However, writing about it obviously contains spoilers, so you'll find it below the cut. I assume some basic knowledge of the game on the part of the reader, and if there's any possibility that you'll play the game then do so before reading this. It's not that the story is difficult to anticipate, it's the experience of the implementation that matters. Plus it's an easy game, so no excuses for difficulty or time.
As I wrote in my review, rewards in Prince of Persia take the form of healed lands. The visual impact of converting corrupt desolation into beautiful landscape had a deeply rewarding feel to me. It felt wholesome and right. Progress through the game was tangible in both representation, through visuals and audio, and procedure, through the greater freedom granted by removal of corruption traps. My time and effort during play invested me in this world to a degree that I did not realize until the conclusion of the game.
In the penultimate cut-scene, the princess Elika, the Prince’s NPC companion, gives up her life to re-seal Ahriman within his prison. As Elika has kept this step from the Prince, he is caught off-guard. He cannot stop her, and is left only with grief (and likely resentment at her god, Ormazd, who could stop Ahriman himself if he had not left long ago). Then the Prince has a vision. Over the course of the game, concluding with this vision, it becomes known that Elika had died before, and what unleashed Ahriman was Elika’s father taking the temple’s powers to bring her back to life (which is what gives Elika her magical abilities during the game). Now knowing how to repeat that process, I was put back in control of the Prince.
Suddenly, I had a chance to bring Elika back to life at the cost of everything that I’d worked to build over the course of the game. That feeling of rightness at the healing of the lands would have to be destroyed. I spent a long, long time trying to think of some way around doing so, but the game allows only one path to the end: release Ahriman, corrupt the lands, and revive Elika. To the character of the Prince, that is clearly the only choice. To me, it was unthinkable. Not only would it destroy everything that I’d worked for, but it would also destroy everything that Elika had worked and sacrificed for. How could I not respect our toil and her self-sacrifice? And yet the game required me to enact the choice that felt so wrong to me. It seemed as if I was watching from someone else’s eyes as I snuffed out each light in turn, and the lands were covered once more in darkness and corruption. For me, the player/avatar connection was broken dramatically.
Yet by offering only one choice, one ending, Prince of Persia accomplished two goals in stunning fashion. First, it tangibly defined the character of the Prince through what he deemed most important when confronted with the choice. Second, by bringing that choice to the fore and yet not allowing me to take the easy, seemingly right choice, the game forced me to re-examine my own values. Those lands to which I felt so attached were beautiful, but devoid of people, devoid of humanity. Elika, however, is a human being. Which is truly more important? Second, throughout the game, there are hints that Elika is not intended to die. Indeed, the visions given to both her and the prince come not from Ahriman, but from the power of the temple (and ultimately Ormazd). Is it really right to stand aside and respect her sacrifice even when it’s unnecessary? Or should one step in to make things right? Do you believe that you truly know better? The Prince certainly believes so.
Very few games have shaken me as much as Prince of Persia, despite it's surface status as a rather casual game. It's carefully designed, through it's reward structure, to make the final "choice" as wracking as possible. It's possible that the developers just got lucky, but what I've read in interviews strongly implies that this was all conscious on their part. I believe that Prince of Persia is a work of art. Not because of it's graphics or music, already established art forms, but because it uses techniques unique to games to raise emotions and serious moral questions. By investing the player through labor, and then forcing the player to enact the destruction of that labor's fruits, Prince of Persia inspires strong emotional reactions that, at least for me, led to some serious introspection.