A Princely Story Examined

In the building story blog I talked about the importance of a solid story structure and how I put a story together. I kept it simple with the beginning, middle and end, split into three acts. I also talked about the importance of an outline and how I created mine for my most recent novel. While it’s totally possible to write a story as you go, it doesn’t work for me, and I’ll go out on a limb and say it doesn’t work for video games either. Why? Because games are a large collaborative process between several departments. So many things are developing at the same time that if the story isn’t nailed down it can be disastrous. That’s not to say there can’t be some flexibility—sometimes there’s not enough time and money for the programmers to put that dramatic plane crash scene in there—but I think there needs to be a roadmap of some sort before the work begins.

Of course many games start development before the story is complete, which sometimes results in odd scenes or levels that don’t mesh with the narrative. But this isn’t a blog about the development process, it’s about story. I know in the last blog I said I would give examples from movies and games, but I’m going to use a video game because I think there’s tons of storytelling potential in that medium, and because I love games and hope to someday write one. The game I’m going to break down is my personal favorite, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.

We’re going to use the story structure I talked about in the last entry. Again, it’s not THE way to create a story, it just works for me. Below is a “complex” story chart. The red represents the large story arc, the “hero saves the princess” premise. That arc is divided into three acts, each with their own beginning middle and end. Inside each act are several mini arcs that contain character development, small plot progression, and in the case of videogames, puzzles and new gameplay mechanics.

 

So using this chart, let’s break down The Sands of Time. Obviously this will contain spoilers, so if you haven’t played Sands of Time, shame on you.

 

The Premise

The main arc behind the Sands of Time is a simple one: The Prince saves the princess. It’s a classic story. In the beginning we have a headstrong young prince ready to prove himself to his father. He screws things up when he knicks the dagger of time and lets the evil vizier activate it. By the middle of the story he’s jumping and climbing through the castle with a princess named Farah, an equally headstrong woman who’s trying to get the Prince to see that he’s an arrogant bonehead. Eventually the Prince overcomes his ego issues and comes to terms with what must be done to right the wrongs caused by his impulsive early-game decision. He’ll need to turn back time and stop the vizier to insure everyone’s safety.

So there’s our beginning, middle, and end. A decent story that sounds like a lot of fun. It’s also summarized in a paragraph. This is the problem with the large arc—it’s kind of vague. You can write a story off this premise and work out the details as you go, or you can dig deeper and flesh out some of the specifics. How does the prince transition from arrogant show-off to selfless hero? Location-wise, how does he manage to get from the entrance of the castle to the princess’ private quarters? How does he meet the princess? Where does he get the dagger? What makes him think it’s valuable? If I were writing this story these are the questions I would ask. I might even list them all out and then start organizing them by how they might link together. This question and answer period forms the basis of our next set of arcs.

Act One

In the second set of arcs we have act one, two and three. A story doesn’t have to have three acts; there can be five, seven, nine or more. It depends on the length of the story. Games will often have more than three; especially epically long games like Oblivion or Dragon Age: Origins.

Think of the acts as small stories within the larger story, or episodes in a dramatic TV show like Lost. Each season of Lost had a beginning, middle, and end (though those points got blurrier each season), and the episodes told smaller stories that helped move things along. So what are the small stories that need to be told in Sands of Time? First we need to know how the prince gets the dagger and screws up time. That’s a fairly substantial plot point-- the dagger of time is the lynchpin of the story. So it makes sense to devote an entire act to it. The beginning, middle, and end of Act One looks like this:

Beginning -The prince arrives at the castle just as his father’s army invades. He sneaks off on his own hoping to get in early and find some trinket that will impress his father

Middle – The prince learns of the dagger and sets about retrieving it. It’s in a secret room, so he has to take a longer route that involves tricky acrobatics to get there.

End – With the dagger secured, the Prince returns to his father to show off his prize. The evil vizier tricks him into activating it. Everyone but the Prince, Farah and the vizier are turned into horrible sand monsters. Armed with the dagger, the Prince now has the ability to rewind time in short bursts.

And so the “middle” of the game (or act two) begins.

From a gameplay perspective, the first act serves as a tutorial. By the end of the first act all of the core mechanics have been introduced. You know how to control the Prince, how to jump, how to fight, and understand what can be interacted with in any given environment. New powers and platforming challenges are sprinkled throughout the lengthy middle section, but the foundation for the game is in place now.

I would break down the following two acts, but I think you get the point, and this post is long enough as it is (we’re far past the 400 word limit of the standard Internet attention span). The second act pairs the Prince with Farah, though he’s still a bit of an arrogant twit. By the end of that act he makes another big mistake and realizes he should start thinking before he leaps. The story is conveyed through short cutscenes and clever dialog, most of which is introspective stuff from the Prince.


In many stories the middle act is longer than the beginning and end. It’s what gets us to the top of the hill and starts us on the fast decline down. The third act is usually shorter; it’s the climax, the big finish. You don’t want to draw that out, especially if you’ve been building tension and suspense properly. The final act strips the Prince of his rewinding powers and sends him on a harrowing climb to the top of the castle. It’s a short, but impactful and important act that helps raise the stakes for the final battle with the vizier.

The Extra Layer

The Sands of Time story arc is successful because it brings the cast full circle (quite literally thanks to a nifty time rewind) while providing significant development for the main character. Since this is also a video game, there’s another layer to the story that may or may not have been considered by the developers (let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and say it was). The Prince starts off as a not particularly likable brat with a big ego and too much ambition. In a book this could be a big problem. You don’t want people disliking your main character for most of the first act. It’s a chore to read a few hundred pages from the perspective of someone you don’t like and can’t identify with. That’s the reason I never finished The Hunger Games series, and why I gave up on The Passage. I couldn't click with the characters, and after several hundred pages, I didn't feel like there was enough there to make me stick around.

Fortunately the Prince can do some really cool stuff, and you get to control it. Things like running on walls, flipping up and around enemies and rewinding time were relatively new mechanics in video games at the time. They were a lot of fun to do, and they still are. The joy and excitement the player got from pulling off those impossible acrobatics offset whatever friction might have been caused by the main character’s personality. Later, as the Prince grows and shifts from just simple nobility to someone truly noble, the player is ready to bond with his purpose. In the beginning you like to control the Prince, but by act three you’ll like playing as the Prince.

It’s a neat trick, and one they tried and failed to repeat in the sequel, Warrior Within. The Prince in that game is dark, angry and without charm. It’s not until the third game that he redeems himself and begins to resemble his old self.  I highly recommend playing through all three games in the trilogy (I believe they were just re-released in HD on one disc). Taken together the games form a nice, if not uneven, story arc for the Prince.

I hope I’ve managed to shed some light on the story outline process and how it works. You can break down most stories this way, and I recommend that you do, especially if you’re looking to write your own. Watch movies, play games, read books, and try to identify the acts and arcs. Once you understand the parts, assembling your own stories is much easier. I’m going to continue the story structure series in the future. It was suggested that I break down some of these parts—define a good beginning, or discuss the importance of a well-developed middle—and I aim to do that, so stay tuned to the site for more. In meantime, go play Prince of Persia: Sands of Time!