Interview

Prince of Persia with Andrew S Walsh

Ubisoft's narrative director plots the Prince's reinvention

We've played it, and we've told you all about. Now listen as we get the detailed, inside scoop on Prince of Persia's story, straight from the man who wrote it, Andrew S Walsh, Ubisoft Montreal's narrative director.

You're the man behind the game's story, I gather - how long have you been involved?

I started with a visit over here in August last year (2007), I'd been working on the story a little before that, but I really became involved about a year ago. Some of the basics were in place by then, but it was up to me to make them all work and take us forward.

Was the unique, 'illustrative' art style in place when you arrived?

It was already in place, but it wasn't completely evident. There were various shaders and other things to be dropped onto it, but I've definitely seen a development over the last year. It was there when I arrived, yes. Its been finalised for quite a while.

What consideration did you give the art style with regard to the narrative side of the game?

Well, what I like is that from the conversations I had when I arrived... is finding out what the team were interested in - why they made certain gameplay decisions and so forth. They were very interested in... well, whenever Prince of Persia has been talked about in the past, its always been with reference to the Arabian Nights; that 'feel', the inspiration... and there was a feeling that the team wanted to move PoP more in that direction. That fantastical feel to it. More of the legend, myth feel. I think the art style builds that feeling. If the game had gone photo-realistic, that would have been cool, but that wouldn't maybe help get the feeling they were after.

Did you consider the previous Prince of Persia stories at all, in penning your narrative?

Yes, I did actually. We looked at them, obviously many of the team here worked on the older games. Its always the thing when you're working on something "new", even though we wanted to invent a new Prince of Persia, we didn't want to throw the baby out with the bath water. We didn't want a Steampunk version where everyone speaks a new language! What we also wanted to do was change things more than cosmetically - if he was still gothic, if he spoke in the same style - people would say we hadn't changed anything. He's the same character. So we looked at what was underlying him, the base of the character. What he is. His noble, honourable side. He's trustworthy. We looked at those characteristics, and we brought them into the new Prince, he's got a very different feel in many ways.

He's a much more troubled, believable character?

Yes, yes yes. The previous Prince definitely had his troubles but they were all on the surface. Where as, this new Prince, well, for a start he's not a Prince at the beginning of the game, he's out of his depth. He's more Prince in nature than in fact, and we'll see if and when Ubisoft move forward with any other Prince of Persia games where this goes. But the character, at the start, he starts with a wise-cracking humour-style, he's very laid back, he's used to hanging around with other adventurers. He's used to using humour to fit in with other male adventurers, and secondly its there as a defense. It stops people seeing the emotion that's underneath, that's something you'll see as you progress through the game. You begin to lift the corners of the character.

Does Elika play a part in this?

Yes. You're not going to find out everything about this Prince. You're not going to get to the end of the game and go "ahhh, so that's his story." You'll begin to get the idea that there's a lot more going on. He's not just a wise-cracker, you'll learn more about him.

So... Ubisoft want a more mysterious character, who I guess we'll learn more about in games to come?

Well, we'd hope so! Its a case of watch this space on that one. Its also just to fit in with the world, its very different from the one used previously. So, again, with the writing style, the story style, it has to fit in with the design. So, there are the designs of the characters, and these have to fit with the game and the art design.

So... the Prince isn't a Prince at the start. Will we see him progressing towards a more noble state as the game progresses? Will we see a shift as we play?

You'll see a change in the character. He starts out... well, the key thing, not wishing to give away too much, is when he's dropped into the adventure; he wants to leave. He doesn't want to be there. If he was dropped in the same circumstances... in these situations you have to think about the hero, but also the human reaction, and if I were dropped in his place, a good part of me would want to get the hell out! That's the kind of thing that changes, really, an evolution of his attitude.

Have you spoken with Jordan Mechner at all, about your moves with the story and the character?

Sadly I haven't, no. I'd love that chance, that would be really cool...

I've heard he likes the game...

That's what I've heard. It would be really nice if he likes it. I mean, we've tried to stay true to the innovations of the original game.

The gameplay seems very pure, very fluid. Is the story important to give the gameplay depth, significance?

Completely. To boil it down to the bare facts. Gameplay is there... to be the 'game'. Of course! But the story is there to set it in context, to give you purpose. You can go through 1001 shooters, BioShock, etc., there isn't much difference there in terms of gameplay, but the world its set in is a totally different experience. Its hopefully all there to set it all in place. But then you have to respect gameplay, you mustn't get in the way of that, the two should marry.

Is this a challenge? Do you find yourself fighting for more narrative space - cut sequences, etc?

Yes... and no. It isn't about fighting. There's negotiation which goes on because I am a gamer... the last thing I want to do is wreck the gameplay by sticking something in the wrong place. Its as much to do with placement as anything else; where do you put things? If you're in the middle of a really good section of jumping or wall-running you don't put a big narrative point in the middle of it. You tend to put things where they will frame the gameplay. This allows the player to understand the gameplay, and find out what the characters think about it.

Have you been involved in the new film at all?

We're a separate universe. Its confusing! Well, it must certainly be confusing for some people in terms of their being two Prince of Persias. The game we're working on is not related to the film.

The film's based on the Sands of Time?

Yes. That's right, as far as I know. But you probably know as much as I do. Looking at the designs that have leaked out, it looks like that's the case, although I can't really talk about the movie as my link is very small. A lot of people thought the last PoP was the same as those before it, but there has been a change there. The last trilogy - the Sands of Time games - was based on a different Prince from the original games. So, not everyone understands that. But, we're not linked with the film.

Will we see another game out alongside the film, perhaps?

Yeah, you never know how the stories will evolve. How things will link up and so forth. Right now... this is an experience set just within this game.

Going back to the Arabian Nights.. how do you blend these themes into the game without it being hackneyed?

Well, we went through a lot of discussions. In terms of how we would have certain enemies, certain influences and so forth. So there was talk of using djinns, and other things. There were certain elements you want to reuse, because they are requirements of the game, and others that aren't. None of the enemies or villains are cliches of Arabian Nights - but they do have that 'feel'. A lot of the Arabian Nights stories are quite fantastical, so there is quite a free rein within that.

How has your story influenced the design of levels and that kind of thing?

There's definitely an impact. The Arabian Nights is an overall feel. You're not going to bump into Aladdin! I can say there are no flying carpets, either! In terms of the way the levels work - its quite a team effort - there are lots of meetings... how characters move, abilities, how that all ties together with gameplay and story. So, each of the levels - well, the gameplay 'experiences' - each of those has a short story experience. A beginning, middle and end. Even slight stuff like jokes... while others have got a more emotional arc. You learn something about the Prince or Elika. As the level unfolds you learn more about that, until you get to the grand exposition at the end. Beyond all this there's an overarching story, its an open-world, you can choose the order you tackle things, but its all framed within a central story.

So the main story is told, in order, regardless of where you are in the game world?

Yeah, you open certain points where the story then progresses, as you go through. So that allows the characters to evolve. Linearity is a bad word now... but people love GTA. GTA uses an open-world, but you move through a story experience. This allows you to evolve the characters and get some emotion in there.

What are the challenges of telling a story in an open-world setting?

The balance of two things is key: Knowing where characters are up to in the central story, and allowing the player the freedom just to 'play'. How do you show the characters are evolved? How can they go through experiences. We've tried to find natural ways of making the characters move forward. So adrenaline, running, jumping, trying not to die, fighting; in those circumstances the characters are about the present. Around those you can tell much more; the other sides of the story, the past, the future, etc.

What can you tell me about Elika?

Well... its all about how you set out making a companion. How do you do that? In other games they're annoying, they don't do much. We set out to say what we didn't want from a companion. Then we looked at what they can do. So, we always wanted Elika to be an equal... so you're not tagged-along. Its also important - because we've a male and a female character - that we didn't end up with a stereotyped story. They bicker all the way through, etc. There's definitely friction, arguments, they also come together to help each other. They start as complete strangers and then they have to evolve from that point. They learn what each other want from the world.

Elika is obviously very beautiful. How do you bring her to life without her becoming another cliched female game character?

She has a brain! That's the core of it. When we were looking at the world; the elements in place. She had to be clever... because of the things she's charged with. Also in terms of what her past has brought her to, the key is that she's the one who knows this world, the one that exists in it, the Prince is new to it. She can tell him what happened, and what's happening. She also tells the player things, as well as airing her own thoughts. Elika and the Prince have reasons to come together, and reasons to fall apart.

Is Elika more important than the Prince in a way? Could she have been given her own sidekick?

I think that's been one of the balancing acts. I think when you play through the game you'll see that it has to be him. Both of the characters compliment each other, in their abilities and their characteristics. If it had been someone else it wouldn't have worked... they've ended up in the right place.

BioWare obviously believe you can have convincing love scenes in games. Might we see the Prince and Elika getting together?

We've a male and a female character... but we don't want to tread a path already taken. I don't want to give away too much about the story, I want people to play through, but I want to say that it shouldn't evolve in the way so many games do. We don't want a cliched ending. But... we will hopefully have trodden a different path. They're both attractive people, but we don't want them rolling around together two levels in!

Do you think games becoming a mature medium means that you can tackle romance, though, in a credible way?

I think its improved a lot. There's a general problem with emotion in film because that's all you're trying to do, where as in games you've got everything else to do. So, trying to get emotion in is very tricky. You can make people emotional about a piece of cheese, so there should be ways of doing it in games, but it is tricky. One thing we've built into the game is that we have an on-demand dialogue system. So, throughout the game, you have key points where the characters talk - and this provides something for all players - but for players who want more depth (there are different requirements), you can talk to Elika at any point during the game to find out more about what's going on, what she thinks, learn more about her and the world, etc.

It gives the story extra depth. None of the information is redundant, but you can play the game without it. If you want to just run through and look at the surface you can, but if you want more its there for you.

Would you describe the overall plot (the Tree of Life destroyed releasing corruption into the world) as mythological?

There's definitely elements of classical mythology. The rest we've invented. Its certainly not based on an original myth, we've sort of taken elements and brought them together to create a new myth, a new legend. Again, back to the Arabian Nights, the idea there was that a woman was to be executed, and she managed to persuade the king that by telling a story she would be able to finish the next night - and she would do this every night, on and on, and she created a new fantastical story and was spared. That's the kind of edge we were going for.

Did you write the game's script?

Yes, I did.

How did you approach that, trying to avoid cliche?

A lot of it comes from the early decisions taken on the project. The narrative design. So, before we wrote dialogue we knew who the characters were going to be, and it takes time for the characters to emerge. We knew the beginning, middle and end of the story. The sections, etc. Then it's about breaking it down - levels, the open-world, we have to work all that out. How can we tell the story in a way that makes it exciting; progress; but not get in the way of the gameplay. Once you've broken it all down - you can start writing a good script.

Does the story have an ending?

You go on a journey, which begins and takes you to new places, you're told a story... does this conclude? No. You've completed a book, a film, you've been on a journey. This is the end of a particular chapter. There's definitely more story to tell after this one.

What's your favourite element of the new game; the part of your narrative work your most proud of?

Wow! Well, working with the team has been great, bringing all the different elements together, seeing it come to life. Having fun with it... its been a lot of fun! There's hopefully the balance there between the humour, and the more serious side to it. So there's the emotion there, there's the humour and its important too, it helps you make a difference, but hopefully there's the depth there too.

Do you worry about the Prince's American accent - with the wise-cracks, etc?

That's definitely something to talk about in the interview! We talked about that a lot... what we should do with accents. Its a case of being damned if you do and damned if you don't. The last Prince of Persia - people on forums saying an American accent is crazy, how can you do this - the trilogy, used an English accent instead. But there was a negative and a positive response.

A middle-eastern accent might have been quite good?

Again, that was discussed. It was possible, but there are problems getting a range of middle-eastern actors... at least, that's what we found. There's been a previous game produced by Ubisoft which had a very strong middle-eastern influence, released recently, and they went through a lot of casting initiatives trying to find the right voice actors. Voice actors are a different breed. Some proper actors can't do it in a voice booth. Its a different skill... so the number of actors was very limited.

Some people are going to like it, others won't but we hope people get used to it, and that they get to know the Prince.

Thanks for your time Andrew.

Thank you!

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