What does psychology and game development have in common? Not much, unless you are Jordan Mechner. A Yale graduate with a degree in psychology, Mechner found success delving into the minds of virtual humans, as opposed to real ones. His first foray in the world of video-game creation occurred while he was still a student, with Karateka, which he created on and for the Apple II. The title, lauded at the time for its fluid animation, was published by Broderbund, which would also publish another of his hits and one that would make him the early king of video-game character creation.
Several years before the archaeologist/adventurer Lara Croft began making game character history, Mechner introduced the world to the nameless Prince, who waged his first battle against ancient baddies in Prince of Persia, for the Apple II platform. A big hit, the game eventually was ported to every conceivable platform. At a time when video games consisted of basic pixels jumping around on the screen (think Mario rescuing Princess Toadstool in Super Mario Bros.), Prince of Persia presented a giant leap forward in terms of its look and style—in particular, its fluid animation. It popularized many of the computer gaming features that eventually became commonplace, such as rotoscoped animation, for lifelike human motion. (Mechner had used videos and photos of his brother running and jumping in white clothes as a guide for the Prince’s actions.) Four years later, Mechner followed up with Prince of Persia 2: The Shadow and the Flame, which introduced as many as four enemies on the screen at a time, as opposed to just one in the original game—a big accomplishment at that time.
In 1999, the Prince and his band of characters slashed their way into 3D in a title aptly named Prince of Persia 3D, followed by a second and more successful attack in 2003 with Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, which stormed the marketplace yet again with its realistic, fluid character animation in a graphics-rich environment. Indeed, Prince of Persia 3D for the PC was a giant leap forward for the property, accurately simulating the Prince’s world in 3D as opposed to a flat 2D plane—a move that required extensive research into the period’s history, myths, paintings, and buildings. Architects with a passion for Persian construction helped design some of the environments. But The Sands of Time, developed by Ubisoft for the then-new consoles (Xbox, PS2, and GameCube), took the visuals and acrobatic combat to new heights. Little did they know that this was just the first big step in bringing the Prince and his world to life.
While two more sequels followed in 2004 (Warrior Within) and 2005 (The Two Thrones), the biggest development in this franchise occurred last month, with the release of a film written by Mechner and loosely based on The Sands of Time though carrying the same moniker. Mechner has stated, “Rather than do a straight beat-for-beat adaptation of the new video game, we’re taking some cool elements from the game and using them to craft a new story.” And cool it is. In this live-action adventure, a number of VFX houses contributed cutting-edge CG effects—from stunning environments and magical elements, to digital armies and deadly weapons. They even helped the now-named Prince (Dastan) rewind time (see “Against the Grains,” pg. 10). Coinciding with the film’s release is the Ubisoft game Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, for the current generation of platforms (PS3, Xbox 360, and more). An interquel, occurring between The Sands of Time and Warrior Within, the game sports a vivid painterly style teeming with lush, detailed environments in which the Prince continues to exhibit his extreme, fluid, acrobatic abilities.
Whether in interactive mode or one that is digitally enhanced, the antics of the beloved Prince (and those who created the film and the latest game) are sure to be a treasure worth embracing.