“Sparks flew.” Have you ever heard that expression? It's used to describe a great fight, or a fun date. Farrah, from the Xbox game Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, was a little of both. She was fairly useless, constantly feuding with me and taunting my lack of progress. Though the puzzles were tough, they were fair. I eventually won and Farrah came around. I felt just the right amount of friction between the thrill of success and the threat of failure, flint and steel. The game was truly something special - sparks flew.
There were no sparks between me and the new Prince of Persia. The game just lacked that certain something. The new love interest, Elika was pretty, helpful and always there for the Prince. Whenever you're about to die she's always there with a helping hand. She was way more useful than Farrah ever thought about being. Yet I can't help but bristle at her antics. The game never really came together for me in any meaningful way. The game missed that special friction. There were no sparks – instead, Elika just grated.
It makes me nostalgic for times gone by, when games would let you die at the drop of a hat. It was difficult and punishing, the only friction was your face sliding down a brick wall when you lost. Games got more and more difficult as the game went on until the players eventually were ground to a pulp by the huge stone grinders of the perfect machine. In the end, the game always won.
Back in the day this was the way games were made, and people loved it. Endless challenge set off something primal in the gamer brain. The friction of bottomless, ever-increasing difficulty wasn't considered off-putting, it was the whole point. There's still a school of game design that follows the ancient ways. The modern internet equivalent is ROMHacking. It's the art of adding ridiculous difficulty to SNES platform games such as Super Mario World and Yoshi's Island. While the original games may have been only moderately difficult, the hacked versions of these games are absolutely batsh*t insane. You can't complete a level without needing pixel perfect accuracy, split-second timing or even occasionally exploiting a game engine bug. A screenshot just leaves me devastated by the soul-crushingly impossible feats required to survive the level.
Why would someone make such a ridiculously difficult level? It simply boggles my mind that someone not only made these levels, but people out there are actually brave enough to play them. Yet there's an entire community built around these kinds of hacks. The superhuman skills that seem necessary to beat these levels not only exist, multiple people compete with them. These SNES supermen battle it out in childhood playgrounds, twisting the monkey bars into a pipe and chain equivalent of Mt. Everest. Then they proceed to climb it. While it seems insane, when they reach the top there's a moment where man pitted himself against the huge grinding wheels of difficulty and came out on top. He didn't become pulpy gamer bits, he became steel. It's humbling, awe-inspiring and completely bizarre.
Prince of Persia: Sands of Time was a little more my speed, but it still gave me the same satisfied sense of accomplishment. Landing on a platform just right in Sands of Time was as satisfying as any old-school challenge-fest. The jumping puzzles, usually trial-and-error bores, became delightful challenges instead. Sands of Time added time-manipulation to jumping puzzles. You could pause and rewind time at any point to study your jumps and retry your timing without any penalty. Instead of trial and error, it became simply trial and trial again.
It was still challenging to get all those jumps and all that timing down. But the developers wanted to remove the frustration from the game and turn it into an opportunity to learn. The game gave the player the tools and then told them to “figure it out”. The difficulty didn't have to grind the player to a pulp anymore, eventually you would triumph.
Sadly the developers learned all the wrong lessons from Sands of Time. The new Prince of Persia goes to great lengths to remove frustration, but it never really let's you fail. Before you can fail, Elika picks you up, pats you on the head, and sends you off to school with your mittens pinned to your jacket. The game seems to be saying “let me handle this for you because you can't.” She's not helpful, she's passive-aggressive. Which ends up being more frustrating than if they had just let you die.
Farrah wasn't afraid to laugh at the player, to taunt their failure. She expected you to solve your own problems, then eventually learned to respect you for it. Sands of Time wasn't afraid to spank you a little to teach you a lesson.
Elika may look pretty and talk a good game, but when the chips are down she never lets you fall.
Why can't more games be a little more like Farrah?