With the recent release of Price of Persia, it seems Ubisoft Montreal is starting an annual tradition of forcing reviewers to realize fundamental and upsetting truths about videogames. When a reviewer gets a chance to slam a high-profile release for anything, they cannot wait to bang out a logically disconnected criticism with their fists while they uncontrollably salivate. Flecks of spittle fly, a series of incoherent grunts roll through a studio apartment, and two pages of flimsy criticism hit the internet solidifying a journo’s reputation as a true game critic.
There’s got to be a problem in here, there just HAS to be.
This happened in 2007 with Assassin’s Creed. Gamers and journalists alike decried the game’s repetitive design, collectively patting themselves on the back that they had the capacity to find a flaw in what was actually an amazing game. Calling a game “repetitive” is a completely invalid complaint, as I have previously discussed. Repetition is a fundamental part of any game, electronic or otherwise. Assassin’s Creed forced players that hadn’t yet realized this to do so, and for some reason this caused them a considerable amount of dismay. Now, Ubisoft Montreal has forced players to realize another constant about videogames, and yet again they dislike the game for it.
Several different reviews proudly slam the game for two main reasons. First, many claim the game is too easy. Why a game’s lack of difficulty becomes innately negative is beyond me. As far as I’m concerned, I know I can beat any game given enough time. Why make me waste time dying a lot just to memorize a section or attack pattern? But that’s not the biggest point of confusion in these reviews.
Almost all the articles call out the game’s interpretive controls. For the unfamiliar, PoP uses a hefty amount of interpretation for the platforming segments. If a jump is somewhat off, the game will snap the Prince back to a safe landing. In addition, the player only needs to hit one button at each junction of a platforming segment: press A to swing from this pole, press B to swing from this ring, ect. Reviewers proclaim that this is essentially a masked QTE, with each action in the segment only having a binary pass/fail outcome.
Well, no duh.
That statement is true for all games, to a degree. Control interpretation is a fundamental part of any game. I can hear the nerd rage building within you, but give me a second, this will all tie together in a bit. In any game, when the player presses a button, any on screen action is an interpretation of that press (unless the avatar on screen is also pressing a button). In Super Mario Bros, the player hits a button and the Italian jumps. While the two actions aren’t the same, the player feels ownership over the action due to a variety of elements – the immediacy of the action, the visual cue, and sound response (the boing sound, you know what it is).
So far there’s no problem. The player feels in control and empowered. As is the case with Prince of Persia, the problems arise when players no longer feel like they’re directly in control of their avatar. More modern games with loads of animation have struggled with this. Say you have a character that’s running. At any moment, the player can instruct the character to jump, but how do you change from a running animation to a jumping animation in a smooth way?
Non-realistic games like Super Mario Galaxy can get around this because, well, it’s not realistic. Who cares if a cartoon immediately changes from a run to a jump? However, when a realistic-looking dude launches airbone instantly from a full sprint… it just looks weird. One solution is to throw a few frames of animation in there to transition from the run to the jump. Now there’s a slight delay between the push and the action, and the player feels just a bit disconnected. The two are related inversely; the more animation, the better the looks, but the looser the controls.
PoP opted to go full-bore with animation and as a result the game looks great. The Prince’s moves are smooth as hell (which I assure you is quite smooth, not firey and red as Christian dogma would have you believe), and platforming segments are entirely seamless. Such animation introduces a conundrum involving controls. Either you require precise timing with no easy way to indicate to the player exactly when they need to hit the button – aside from, y’know, putting a button on the screen – or you open the timing window to reduce the frustration. Either you get people complaining that the game is cheap and needlessly frustrating (Mirror’s Edge), or you get people complaining that it’s not cheap and needlessly frustrating enough. Freaking internet, damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Obviously, Ubi Montreal went with the wider timing, and I couldn’t be happier. However, apparently gamers need to lose, or at least have the real threat of failure, before a victory has any value. For many of the reviewers I’ve read, just realizing that victory comes easily robs it of any enjoyment. I’m not sure why this is – are gamers’ egos so weak that they can’t bear to enjoy a victory unless they feel they have ripped it from the jaws of defeat? I can understand cautioning against the game to players that want a good challenge, but calling the game bad simply because it’s easy doesn’t compute at all.
The other half of the argument is more poignant; that the wide window on the controls breaks the illusion that the player is actually in control. To me, this smacks of players that blame a game for having any kind if cheat available, because that means they just have to use them. Just because the timing window is really wide doesn’t mean the player has to use it. Even cognizant of the wide window, I pressed the buttons the instant the Prince reached the ledge / pole / ring / whatever while playing. Even though the game didn’t require me to be so precise, being precise anyway created the illusion of control.
One might say that fooling one’s self in this way is cheap and shouldn’t be required. However, thanks to the aforementioned translating process of videogame actions, all controls are based on illusion. Until we get full-body sensory immersion VR suits, this will be true of any videogame. Besides, by the time we get full VR suits we’ll be living in a dystopian future where renegade AI cyborgs will be running around trying to kill us, so we’ll have bigger fish to fry. Plus there will be flying cars then, and once I get one of those I probably won’t need a videogame for a while.
Flying car or Madden 2019… easy choice.
PoP has removed several of the behind-the-scenes conventions that gamers are used to; chief among those being the potential for failure. Even so, why should that ruin the fun? These reviewers are the guys that can’t wait to tell you that space shouldn’t have sound when you talk about Star Wars, or just can’t get why Romeo and Juliet didn’t book it out of Verona the moment they got married. Try to have fun with a game before you look for all the ways you can’t.