Prince of Persia’s Touch of Orientalism

A couple weeks ago I reviewed Prince of Persia for Nerve’s 61 FPS blog, a site well worth checking out for their decidedly atypical video games coverage. Back on Persia, it’s a fun sort of spectacle-heavy game, though it did ultimately leave me dissatisfied with the distinct imbalance between risk and reward. In my final assessment, I characterized the game as a massive dynamic Quick-Time Event with environmental signifiers replacing the usual on-screen button prompts.

It also became increasingly clear as I played that the game’s newly reworked Prince – transformed here into a loudmouth wisecracker – contains the DNA for the likely character to be played by Jake Gyllenhaal in 2009’s summer adaptation of the franchise. The in-game avatar bears more than a passing resemblance to the movie star, especially when he opens his mouth and the snark begins to flow. Had Prince of Persia (the game) dropped a good six months later, I’ve little doubt that we would have seen Gyllenhaal credited for likeness and voice acting contributions.

This brings me in a very roundabout way – I promise, I’ll get back there – to New York Times video game correspondent Seth Schiesel’s Prince of Persia review. I missed this piece when it was published on Christmas Eve, but I have Destructoid’s Jim Sterling to thank for bringing it to my attention in a post published late yesterday.

In his write-up, Schiesel explains that the Prince comes off to him as a “17-year-old American mall rat,” which he regards as a problematic characterization. The Prince’s “blue eyes, Anglicized facial features and what looks like a tan he picked up on spring break” are all indicators of an irresponsible treatment of the real-world culture referenced in the game’s title. He further claims that this Americanized Prince speaks to a general ignorance of Eastern cultures in the West, invoking theorist Edward Said’s notion of Orientalism.

Breaking it down into the simplest terms, “Orientalism” refers to a general misconception that the “Orient” – a dated term of reference relating to the peoples of the Middle East and Asia – represents a single cultural body rather than the diverse groups actually residing in those locations. Said theorized in his 1978 book Orientalism that the West’s fetishization of Eastern culture during the early 20th century was primarily a sort of subconscious “political doctrine” rooted in a perceived Western dominance over foreign cultures, particularly the East. More contemporary examples of Orientalism, which have cast the “Arab” as a menacing figure, are an extension of this idea.

The essential point Said was making with Orientalism was that in creating a Them, you – meaning we – define an Us. That’s about the quickest and dirtiest way to break it down for y’all. Schiesel states that as a result of these underlying tensions, he has “never been fully comfortable approaching the Prince of Persia games simply as a diversion.” He might well be onto something here, but I’m still going to cry mountains out of molehills.

The Prince of Persia franchise is now almost 20 years old. Perhaps there were traces of that old Orientalism in Jordan Mechner’s original inspiration for the series, but I would argue that more recent entries – starting with 2003’s The Sands of Time – have simply cashed in on brand recognition. The latest game, which intentionally spins off in a new direction from the Sands-Warrior-Two Thrones trilogy, does indeed sport a decidedly more Western flavor. However, I would argue that this is predominantly the result of Hollywood’s newfound involvement with the franchise as opposed to any ongoing cultural ignorance.

Our brand new wisecracking game-Prince is the stuff of movie posters and action figures. The upcoming Gyllenhaal vehicle looks to feed into that as a pure Summer Blockbuster, a glossy, spectacle-heavy fantasy-action flick. See? I told you we’d be back here.

Hollywood blockbusters cater to the broadest possible audiences by design. Particularly for a spectacle-driven release like Prince of Persia, star power and culturally relevant tropes are requirements for building mainstream appeal. The game may or may not directly inform the plot of the film, but I feel that the game will at least lay the groundwork for the film’s tone.

I also wonder if it’s even fair to castigate this individual game when the medium at large hasn’t evolved to the point for distinct national identities to have developed. In today’s world of gaming, there are two basic types of mainstream games: Japanese works and Everything Else. The latter category tends to be targeted primarily at American and European consumers.

Schiesel states in his conclusion that “simply being a video game is no longer sufficient to earn a pass from being held to account for shaping…perceptions and attitudes.” While he’s certainly correct there, I would counter that his criticisms in this particular case are misdirected.

Prince of Persia has become a Product of the mass media entertainment culture. Even if underlying biases continue to shape the tone and feel of the game-world, I don’t get a sense that the “perceptions and attitudes” which Schiesel references are being shaped in the execution. It’s clear to me in the playing that Prince of Persia is a work of pure fantasy, influenced first and foremost by its run through the Hollywood blockbuster mill.

I don’t entirely disagree with Schiesel, but the unwritten message between his lines seems to be lobbying for a name change. Perhaps there’s an argument for abandoning the Prince of Persia title in light of ongoing cultural tensions, but it’s just not going to happen. This is a brand that’s been established over the course of two decades. Building on that pre-existing popularity to sell a new product… hell, that’s capitalism defined.

What do you readers think of Schiesel’s indictment? Did you pick up on any of those underlying tensions as you played through the most recent Prince of Persia? How about its predecessors? Would a name change extinguish these concerns? Can you even see that happening? And finally, what do you see as the primary justification for the shift in tone as the series has moved from the Sands-Warrior-Two Thrones trilogy to 2008’s Prince of Persia?

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