Writing Technologies

Ab(Sense) of An Ending: Telos and Time in Digital Game Narratives

Souvik Mukherjee


Some of these games are quite conscious of this aspect. Prince of Persia: Sands of Time (henceforth called Sands of Time) allows the player to rewind events within the context of the game. Should the player fail in his attempt, the Prince’s voice tells us, ‘No, this is not how it happened’ making the entire gameplay instance seem like one bad flashback among many. In an added nuance to the game, the Prince’s response is subtly different each time and the story develops by subverting, reversing or restarting the progression of events. Therefore, it can be said that the endings as well as the beginnings of the game are immanent and that they often overlap when the narrative is considered along various planes. The theme of Sands of Time is time and as the young prince tells us in the ‘beginning’ of the game, he thought that Time was like a river but now he has found out that it is like the sea.8 Time does not have a unidirectional progression according to the game. With the Dagger of Time that the Prince finds in the treasury of an Indian Maharajah, he can travel back in time and reverse his actions. His first discovery of the powers of the dagger is quite illustrative:

Unaware of the stone gargoyle plunging toward him, he notices a switch on the dagger’s hilt. He presses it. SAND spills from the dagger onto the floor.
At the last second, the Prince looks up to see the gargoyle about to crush him! His eyes widen with the terror of certain death. But just then —
The gargoyle springs back up, reversing its trajectory, and lands in its original position.
blinks, baffled as to what just happened.
As he is staring up at the gargoyle, it teeters, just as it did before, and starts to fall a second time.
This time, forewarned, the Prince jumps back out of the way. The gargoyle crashes harmlessly next to him.9

Every step inside the Maharajah’s crumbling palace ruins is fraught with danger - with spikes emerging from the floor and swinging blades - so the endings are not only immanent, they are constantly imminent. Once the player finishes the game (after many ends, rewinds and repetitions, presumably), the game shows the Prince at the bedside of the sleeping Princess Farah, who was shown as dead in the last section of the gameplay - the end of the story is another beginning. As Barry Atkins comments in his recent essay, Sands of Time is perfectly self-aware:

In drawing attention to issues of temporality in games, however, it [Sands of Time] highlighted its own structure as a videogame even as it might appear to have attempted to conceal the artificiality of this key aspect of the practice of videogame play through providing an internal justification for temporal manipulation through the Dagger of Time.10

Besides the rewind function provided through the Dagger of Time, the player is also allowed random glimpses of possible futures through the proleptic ‘vision’ mode that is present within the game. Interestingly, it is accessible from the same place (a translucent golden hourglass-like figure) as the save-game function - the vision mode is essentially a flash-forward showing one potential future while the save game function is a node from which innumerable possible futures can result or which allows a return to various saved instances of pasts. Gameplay, thus, exists in the realm of the virtual. The ‘sands of time’ can also be used to control the speed with which events occur within games: the ending of the game-text is therefore delayed or hastened, as the case may be. Of course, the player’s interaction (and skill) is also key to this deferment or hastening. Further, the selection of difficulty levels makes it more or less difficult (and often, therefore, taking more or less time) to complete all the levels of a game. The increasing number of obstacles in higher difficulty settings can also influence the narrative. Unless the player kills the monstrous antagonists and destroys them by obtaining their ‘sands of time’ using the Dagger of Time (which, in a beautifully animated sequence, sucks them in), they respawn and attack yet again.

A further complication arises with the ‘sequels’ to Sands of Time.11 Prince of Persia: Warrior Within and Two Thrones both link their plots to the Sands of Time story: for example, in Two Thrones, Princess Farah reappears but she does not remember the Prince. The action in all three games is supposed to be happening in different replays of the same story, involving the same characters, but not only does the time-frame vary, there is also a considerable shift in spatial terms: from India to a mysterious Island of Time and then to Babylon. It is difficult to conceive of a transcription of the ‘plot’ of Sands of Time because the narrative contained within the game-system is a multilayered temporal mesh. Story systems created in digital games are indeed quite different; nevertheless, they are still stories.

In critical circles, games are considered as very different and even trivial, when compared to ‘serious’ cultural products, because of their replayability and multiplicity. Gonzalo Frasca states this view quite clearly:

Whatever you do in a game is trivial, because you can always play again and do exactly the opposite…. [The player] is free to explore any ’what if’ scenario without taking any real chance. The problem is that usually ‘serious’ cultural products are essentially based in the impossibility of doing such a thing in real life.12

Frasca observes that from the perspective of real life, the reversibility of events is viewed as something that ‘trivializes the “sacred” value of life’.13 However, his concomitant definition of ‘serious’ cultural products is quite controversial. There are many instances in so-called ‘serious’ literature and films that constantly point to the possibility of the multiple within texts, as seen earlier. Films like Blind Chance or novels like The French Lieutenant’s Woman narrate the possibility of many ‘what if’ scenarios being actualized after rewinding time and restarting the action. To conclude that texts which do so are trivial is therefore not tenable. Nevertheless, the issue of difference from older media remains a moot question and endings and temporality remain major issues. Atkins, commenting on Sands of Time, states that ‘it brings to our attention … the degree to which videogame play offers a very different temporal experience than our other media’.14 This is a key point because, although it states that gameplay offers a ‘very different temporal experience’, it also qualifies the statement by saying that the difference is in degree.
For a comparison of the telic possibilities of games and older media based on their temporal structure, the nature of ludic time needs to be examined. Juul’s essay, recognized as a key contribution on the subject, is an important entry-point. Juul maintains that games apply a different set of temporal parameters. According to him, the moment of gameplay, ‘has a basic sense of happening now, when you play. Pressing a key influences the game world, which then logically (and intuitively) has to be happening in the same now’.15 For Juul, narrative conveys a basic sense in which the events do not happen now and the plot itself imposes a chronology for the events to happen. The game, however, happens solely in the now.16

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8. Hence the name, Sands of Time, signifying the sands on coast of the ‘sea of Time’.

9. Screenplay of Sands of Time from POP Legacy.com http://poplegacy.planets.gamespy.com/PoPSoTHealers_ScreenplaySOT.php [accessed 22 November 2007].

10. Barry Atkins, ‘Killing time: time past, time present and time future in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time’, in Videogame, Player, Text, ed. Barry Atkins and Tanya Krzywinska (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), p. 243.

11. Though released after Sands of Time, and in keeping with the story, it is difficult to establish any chronological order and hence to call them sequels would not be accurate.

12. Gonzalo Frasca, ‘Ephemeral Games: Is It Barbaric to Design videogames after Auschwitz?’, www.ludology.org/articles/ephemeralFRASCA.pdf [accessed 23 November 2007].

13. Frasca, ‘Ephemeral Games’.

14. Atkins, ‘Killing time’, p. 251.

15. Jesper Juul, ‘Introduction to Game Time’ in First Person: New Media As Story, Performance, and Game ed. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2004), p. 134.

16. James Newman makes this point in Videogames (London: Routledge, 2004), p. 103.