)

Normally, I'm adamantly against remakes. Any time a movie, game, or insert-media-category-here gets the dreaded “re” treatment – remade, rebooted, reimagined, etc. – disaster follows. Though it's often a case of impossible expectations, there's also a fair degree of loss of identity involved; in other words, the qualities that made the original great are discarded or altered beyond recognition. I had to make an exception in the case of Prince of Persia, however. Its franchise reboot (well, the first one of the decade, at least) stands as perhaps the greatest example of how to mix the classic elements of a game franchise with fresh ideas to create not a hideous Frankenstein's monster of a game, but rather a new classic.

Prince of Persia is at its core a game about exploration and acrobatics, and The Sands of Time takes that concept to heart. The eponymous Prince (nameless, of course) routinely performs Matrix-like feats of agility with the slightest of ease: running up walls, jumping across high perches, and so on. The control is fluid and easy to master, yet encourages (perhaps even demands) tinkering and experimentation on the part of the player thanks to the oft-mentioned and innovative “do over” mechanic (the Dagger of Time, which allows the player to rewind time) . Apart from a hazy black-and-white vision before each new section, the player has no guidance as to where to go or what to do, yet thanks to the ability to reverse mistakes, it never feels impossible, only intuitive and ultimately satisfying.

The Sands of Time
also manages to integrate some of the best elements from an innovative contemporary: Ico. In the original Prince of Persia, the goal was to rescue the princess from the evil Vizier. In The Sands of Time, however, the princess – the lovely, red-clad Farah – is along for the ride. In an interesting twist on the escort mechanics from Ico, the Prince and Farah actually help each other out; save for the occasional arrow in the back, Farah is quite useful in combat, and absolutely essential for solving some of the puzzles. Such puzzles are directly drawn from Ico, as the player's actions in one area can affect the environment in others. Though the core premise of “escape from the large and dangerous castle with your companion” is preserved in The Sands of Time, it is given sufficient window dressing to make it seem fresh.

In fact, that “window dressing” is what makes The Sands of Time so appealing in the first place. The presentation is bursting with verisimilitude, from water fountains replenishing health to the whole story being a fantastical Persian tale. It's sad that subsequent entries in the franchise seemed to lose sight of this presentational style, which ultimately required another franchise reboot. The Sands of Time, however, stands as both a testament to the power of the rare remake done right and one of the best games of the decade.

7. Ico (PS2 - 2001)

I'm not going to get into the whole “games as art” debate, but it seems that it's impossible to talk about Ico without someone bringing it up. I concede that it's definitely worth mentioning that Ico is one of the most emotional and provocative experiences the gaming medium has to offer – all with a minimal amount of dialogue, no heads-up display, and little more than a boy with horns leading an ethereal princess through an enormous and foreboding castle. Sure, it definitely sounds like some kind of weird work of art, but again, I'm not getting into that. Instead, let's focus on its standing as one of the best examples of holistic game design ever.

Ico is very minimalistic in its design, at least from an interface perspective. There is a jump button and an action button, and most of the familiar trappings of video game language are missing: health bar, points, etc. What is there is more than enough, however: the boy with horns, the princess, and a vast number of manipulable environments. There is a great deal of room for experimentation and exploration, which simultaneously manages to be frustrating and liberating for the player. Everything needed for the experience is on the screen, and increasingly complex despite its minimalistic simplicity.

In this regard, Ico is very important in establishing the language of video games, and in many ways represents the maturation of the medium. It cuts down on the pillaging of staples of other media (specifically film) interspersed with “dangling carrot” gameplay segments. Yes, Ico does utlize a scant few cutscenes, but the overall theme of the work – that of escape, protection, and human connection – is conveyed perfectly well without them. The cutscenes become periphery, icing on the cake so to speak. In short, the player is forced to ponder the game on its own merits, and to determine some sort of meaning from their interaction with it.

Honestly, it's starting to sound somewhat artistic to me. Maybe that's why it's so nearly impossible to discuss Ico without mentioning the “a” word: not because it is art per se, but rather because it is an indication of the language of the medium itself. Though the game itself has been outdone in this regard (by none other than its younger brother, Shadow of the Colossus), Ico was akin to the first word uttered in a new language of media. Sure, it was more of a whisper that went relatively unheard, and was only regarded much later after its praises had been repeated to others, but it was still an important statement in video games.

And oh yeah, it's a pretty darned good game, too.

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