The Ending of Prince of Persia 2008

I beat Prince of Persia 2008 last night, and I’m still thinking about it. This is a very well-crafted game. Although many folks derided it for being too easy, it’s actually not. The game is very challenging in places; it’s just not punishing. I found myself struggling at certain points, especially boss battles, and there was a genuine sense of accomplishment when I succeeded… without any frustration from having to endure cheap deaths or repeat long sections of the game. Additionally, this game has the best implementation of quick time events that I’ve seen. It’s always clear when you should expect one, and the button you need to press is either obvious from context or random for effect. The only annoyance I had with the system was when I came back to the game after a break and forgot what the “block” symbol meant, especially when it is so similar to the “grab” symbol.

But the most interesting thing for me about the game at the moment is the ending. There will be spoilers. Throughout the game, there’s charming banter between the Prince and Elika. Part of this revolves around their differences in perspective. Elika believes in faith, in idealism, in aspiring to a cause. The Prince believes in serving oneself, doing what you want, and not waiting to get what you desire. There’s definite tension between them, and although the Prince says he’s just helping Elika so that an evil god doesn’t kill him, he’s also there because he likes Elika, both because she’s pretty and mysterious and because she can stand up to his jests and argue her part.

And then she dies.

Elika’s been dead the whole time, in a way; her father released the evil god Ahriman as payment for her resurrection. And Elika knows that in order to seal Ahriman away again, she will have to give her stolen life back. This much is foreshadowed, and I knew pretty early on that she would have to do that. All her banter with the Prince, talk of rebuilding her kingdom or seeing far-off lands… she knows that’s never going to happen. And so in the moment of triumph, she gives up her life to seal the evil God. The prince realizes what she’s doing a moment too late. He picks up her body and, in a fully interactive sequence while the credits roll, carries her to the tomb of her mother to lay her out.

And the credits end, and the game isn’t over. Four previously-barren structures bear glowing trees, symbols of the good god Ormazd. Elika lies dead. At this point, I gasped, and my SO, who was watching, said, “No. No, you’re not going to do that!”

As Ahriman whispered promises in my ears, I scaled the structures, without the help of Elika for long jumps, and cut down the four trees. Then I reentered the temple which we had fought so hard to cleanse, and cut down the final tree just as the corrupted king had done at the start of this whole mess. Because I wanted Elika to be alive. I released an evil god onto an unsuspecting world just to have the woman I had grown to love. And only then did the game end.

You’ll notice that I switched to the first person there. This is a moment of true roleplaying. The player is asked to undo all of the player’s hard work because the player character wants something. There’s no real choice there, from what I can tell; you can either save Elika, or quit the game and leave it unfinished. But it’s clear what choice the Prince would make. So I took it. And the game made me do it all, not in a cut scene, not with quick time events, but using the same controls and perspective that I used through the entire game.

This is interactive storytelling.

22 thoughts on “The Ending of Prince of Persia 2008

  1. Agreed with the whole post.

    I found PoP 2008 to be the biggest game ever misunderstood. It was my favorite game in 2008, yet my friends who watched me play dissed it. “What’s with this game? You can’t die?” “This is the easiest game I’ve ever played.” are the most common comments I’ve heard. As if dying and having to return from the latest checkpoint make a game more challenging.

    There were some negative comments about the ending, too, with the most obvious comment like “Well the ending sucks, the bad guy wins.”

    When the Prince has gone silent while carrying Elika’s body, I knew something was going to happen. When I regain control of Prince, I knew exactly what to do without the game narrative telling me what to do. Brilliant piece of storytelling.

  2. The problem I had with the ending was the player was pushed pretty hard toward the “raise Elika again” action. The choice was between action (go cut the four trees) and inaction (turn off your console … I guess?). That makes it kind of a biased choice and the guys from Ubi Montreal have said that was deliberate. The DLC, and future PoP games I imagine, assume the player opted to bring Elika back.

    It would have worked a lot better for me if instead of having to “choose” to turn off your console, there was a way to walk past the four trees back into the desert, or whatever. Even if all that did was dump you back to the menu screen, it would have felt like an equally valid choice.

    That being said, it was still fantastic that much agency was granted. I just wished there had been a bit more balance in terms of choices.

    1. I agree with Nels. The lack of player choice at the end violated my expectations and left me feeling like no progress had been made. I wanted a chance to reform the prince, to show that his time with Elika had matured him enough to know that he could not have her. I wanted him to respect her decision. Instead I was railroaded into pressing the reset button (on the plot, not my console).

    2. The player doesn’t have agency over the ending, it’s true. But I can’t realistically see the Prince as presented in the game making any other choice. Just as there’s no way for the player to make him, say, stab Elika, even if he presses the sword button at her, there’s no way to make him abandon his principles and his desires by abandoning her. Beyond turning off the console.

      Offering a choice would have been nice, too, but as the game stands there is a strong authorial statement: you may help the Prince in his decision, but you can’t change his mind.

    3. yes indeed , i would love the game too have an ending like – you walk too the place you came from at the beginning of the game , you find farah and walk back home after what all just happened .

      that it would be a choise , or release ahriman and “safe” elika ,
      or go for the gold and leave it al behind .

  3. The strange thing about the game is that it reviewed quite well amongst critics (Metacritic), but it was fans that were upset with it. It seems as if the people who remembered (perhaps through others) the constant deaths of the pre-Sands of Time era came back from their tombs to decry it on that basis alone. Looking back at the post I made while playing it, I recall that I found the “not dying” to actually be a somewhat frustrating game dynamic. Most importantly to the entertainment factor though, I found this Prince to be more sympathetic than the previous one (especially once he got into the latter two games) and thought his snarking made the game more enjoyable.

    Personally, I found the ending to be brilliant. Of course, I would have made no other choice than the one presented.

  4. I don’t know, Corporal.
    I haven’t played this game, but I get the impression that the player is supposed to like this Elika as much as the Prince does. Then, it sounds like the game simply assumes you do, and railroads you under this assumption.
    Just my thought.

    1. No offence, but if you played the game, I’m sure your worries would have been adressed. Just like nearly every player likes Alyx Vance from HL2, I think it will be hard to actually not like Elika. She’s smart, funny and clearly independent. She is sexy and even flirts back from time to time, but she is never a “sex object”. She’s the perfect companion for the prince, and it’s easy to understand why he loses his heart to her. I personally think Elika is one of the best female characters ever in a game, right up there with Alyx Vance.

      1. I think part of Elika’s likability is the banter between the two characters. I haven’t played a buddy-game this effective since Sands of Time.

  5. The problem with the ending was if you didn’t believe the Prince would undo everything he had done. Personally I don’t think he would have. To make that ending believable would have to make the relationship between Eleka and the Prince believable and I think they flat out failed. I didn’t care for either character and felt they were caracitures of people who could care about each other. Once the quest was done I spend a good deal of time trying to figure out how to get out of the canyon, which I thought was a wonderful artsy ending only to realize I’d have to re-release Arhiman. I was insulted that they would price gouge me for the sequel, which would be the exact same game.

    As for the not dying, I don’t get it. All it is, is a dressed up checkpoint system that works fine in every other game that uses it. You don’t die, but you still enter a fail state and get to try again. To most people it is the fiction that is more important than actual mechanics. I was fine with it, because the game never presented me with any sense of urgency, so a threat of death was never really a concern. Being able to explore the world completely and get all the light seeds was.

    1. Whether you suspended disbelief for the Prince and Elika is, of course, a matter of personal distinctiveness. I don’t think we can assume the sequel would be the exact same game considering we have exactly zero information about it.

      The lack of death is indeed a checkpoint system, but it is a checkpoint system where (A) the checkpoints are very close together, (B) there is no loading screen or extended pause due to failure, and (C) the game’s fiction doesn’t present returning to the last checkpoint as death or reversal of time, but as an in-game rescue. I don’t recall any other game with these properties. The closest would be a masocore platformer with checkpoints at every screen, although POP2008 is not nearly as hard as those games are.

  6. “There’s no real choice there…” vs. “This is interactive storytelling.”

    Wow. You are quite off the mark. You cannot influence the story in any way, so you are not “roleplaying.” Just because you get emotional about what’s on screen doesn’t make NewPoP’s endgame any more a “moment of true roleplaying” than Mario’s quest to rescue the princess. You have a goal, you have a path, you follow it. If I started crying because I really KNEW deep inside that Mario wanted to rescue the princess, and I was DOING WHAT MARIO WOULD DO, would I be “roleplaying?” I mean, Jesus, man.

    1. You are indeed roleplaying; you are taking actions according to your role. Yes, acting in the role of Mario is also roleplaying, but it’s not remarkable because there’s no dissonance between the game, the story, and the character motivations.

      In POP2008, you’ve spent the whole game pursuing the goal of imprisoning Ahriman, so that the player does not want to undo all that work. The story is offering compelling reasons not to free Ahriman: dark god, devastation, et cetera. The character motivation goes against that. Therefore, when the player makes the Prince cut down the trees, she is roleplaying in opposition to what the previous gameplay and story elements have stated.

      This is interactive storytelling. A story is being told in an interactive way. If the trees were cut down in a cutscene, it would not have had the same effect. Making the player do it herself makes her complicit and lets her mind model the decision process of the Prince. It is the interactivity that makes this scene so strong.

      Giving the player a choice here would provide high-level agency, and I would love to see more of that in games. However, the lack of high-level agency does not make a game non-interactive. My hands, as a player, caused each of those trees to be cut down, and without my actions, they would have stayed standing.

      Jesus, man.

      1. The GAME is interactive. The STORY is not interactive, so the storytelling is not interactive. You can neither affect the story nor how it is told.

        “Yes, acting in the role of Mario is also roleplaying.” I can’t believe you actually wrote that. What you are saying is that if I added a bunch of cut scenes and dialogue and background information to add “dissonance,” then suddenly Mario would be a “remarkable” roleplaying game. Your argument seems to be that how you FEEL about a game changes the game’s genre, which is a frankly stupid thing to say.

        (two comments joined into one by editor)

        Never mind. I see now from this sentence that you are using “roleplaying” is a completely meaningless way: “You are indeed roleplaying; you are taking actions according to your role.”

        So, I shouldn’t have even tried to address it. I thought you were at least close to a useful definition, because you mentioned choice and story, but I see that we have no common ground to discuss this on.

        1. Your aggressive tone makes me inclined to dismiss you as a troll, but as your arguments seem reasoned, I’ll try and overlook it.

          I’m using roleplaying here as a verb (well, participle). Roleplaying happens in tabletop RPGs, and it is the classic method by which players affect the progression of the story. Most players of tabletop RPGs distinguish, half-jokingly, between “roleplaying,” or acting and conversing as a character, and “roll-playing,” or focusing on the ludic qualities of the game (usually combat).

          I am not using “roleplaying” as a noun to refer to the “genre” of “roleplaying games.” I don’t find the typical use of genres for categorizing games to be useful from a theoretical or critical perspective. Any time the player is choosing their actions according to their character’s motivations, she is roleplaying. Yes, even in Mario. The reason this seems so silly, I think, is that in Mario and most other games there is no real divide between the player’s motivations and the player character’s. If Mario didn’t have the storyline of the princess’s rescue, the player would still do the same things because the the world is lined up in such a way that the player loses the game if she doesn’t. For this reason, while it’s technically true that the player of Super Mario Bros. is roleplaying, it’s not remarkable or useful to discuss it.

          But in POP2008, the motivation for the player to free Ahriman is based on the character’s motivations. Seen from a ludic perspective, it doesn’t make sense: why should you cut those trees? Even the feedback given when they are cut reverses the feedback given in the rest of the game. You’re not restoring fertile ground, you’re not gathering light seeds, and the credits have already rolled… so why are you doing it? Because the Prince would want to.

          The “interactive” in my use of “interactive storytelling” modifies “telling” here, not “story.” The game does not tell an interactive story; it tells a story in an interactive way. And as I have said, the interactivity is vital to the presentation of the story. The story would simply not have the same impact, and the Prince’s (not the player’s) choice would seem less significant, if the scene was presented as a cutscene rather than an interactive sequence.

          Players in a railroaded tabletop campaign are still roleplaying, even if they’re unable to control the direction of the plot. They have conversations, choose their low-level actions, and everything else according to the character they are playing. In the same way, the player in POP 2008 is roleplaying, even if she is unable to control the direction of the plot; she is acting in accordance with the motivations of her character.

          1. Yes, after poking around your site, I understand that my issue is with your entire approach, so there was no need to comment on this article. I would have to start with the foundation. I’m not sure if that makes me more or less annoyed with the mistakes I think you’re making.

            At least this genre podcast is giving me something to listen to at work.

  7. The whole article is taking words right out of my mouth, excellent article. The game itself is the perfect positive reinforcement game, that never lets you put down the controller until you’re tired of collecting orbs. There’s never been a moment like that in PoP 2008’s ending where it feels like a director is pretty much forcing you down a part, but to further the character’s journey through the PLAYER. Most of this stuff is handled through cutscenes.

    Imagine a scene in a Brothers in Arms game where you drag off a downed soldier to a safe location, and you see him bleeding in real-time and possibly die at the end in your arms. You’re experiencing what the protagonist character is feeling, and therefore you’re more sympathetic or immersed into the game world than through normal gameplay styles.

  8. I finished this game the other day, and honestly, the ending made me angry. I did _not_ get the sense, from the interaction between the Prince and Elika that he would do this sort of thing. Which meant that, as a result, the game effectively forced me to do something I didn’t want to do and that I didn’t feel the character would do. In fact, it felt like a very transparent attempt to sell me the downloadable content.

    Overall, I quite enjoyed this game except for the ending, which largely ruined the experience for me. It felt like a “haha, sucker! We’re going to force you to do this, and if you want to actually finish the game, how about another ten bucks, huh?” Well, Ubisoft can go hang, I’m not interested, and the hamhanded “make the player break the trees” thing really killed my interest. I suppose in one respect it was a “success” though – making “me” do it instead of just putting it in a cutscene produced a stronger emotional response. A stronger negative emotional response, but a stronger response nonetheless.

    In my ideal world, the game would have ended after panning over the 4 trees with Ahriman’s whispering. An ambiguous ending where the player _wonders_ “Did he or didn’t he?” would have been very cool. The one they chose…was not, from my perspective.

    1. I like the idea of the ending you propose, too. I can understand the feeling that he would have cut down the trees, but I’m not completely convinced and would have liked the ambiguity.

  9. I haven’t played the game, but the concept sounds really interesting. Would it be better if the player had the choice of not doing it? Maybe, but only if this was not presented in a “good ending/bad ending” kind of way.

    I wonder if in some cases the problem people are having is the dissonance between the character’s wants and the player’s, which is unusual in games. (But from the replies, I’m pretty certain that for some people it would have worked if the relationship between the characters had been more believable.)

  10. This game has started to fade in my memory a bit, but from what I recall during the banter/dialog, at no point does the Prince show that he is in fact changing his opinion about how life should be lived. He is, apparently, growing closer to Elika from a relationship point of view, but that has only resulted in greater awareness of her personality quirks/traits, not his attempt to assimilate them. Furthermore, as you noted in the original article, she is plainly lying to him in many instances about seeing the world and leaving her kingdom. I read this as her understanding that the Prince _does not comprehend_ what she is doing, and her taking measures to reduce the dissonance between them by hiding her true objectives.

    All this leads me to believe that what the Prince does in the end was the only resultant action justified by the game’s story. People’s complaints to the contrary, about it not being ‘right’ that the Prince cut down the trees, indicate LESS their understanding of the Prince’s psyche, and MORE a showing of their own.

    Elika convinced _them_, the Player, that what she was doing was right, and they wrongly assumed that the Prince should share their convictions.

    He does not, of course.

    In my conclusion, the game and its story maintains its integrity. And the ending was not about Ubisoft shilling for DLC, but the excellent conclusion to a story about moral relativism. Thus, I agree with your article.

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