She said “my love.” I know she did! I didn’t dream it—at least I think I didn’t. It’s quite natural really: her Kingdom’s conquered, she has nothing, no one to protect her. She needs me! I can see it in the way she looks at me. All I’d have to do is…reach out and take her hand. And she’d be mine! Why am I talking to myself?
There has been an ongoing discussion over the last several months regarding the treatment of sex and relationships in video games. The more in-depth the conversation becomes, the more decisively the conclusion seems to be that they’re immature at best and harmfully reductionist at worst. When a game does feature sex, it’s more likely to portray it as a carnal act and filter out the intimate and social aspects of it; the focus of sex in most games doesn’t communicate a sense of pleasure, rather sex is used in games to communicate a sense of power. Frankly, a lot of great writing leads to the conclusion that games just don’t “get” sex or love.
However, games shouldn’t shy away from the subject. Games have a voice and they use that voice to talk about important things. Sex and Relationships are important; therefore it’s reasonable to assume that games have a place in the conversation. But so often they run into problems. Love is reduced to an oversimplified cartoon for sentimental escapists; sex is reduced to a twaddling, semi-pornographic quick-time event for snickering boys trapped in the purgatory of adolescence; and relationships are reduced to a contractual exchange for behavioural objectivists. Too many games treat romance (particularly with women) like a series of collectables that require ticking a set number of boxes before an achievement pops.
It’s hard to refute any of the articles I’ve linked to; the precedent is disheartening to say the least. But while love and romance might be portrayed rather cheaply in a lot of AAA games, there are well constructed love stories worth talking about even in major titles. The romance in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time between the titular Prince and the leading lady, Farah, for instance, is one that stands out in the medium as a particularly nuanced and respectful portrayal of intimacy and sex.
Before delving into their relationship, it might help to understand where each character begins. The Prince is a self-centered, emotionally illiterate young man who models himself after a romanticized, masculine ideal of heroism. He wants to be a great ruler—like his father—and to him the key to great leadership is great conquest. It’s important to note that the Prince never reveals his name, throughout his entire trilogy, he’s only referred to by his title: the prospective ruler of a sprawling empire. He is his social position in the kingdom. In the king of Persia’s conquest of India, the Prince earns his father’s pride and Persia claims a number of treasures. Among them are the Dagger of Time, the Sands of Time, and Farah, the princess of the conquered India.
Farah, the maharajah of India’s daughter, is hauled away from her kingdom to the fictional country of Azad (rather unsubtly, the Persian word for “free”). In the beginning, she’s a tutorial voice that instructs the player how to defeat the enemies and how to use the time reversal mechanic. It’s actually quite fitting to introduce her as the voice of the game’s how-to-guide: by putting Farah in the role of instructor, the game indicates early on that Farah is far more familiar with the workings of the world and threat she and the Prince face. Though she’s a captured object, she’s the only knowledgeable character other than the villain.
After the opening battle, the Prince spends the next several puzzles chasing her. Again, this establishes the relationship the two characters have even before they’ve had a proper conversation: Farah flees from the Prince, the Prince chases and covets Farah. This is probably sounding familiar: it is, after all, exactly the problem with how most games portray romance. A male hero with agency collects the female object. But this is exactly the template that the Prince is following: he is the heroic general that has been tricked by the treacherous vizier seeking the company of a helpless female. Farah is running away from the Prince.
When the Prince catches up with Farah, the two resolve to defeat the vizier and restore the Sands of Time. In their introduction, the Prince elevate himself above her by assuming protective responsibility of her (“just try to keep up”). Defiantly, she immediately runs ahead of him, sprinting faster than him and leaping into combat, starting a combat sequence without the Prince, much to his annoyance. She is his equal. Through later pieces of dialogue, she also shows no hesitation in treating him like the bully that he is.
Farah treats the Prince like a thug and the Prince treats Farah like an insubordinate child. Even though they both acknowledge that they can’t stop the evil spreading ‘cross the land without one another’s help, there’s an initial animosity between them. As they’re forced to cooperate, however, the two come to terms with one another and the Prince develops feelings for Farah. Farah, on the other hand, never forgives him for conquering her home and kidnapping her. Even though she eventually understands that the Prince’s warmongering is only a reaction to the cartoonish expectations he’s set for himself, even though she reasons with him and convinces him how childish and harmful his worldview is, she justifiably never forgives him: his entire identity is structured around his ability to conquer.
Farah stands up to the Prince and makes him consider the harm he’s doing. Much in the way that the word “chivalry”, before it referred to a code of behaviour and ethics, was an adjective describing one’s skill at fighting from horseback, the Prince’s entire identity is based in his ability to apply force to get what he wants. But even though he’s responsive when he considers the long-term consequences of his worship of violence, he continues to frame everything as a conflict that he must—and deserves to—win. He never understands that the core problem with his attitude is the assumed power over other people.
Early on, the Prince muses about Farah’s insolence and her difficulty. He gets annoyed with her when she sarcastically rebukes or chastises him. He dismisses her as ignorant, spoiled and naive (traits that, as royalty, could just as easily be applied to him). But even as he keeps grumbling about his frustration with her, he becomes more apparently attracted to her. When he admits that she’s made valid points, he eventually wrestles her criticisms to match his worldview, declaring, “it’s good for a woman to have some spirit!” It can’t be that he’s changed his attitude, he has to fit her into his own schema. He can’t be attracted to someone that defies him so he reconciles his militant nature with the woman that refuses to surrender to him. He reinterprets her obstinacy as a trait that serves him. It’s another attempt to conquer her.
The Prince assumes that Farah will be with him and that her independence will be in service to him, even though he keeps getting evidence that shows him otherwise. Each checkpoint of the game flashes brief segments of the coming challenges and after the second half of the game, more of these flashes suggest that Farah will take the dagger from the Prince and leave him behind. The Prince’s voiceover confirms that these are his premonitions and not just hints for the player. The character is privy to them. Some of these prognostications even show the Prince’s death, indicating that these are only potential timelines that are eventually eliminated by the Prince’s (and player’s) success. But all checkpoints show Farah leaving, suggesting that in no possible future will she ever love him. But the Prince denies it. He makes a conscious choice to expect a future he has no evidence for because he is the romantic, masculine hero that will get the girl.
The Prince doesn’t tell Farah about his feelings, nor does he ever ask her what her feelings toward him are, but he still plans to make her his queen. The factors he considers are their mutual royalty, how well they’re suited to rule his kingdom (y’know, cause he sacked hers) and, of course, how well her personality will serve him. He assumes she loves him because he loves her. After all, he believes that he is a romantic ideal of “the hero” and, again, the hero always gets the girl. Even though he has evidence telling him Farah will leave him behind as soon as she gets the chance, he’s still convinced they belong together.
Farah, of course, doesn’t return the Prince’s feelings. To the end of the game, she never forgives him for the violence he brought to her kingdom: he’s still just a conqueror to her. Even though the alliance between the two has warmed and Farah has come to understand the Prince, reason with him, and even develop a friendship with him, she never forgives him and she certainly never falls for him.
The quote that opened this essay is the Prince’s monologue following a brief cutscene where Farah revives an unconscious Prince. In the cutscene, Farah supposedly says “my love.” However, given the Prince’s inclination to self-deception, it is likely that he was hearing what he wanted to hear from her. Eventually, Farah does take the dagger of time and carry on without the Prince, just as the game’s checkpoints suggested she would. When the Prince thus confirms that his love is unrequited, the player sees the Prince for what he is: a teenage boy that doesn’t understand how people work.
Near the end of the game, just prior to Farah’s departure, the two are trapped in a crypt and, after a brief conversation, rest. During this rest, the Prince has a particularly telling dream about Farah. In this dream, the player runs the Prince down a seemingly endless spiral staircase. Farah’s disembodied voice calls to the Prince. Farah asks him to have sex with her. Farah’s voice is smooth and longing and she never directly answers the Prince when he calls out to her. Finally, the player brings the Prince to a large gold, circular room with pink, silk curtains. There are about a dozen doors to in the circular room and the Prince can only advance by going through the right doorway, without any hint of which one it is. Farah keeps calling to him, imploring him to touch her. The Prince asks where she is but she doesn’t answer him.
Every time the Prince walks through the wrong door he emerges from the hallway where he started. There’s no way to figure out the proper path except trial and error. When the Prince finally finds the right floor, he’s just brought a floor higher where he has to repeat the same process. It’s frustrating and drawn out. But playing through it gives insight into the Prince’s possessiveness of Farah and his sexual and emotional ineptitude.
Until this point, the Prince has had to resolve the developing romantic feelings for a woman that will not submit to him. But though in this dream, Farah is directly asking the Prince to be with him. She’s surrendering herself to him and the Prince doesn’t know how to react. He just keeps randomly diving through indistinguishable doors at random to get close to her. There is no direct path to being near her. The symbolism of penetrating a series of pink curtains indiscriminately until the right process is found is also telling in how incompatible the Prince’s philosophy is with connecting romantically or sexually. When the right combination of paths is finally found, a brief cutscene shows the Prince joining a naked Farah in a large, circular pool surrounded by darkness. When the Prince awakens in the crypt, he’s alone and both the dagger of time and Farah are missing.
In this scene, the player is literally party to the hero’s sex fantasy. In the dream, Farah is begging to be intimate with the Prince, but the Prince can only reach her by dumb trial-and-error. The Prince doesn’t know how to be intimate. When Farah all but begs the Prince to be with her in the dream, there’s no clear method for being with her. He visualizes her in a situation where she unambiguously wants to be with him and he doesn’t know what to do. When he wakes up with her missing, it’s significant that the source of his power and survival, his phallic dagger, is gone. At last the Prince accepts that he’s never had power over her.
The ending of Prince of Persia: Sands of Time comes when the Prince surrenders the dagger to the sands of time. He reverses all of the game’s events and returns to his army’s encampment, just prior to the attack on India that started everything. He gives away his army’s position and kills the vizier, the man that ensured Persia’s victory. Ultimately, he undoes the conditions that brought he and Farah together because he matures into the kind of person that doesn’t raze a rival empire to the dirt to make his dad proud of him. The Prince accepts Farah’s agency.
Ultimately, the Prince is almost mature enough to deserve the affections of somebody like Farah by undoing the conditions that would bring them together. I say almost because after the Prince has shared his story with Farah, he kisses her. Farah shoves him away and declares what he has been refusing to accept the whole game: “you presume too much.” This shows that even though the Prince has rewritten time to mature, he still harbours a lingering entitlement for her affection. He’s matured enough to slink away and accept that she doesn’t feel that way toward him, but not enough to ask what her feelings toward him are in the first place.
Finally, it’s worth noting that in the events of the third game in the trilogy, The Two Thrones, the Prince and Farah are reunited. Though Farah’s role is significantly diminished and the relationship between her and Farah is much more pragmatic and congenial, the Prince still has a romantic interest in her. However, because the third game exists after the events of the first had been undone the Prince is a stranger to Farah. Also, by the time the series concludes, there’s still no concrete indication in the that the Prince does “get the girl”.
Prince of Persia: Sands of Time constructs and complicated and layered relationship between the two lead characters. The development between them goes beyond the realm of power fantasy and fuels a change in a character. Romance, love and sex are used in Sands of Time to explore the psychology of the main character. This instance isn’t entirely unproblematic—the story is told exclusively from a straight man’s perspective and it does not portray a relationship that is at all healthy—but it does explore the dynamics of romantic relationships and sex in a deep and interesting way.
Mark Filipowich can be found at @MarkFilipowich on twitter.