Microcosms #7: On Linearity

Microcosms is an essay series that deals with games and art in both the direct and the abstract in 500 words or less.

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I think that I would like the Assassin’s Creed games a lot more if they were linear, more tailored experiences. Ubisoft’s 2010 game Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands pretty much solidifies and grounds that feeling. It runs on the Anvil engine—the engine that powered the early Assassin’s Creed games—and looks a hell of a lot like and feels like an Assassin’s Creed game. Yes, it is less focused on parkour and semi-realistic movement but everything still feels somewhat grounded and tangible, even when the game delves into the fantastical. The key differences are that Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands is focused on tailored parkour puzzles rather than sprawling and open vertical environments and that Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands is incredibly linear. As it turns out, this feeling of genuine linearity is amazing.

There is no map or waypoint system or fast travel system in Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, nor is there any giant world to uncover and document and explore. There is only a castle. This castle is made up of rooms, ramparts, sewers, a prison and more—all connected via hallways and broken stairs and walls that the prince platforms across. It is deceptively simple. Each room unfurls itself to be a new platforming or combat puzzle. The camera goes from over-the-shoulder third-person to a sweeping fixed camera that outlines the geometry of the room and the path of the platforming puzzle. From there, one only has to get from point A to B. Sometimes magic powers are involved, sometimes you have to move some switches to solve a puzzle, but it always ends in the prince wall running and jumping his way to the next area. And sometimes there is combat, but the less said about it the better.

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It is refreshing to just be playing a game that lets me engage with it room by room in 15-or-so minute chunks. Yes, I have played it for hours on end but I have slowed down because I know that I’m almost done, and I really do not want it to end. The geography and layout of the castle feel more tangible when pushed through a linear funnel. Unlike games with hubs or the Metroidvanias of the world, this castle is not in stasis. Everything is in flux, rooms you’ve left fall apart behind you. There is no going back, no exploring—you have a purpose and that purpose is always ten steps ahead of you. Give me more games that are focused on the immediate, on small rooms with very tailored moments and experiences. Everything feels right because each room is crafted to a honed in point. There is a purpose to each area: to challenge, to teach, to empower, and etc.

An eight-hour tailored experience where every aspect of it feels deliberate and purposeful is far more interesting to me than the “see that mountain in the distance? You can go there!” of a lot of open-world design. We get so lost in the expanse of it all that we cannot truly appreciate the immediate. We are told that something interesting lies just over that hill or across that vast field. Why can’t it just be right in front of us? And better yet, what makes the distance between point A to B less compelling than the points themselves? Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands emphasizes the journey rather than the destination because those points are story cutscenes, and well, the story is fucking awful. But getting from cutscene to cutscene is some of the most fun—genuine, simple fun—that I’ve had with a game in ages.

The fault is on me for not playing as many linear games as I should be, but I am also just taken aback by the formula of the Prince of Persia games. Platforming puzzles are a joy and, while never truly challenging, they can still make you think. And once a good flow is found, the prince looks cool as hell as he swings, shimmies, and wall runs across the castle. And sometimes looking cool is just enough.

Words on games, death and stuff like that.

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