Acrobatics in the Uncanny Valley

So after about a month’s delay (thanks dead PS3) I’ve made it through Prince of Persia. I had read a lot of its criticism, and honestly the game never really clicked perfectly for me either (though I did enjoy it). I considered what it was that was holding my experience back. Was it the oft cited lack of difficulty and the corresponding absence of a feeling of reward? Not necessarily, though the reduction of control certainly might be relevant. I’d say the missing “something” is a general crisis of immersion (a term that seems to have fallen out of favor in recent years). There’s this environmental uncanny valley. The environment just isn’t immersive because it doesn’t seem real, like people could have actually existed in that environment. There’s no sense of the people, there’s no culture. Maybe the reduced amount of control adds to making it difficult to feel like your actually there. The environment is just too abstract, but not so abstract that the realism can be looked past. The environments in Mirror’s Edge’s time trial pack are very abstract, but they’re abstract enough that you can lose yourself in their reality. Prince of Persia tries to straddle a relatively realistic world that’s structured entirely unrealistically. Maybe if PoP had more magic, maybe if the Ura people had relied on that more then things would be more believable. As it stands, I can’t imagine people actually existing in the areas we travel through, despite Elika’s reminiscing. Right now it simply does not meet the requirements for the suspension of my disbelief.

The past PoP games (at least Sands of Time from my experience) and the Myst games all had fantastic environments, but they felt, more or less, like they had been built, traveled through, and used by real people. Wherever there were actual physical gaps I could fill the space in in my head, but with the latest PoP I just can’t. So where the level designers just too ambitious? Would it have been too large a yoke to carry to build up the world in a more believable fashion while retaining the amazing string of acrobatic obstacles? Did they shoot for the moon and hit Mars instead? Ultimately, the lack of immersion leads to everything reminding me that this is just a game, just a series of button presses to get through some designer’s map, and this is where the feeling that the game lacks reward comes in. When I get through an environment I haven’t beaten the environment, I’ve just played through a quick time event, acting out my part like a well trained monkey.

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