A figure emerges from the cracked desert. He has yet to be. And now he will begin.
The story of Mad Max, as told by George Miller, is best viewed as a connection between fables and campfire tales. It is a porous narrative that is as much about the characters within as it is about who is telling the story.
“For most of human history, ‘literature’, both fiction and poetry, has been narrated, not written—heard, not read. So fairy tales, folk tales, stories from the oral tradition, are all of them the most vital connection we have with the imaginations of the ordinary men and women whose labor created our world.”- Angela Carter
Prince of Persia is a videogame that is deeply concerned (whether it knows it or not) with the power of oral traditions, and the malleability of oral storytelling. The nameless adventurer whom the player inhabits could be anyone, is anyone. And princess Elika, who accompanies him throughout the story, is the orator—she is of this world and this land, and welcomes the unnamed adventurer into it. He holds no ownership or past with the corrupted lands, but she sees in him the ability to listen, to change the land itself. Beyond his selfish and horribly forced quippiness, there is a desire in him to listen to the princess about her story, her connection to the land, and how, with his help, they can rid the land of the rot that has consumed it.
This rot is as physical as it is internal. Opening with vague political machinations and dealings with dark gods, we learn that the corruption that has taken hold of the land started from within. But it manifests itself physically as a shapeless black rot that flows and sticks like tar. The porous nature of this evil affords the story its oratory-like sensibilities. Without a true shape, the evil could be anything—it only depends on who is telling the tale and when they are telling it. The same can be said about Prince of Persia’s overall visual design. It is cel-shaded and has the vibrancy and fluidity of a watercolor painting. Harsh edges and defined ridges are hard to find, and thus it feels as if the visual design of Prince of Persia, like its narrative, is always afforded the possibility to change, to shift. Like clay, the ability to be molded is always there, one just has to press hard enough for the reshaping to begin. While that idea is thematic and the visual design of the game cannot be changed by player input (beyond ridding the land of its rot), the feeling of change is something that exists. And not a lot of other videogames feel like that—an oral tale being weaved into existence as the player platforms from pillar to pillar and craked ledge to cracked ledge.
Oral narratives are often owned by those who tell them rather than those who create them. The speakers of the first word become lost to time while those who carry on the tradition exist solely within time, and they can only hope that their spoken tale finds purchase on other mouths long after they are no more. Prince of Persia reckons with the fragile life cycle of the spoken fable by giving the player agency in whether they want to seek out the ties that bind, or not. Yes, the story will happen around the player as they jump and fight their way across the lands, but it will only do so in fragments. To fully assimilate into the narrative as both the core agent and, narratively, as the unnamed prince, then one must choose to hit a button and listened to the tales and histories that Elika is so eager to tell about her gods and the lands she has called home. Once that left-trigger is pulled, the camera will pull in and orient the visual importance in the frame on Elika. She will speak of her history and of the land, and the prince almost exclusively asks questions. He may be the protagonist but he never feigns ownership over the land and the narrative around it. He understands that he is an outsider and that one of the key ways to understand the place and situation that he is in is to question it, to prod deeper, and most importantly, to listen. He does not always succeed at this. For example, there is a moment when the Prince and Elika are standing above a ruined city, and Elika stops aghast. She is taken aback by the sheer scale of decay in the mystical place(s) she once called home. The prince urges her onward, but she confronts him. “This was my home. You cannot understand.” To him, it is just a landscape in which he will have to jump and climb his way through, but to her, it is a rich place with a human tapestry and history where sense memory is intoxicatingly strong. Realizing the error of his ways, he stops, breathes, and tells her to hold onto that anger. But he still does not understand. It was never about her anger. Elika just succumbed to the realization that the history of her people and the places they called home have now been fractured. If no one is left in the once-great city, then who can speak to its history and to its very existence? Just her—what a burden to carry.
Oral histories and folktales are defined by those who tell them and the places that they stem from. Prince of Persia’s structure lends itself to a created history, and the overall design speaks to a desire to be able to change, have been changed, and to always be changing. The folds of its narrative and of its design never create seams, but rather tears that become filled in and changed by those who experience it, and those who—through gameplay—tell its tale.