Hey everybody, I've decided that this rant is going to be DARKER AND EDGIER than my previous ones. I want you to all put on your favourite death metal track and imagine me growling this out in an angry monotone, while I figure out how to work in an uncomfortable number of beheadings and disembowelments. This makes it automatically better, right? Jamming in more blood and anger makes everyone more interested in consuming your product!
In case I'm not being clear: I absolutely can't stand the "darker and edgier" approach in media, and I cannot comprehend the marketing machine that thinks it's the way to win an audience.
Don't get me wrong, I'm fine with things being dark. And whatever nebulous idea I have of what "edgy" means, that's no problem either. I can even admit there are plenty of times where a new instalment in a franchise has been both darker and edgier than earlier ones, and it's worked well. Christopher Nolan's approach to Batman, compared to the preceding approach by Joel Schumacher, had a significantly grimmer tone, was more downbeat and cynical, and had more confronting violence and death, and largely due to these changes his was a much more mature and weighty and interesting Batman. Darkness and edge are perfectly serviceable tools for an artist.
But there's making something darker and edgier, and then there's Darker and Edgier. You know what I mean. The shallow, testosterone-fueled marketing device. The Rob Liefeld, Man of Steel, Josh Trank's Fantastic Four version of darker and edgier (I find myself coming up with only superhero examples for some reason).
This brings me to the game I'm discussing today, Prince of Persia: Warrior Within. This game is a textbook example of what I'm talking about. The developers just had a huge success with Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, the critically acclaimed, award-winning game that had revitalised the Prince of Persia franchise, but had suffered from disappointing sales in the United States. How to try and attract more revenue with the sequel? Pour a bunch of Darker and Edgier all over it, of course!
And so they ramped up the violence to include a lot of blood and decapitations, which was ugly and unnecessary; they made the soundtrack a generic heavy-metal mush, which was irritating; they dolled up the player character to have a stubble and a tangled goth hairdo and a gravelly voice, which was silly; and far worse than these superficial changes, they utterly trashed the protagonist.
The prince was a well-developed character with a compelling arc in the first game. He was an arrogant, thoughtless youth who, over the course of the story, was humbled and taught that his actions had consequences. He was portrayed with humour and style, and ended the game as a likeable, promising person.
Fast-forward seven years, and we have the prince from Warrior Within. After being pursued by the demonic Dahaka in the intervening time - which means that the prince we liked so much has endured a life of misery and torture that whole time, thanks a lot for that - the prince now only has three traits: angry, depressed and violent.
He has no character arc, but just slogs through the game scowling and murdering until he achieves his ends. The one moment that looks like he might have had a character-altering revelation - when he discovers he's caused the Sands of Time to be created rather than preventing it, and seems on the verge of reconsidering his selfish and violent actions - is immediately cancelled out when the next minute he finds out he can just get a mulligan and perform the same killing in a way more favourable to himself.
So the story of Warrior Within is a dour, tiresome affair with a protagonist who's impossible to like or relate to. This actually creates a strange contrast with the gameplay, which is transplanted pretty much wholesale from Sands of Time and thus remains fluid and engaging. The climbing puzzles and time powers entertain even while the player gives not the slightest damn why the prince is climbing and fighting in the first place.
Fortunately, this would get better with the third instalment, thanks to hugely negative feedback from players (sometimes the marketing machine works in our favour), but that is a subject for another time.