The two most artistically striking Western games in the press right now suffer from the same problem. I wonder if games like Call of Duty: World at War and Alone in the Dark look at Prince of Persia and Mirror's Edge as glamorous movie stars. And if, like anyone who's ever snickered derisively at a Britney Spears or Jessica Simpson interview, they affect an intellectual superiority upon the discovery that the pretty girl is pretty vacant.
Prince of Persia and Mirror's Edge both appeared uncommonly beautiful up until the point when they opened their mouths. It's disappointing that these two games, so bold and creative on one front, have so quickly revealed the quality of their writing to be uninspired and trite. I wish they'd never said anything. I'd like to have clung to their initial promise for as long as possible. The dream is over.
The Prince of Persia is the worst thing about Prince of Persia. In this gameplay video, the Prince hops, skips and jumps his way through a lovely rendered environment, stopping occasionally to lazily opine in the boring snark of a low-rent Diablo Cody. Uncharted's Nolan North reprises his role as Nathan Drake, delivering the following lines in a detached drawl:
"Why do we always have to go TOWARDS the bad guys?"
"Don't say it's quiet! Don't EVER say it's quiet!"
"Of COURSE not! That would be far too simple!"
When Ubisoft sat in the marketing meeting that was all about the trending popularity of the brown/grey/black/brown Gears of War look, they shook their heads firmly and went with something different. But when marketing clicked over to the next slide: "Irreverence: it's what's in!" everyone leaned forward intrigued.
The lines above are flat-out not funny. They're not even trying very hard to be clever. Ubisoft are instead trying to emulate the slick, off-hand cool of a different kind of genre at the expense of their own game's aesthetic. Here, the voice actors and the dialogue are the worst fit imaginable. For the setting, obviously, but also for the style they want to recreate. "Why do we always have to go TOWARDS the bad guys?", that would be the oft-referenced Okami and ICO influence at work, then? It's a common complaint actually that the one thing ICO lacked was the spunky quips of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The debut Mirror's Edge trailer presented a game all about the visceral first-person experience, without an obstructive narrative. The soundtrack was limited to the character's breathing, her footsteps and the wind rushing by, accompanied by an oddly low-key and evocative piece of music. Trailer #2 fixed all that.
Instead of suavely unwrapping its story like a Portal might, Mirror's Edge takes a big narrative dump right on the lawn. All the mystery and wonder in the first trailer is promptly resolved, and unfortunately the answers don't seem like much fun. The game that will draw the industry's greatest praises for innovation and charm -- and, to a degree, very justifiably -- is marrying its dazzling aesthetic with writing like this:
"They've taken my sister. Framed her for a crime she did not commit. And now they're hunting me. But just because I don't have a weapon does not mean I can't fight back. So now I'm coming after whoever is behind this. On the edge of the city? You find out who you really are."
Nowhere in the world, however? Do you find out why these creative minds are so smitten with derivation. In this preview, producer Owen O'Brien describes how he fell in love with the DVD commentary for the movie Serenity and how that became the genesis of the Mirror's Edge story. Serenity writer/director Joss Whedon had this to say: "The empire isn't evil -- it just thinks it's right and can't understand why people wouldn't want to live by its rules." Mind-blowing insight for anyone whose literacy tastes run all the way from Star Wars to Lord of the Rings.
The Prince of Persia is a sassy ass-kicking hero and the heroines are smart, but not afraid to be sexy either! Everyone wants to be Joss Whedon. Everyone wants to be very serious about game design and making action games smarter and daring to be colourful and different, but at the same time, these people are the ones reorganising their Buffy DVDs and thinking "wow, that's deep, I wish I could write something that good." I wish you would try. When these games are what pass for the innovative and the risk-taking, what is the point of anyone doing anything. Instead of writing and acting, let's just paraphrase Firefly lines we remember fondly and cast Nathan Fillion in everything.
We can all do better.