A different creed: the legacy of Prince of Persia: Sands of Time
What can one Ubisoft franchise learn from another?
The Assassins were supposed to protect the Prince, not steal his crown. If you're a fan of courtly intrigues, or at least courtly intrigue as a metaphor for franchise evolution, I recommend reading up on Prince of Persia: Assassin, a Sands of Time spin-off that was in pre-production at Ubisoft Montreal across 2003 and 2004. Eschewing the storybook morality of its predecessor, the game would have cast the player as a hooded bodyguard armed with pop-out wristblades and a repertoire of vicious grappling moves, escorting an AI-controlled princeling through Jerusalem. This bloodthirsty mixture had promise, but was seen as too severe a departure for the franchise, so Ubisoft greenlit Assassin as a new IP. Thus the seed that produced the 70 million-selling Assassin's Creed series - and through Assassin's Creed, the open world action-adventure genre of the present day.
It seems an unwitting piece of socio-political allegory - the transfer of power from an aristocratic hero to an everyman killer, lurking in the crowd - and indeed, the Prince's downfall from Ubisoft's perspective was perhaps his station. "The problem is that a prince isn't an action figure," creative director Patrice Désilets told Edge in 2012. "A prince is someone who's waiting to become king." I feel this misses the point slightly - the appeal of a prince as a fiction archetype is that he has all the status but few of the responsibilities of a king. It's that blend of glamour and relative freedom to go out on a limb (or a ceiling beam) that makes him such an attractive lead for an action game. But discussion is, of course, academic. The Prince of Persia has gone the way of princes in general, not aided by the Heavy Metal misstep that was Warrior Within, while the Assassins have risen in power and splendour, becoming property owners, guild leaders and sea captains, attracting a vast entourage of tailors, carpenters, bankers and celebrity hangers-on. There is, surely, nothing left to learn from the antics of a blue-blooded daredevil who has fallen into obscurity.
Or is there? Among the things I find most fascinating about latter-day Assassin's Creed is its failure to entirely leave the shadow of Sands of Time, the game that created and, you could credibly argue, perfected the blueprint for framing, animation and control in Western third-person action games this side of 2000. Sands of Time may be a fading memory, but its fingerprints are all over the industry: every fluid transition from jump to ledge grab, every expert automatic camera adjustment during a platforming sequence, every light-tinted handhold and of course, every wall-run owes something to the Prince's journey through the crumbling palace of Azad.
The game's sheer poise and artistry seem insane when you consider the chaos of its creation. As producer Yannis Mallat recalls in a postmortem from 2004, the glorious-looking Sands of Time didn't even have an art director till almost a year into development - its distinctive dense, heady lighting effects were thrown together "in the 11th hour", with final art coalescing just in time for E3 2003. Azad's sand-demon enemies were initially designed using placeholder level maps that couldn't match the geometrical complexity of the completed artefacts, which led to "bland" behaviours and foes who sporadically "forgot" their objectives. All of the assets were also stored in a single folder, which made tweaking the game a nightmare as the team swelled to 65 people (not including the testers, who uncovered a whopping 14,613 bugs across all versions of Sands of Time). Among the few things Ubisoft Montreal got right throughout was engineering a close rapport between the animation and AI leads for the Prince - in Mallat's words, "the two guys actually placed their desks side by side and worked as if they shared one brain".
The result, somehow, is a study in cohesion and fluidity. The camera both follows and anticipates the action, nudging you gently towards the next chain of challenges and cutting away to emphasise the odd finishing blow or death-defying leap. Where earlier platformers (including the hapless Prince of Persia 3D) are all staccato jumps and tumbles, the Prince's 780-odd, highly context-sensitive animations swirl together naturally under the thumbs. The phrase "poetry in motion" is much-abused, but relevant to how beating an environment in Sands of Time is less about identifying where the challenges lie, more about getting into the rhythm of the sequence - with all the interactive elements carefully spaced and framed, and all manner of character model feedback serving to guide you even as your eye loses itself in the trappings of the palace.
A trailing hand during a wall-run is both a lovely nuance, and an indication that the movement is nearly complete. Chimney-kicking up to a platform is a little like nailing a riff in Guitar Hero, a question of tempo. Aesthetic flourishes and platforming cues work in harmony - cloth and hair physics, for example, are used to soften the transitions from one set of animations to the next, making them both more appealing to the eye and easier to predict.
All this is possible because, as freeing as it feels, the Prince's moveset is all about serving the needs of the space rather than vice versa. It might allow you to defy gravity, but it's designed to permit the elegant solution of problems within a rigorously mapped environment, rather than in order to be exploratory and transgressive.
This is the opposite approach to Assassin's Creed, and it's why, to my mind, Assassin's Creed's take on free-running will never rival that of Sands of Time. That's not to say that Assassin's Creed isn't an incredible piece of design, or that it isn't great fun to go bowling across domes and steeples at whim, but in opting for a gigantic, freely navigable world, the younger franchise created many more opportunities for clumsiness and misinterpretation. Think of how many times your Assassin has glued him or herself to a ledge while improvising a route along a rooftop during a chase, or scuttled up the wall next to the alleyway you were aiming for.
There's something similar to be said about each franchise's use of a frame narrative. Sands of Time's tale is told in retrospect using a voiceover, the Prince having rewound the chronology to warn captive-turned-love interest Farah of a vizier's impending betrayal. As with the "genetic memory" VR machine of Assassin's Creed, this allows the designers and writers to paper over implausible, gamey contrivances - resetting to a checkpoint when you die is explained away as the Prince misremembering the story, much as Assassin's Creed "desynchronises" the player when you kill innocents because that's not how your ancestor would have behaved. But one game's tactics are so much more elegant than the other.
Assassin's Creed's Animus is a means of smashing together science-fantasy and historical realism to create a one-size-fits-all blockbuster, at once aggressively modern yet pungent with centuries-old secrets, sumptuously ancient yet endowed with a high-tech HUD. While notionally a slowburn stealth game, it hurtles from epoch to epoch in an effort to keep your emotions at fever pitch. The Prince is a much less domineering narrator. In keeping with a Aristotle's theatrical unities, his tale spans a day and takes place in one environment, with no excitable editing and a sparing use of cutscenes. The voiceover is rarely intrusive, and doubles as a source of suspense - who exactly is the Prince speaking to? Today's blockbusters, particularly Call of Duty, are too much in love with plots that span continents and decades, dizzying as many players as they entertain. Sands of Time reminds us that sometimes the best way of getting a player invested is simply to stay put.
It also knows how to say goodbye. Where Assassin's Creed spills over into ever-escalating conspiracies, a cycle of suspicions and revelations that has been engineered to spin on till it ceases to earn a decent return, Sands of Time seals itself away cleanly, politely and poignantly. The day is saved by killing the vizier before he can unleash the demon plague, erasing the events of the game in the process. The struggle with creatures of sand, all those heart-in-mouth scrambles across dusty mosaics, the Prince's predictable but believable intimacy with Farah... all of them ultimately live on only in the Prince's memories.
There's a commercial side to this, admittedly: following Prince of Persia 3D's failure, Ubisoft may not have been banking on a serious return to form, so it's possible that the designers weren't expecting to be tasked with a sequel, and didn't trouble to lay the ground. Nonetheless, I think Sands of Time's assured conclusion is one of its most graceful aspects - a fitting end to an adventure that achieves a completeness and coherence of design few of its descendants can touch.