[This Gamasutra opinion piece by writer Tom Cross explores the negative reception to the leading man in 2008's Prince of Persia, what influence the voice acting of Uncharted's Nolan North might play -- and why one writer finds the backlash illogical.]
It’s no secret that I am a fan of Ubisoft's most recent Prince of Persia game, and that I find the criticism leveled at that game to be puzzling. In some ways, the rejection of the game (and of the Prince especially) always struck me as incomprehensible.
Recently, while playing Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, I was reminded of the Prince, and not just because Nolan North voices both Drake and the Prince. Specifically, the sexual tension in Among Thieves reminded me of that less well-developed, much-maligned tension in Prince of Persia.
A lot of people were annoyed by the Prince’s voice. They were annoyed by the way he sounded, and the way he talked, and what he said. I think that there's something interesting about what they didn't like about him, and about what they aren't saying when they say they don't like him. One especially common reaction went as follows: “The Prince sounds like a callow frat boy, and he has too many muscles.”
Likewise, people found the sexual nature of some of the Prince and Elika’s conversations unpleasant or off-putting. It’s too sexualized and too plainly stated (by the main characters), they said, and it would be better if their changing relationship was implied.
Not Quite "Persian" Enough, Thank You
So what can we learn from these critiques? They are angry that he isn't more Orientalized than the game is (and than the Prince has been historically). Yes, he and Elika travel through a majestic kingdom whose architecture owes a lot to Middle Eastern cultures and their architecture. Once you play the game, you cannot deny this fact.
What bugs people about the Prince is that he sounds like “a dude”. An American guy. An American guy very much in the Han Solo/Rogue mold of various popular stories and films.
What's wrong with that? Elika has an American (or otherwise tonally North American -- I'm not an expert) accent. No one ridiculed Elika and maligned her for being too American or too much of an American. It's the Prince that bugged them, and specifically, the way Nolan North plays him.
Now, don't get me wrong, I will be happy when the games industry wakes up and realizes that there is more than one charismatic voice-actor leading man. Eventually they will realize that there are cowardly, excitable, dour, frightened, and whiny leading men.
Hopefully, by this point, they will realize that there are great female voice actors, who voice lots of different kinds of women (like Kari Wahlgren, the actress who plays Elika, I'd argue). They will realize that there are all of these actors, and that those actors are competent and capable! They are out there, waiting to be offered great roles, working with companies who realize that the actors in their games are assets, not hideous necessities.
I Ain't in This For Your Revolution, Sweetheart
But back to Nolan North. He plays a variation on his Nathan Drake persona, taking away some charm and adding a few rougher, abrasive edges. Reviewers’ reticence toward this one man playing two similar roles is confusing. Maybe Nolan North can be a little one-note, but it doesn't mean he isn't acting. As the Prince, he is a little more Han Solo/Harrison Ford, and a little more introspective.
He's less of a "lovable jerk" and more of an "unrepentant jerk." I'm not sure what the difference is precisely (aside from the dearth of repenting), but he is definitely a harder character to like, at first. He has to earn our (and Elika's) trust and approval.
He may rub us and Elika the wrong way (more) at first, but he is stubbornly, boorishly loyal, fearless (while whining a lot), and good for entertaining conversations about choice, theater, and human frailty and fallibility. Essentially, he is a harder sell.
Nathan Drake is light, flippant, and just plain fun, whereas players actually have to invest time and energy into creating a relationship with the Prince. This is something gamers are loath to do, even when faced with characters written by grown-ups, characters who have actual character to them.
But that's not what pissed off all of those journalists. What pissed them off was that the Prince had the temerity to sound like something other than what they all unthinkingly assumed a "Persian" (already a hilarious, broken connection, as no Prince in any PoP game has been even tenuously related to the already vague “Persia” in gamers’ heads) Prince would sound like: an Englishman.
He also had the gall to be well muscled, while we (apparently) expect our vaguely ethnic Princes to be lithe young men, full of mysterious, doleful ennui.
A Little British Goes a Long Way
We all know that when it comes to accents and characters, English is code for "foreign," or "foreign and not white, but almost white." It's how we stomach the ludicrously British cast of Rome, or the original cast of Sands of Time. Britishness is automatically equated with foreignness. Here’s one example of the vitriol engendered by the Prince’s new style:
“Having stumbled upon a Princess in peril while out hunting for his wayward donkey, the Americanised Prince falls into a divine battle between the forces of good and evil, and proceeds to wisecrack and Brendan-Fraser his way through an occasionally delicate story of restoring life to a corrupted fantasy world of epic palaces and Skies-of-Arcadian technology."
"His antics are almost as destructive to the ambiance as the formerly caged God of Darkness, Ahriman, is to the environment, and his jarring dialogue and delivery persistently overshadow wistful, majestic graphics and his more serious and likeable new female counterpart, who rarely gets a chance to project the character her few monologues attempt to establish. With an oddly small, immobile head atop bulging musculature, the Prince looks awkward in his own skin, and he certainly feels out of place in his own game.”
So there's one knock against him: he's only mildly Orientalized (Ubisoft has taken this series so far in the direction of "mysterious East/West mash up,” that the Prince and Elika’s ethnicity is incomprehensible, no matter what metric you use), as opposed to the tried-and-true white-face/voice shtick we're used to. Here, he has a white voice and a mostly white face.
The idea that this is somehow less “authentic” than the hero in Sands of Time is at once highly problematic (how and why are either of them “authentic,” and what does that mean?) and almost completely meaningless.
"Nice Guys" and Our Expectations Meet
But that's just the beginning of it, as shown in the above quote. People really don't like the Prince because he's a dude. Now, I don't mean like The Dude. I don't mean like Dude Where's My Car. I mean he's the kind of guy who (when he isn't philosophizing with a princess or being chased buy evil gods) wants nothing more than money, drink, and companionship of his preferred sex.
And this pisses off a lot of people. It doesn't piss them off because the hero is a heteronormative jerk who spends the first few hours of the game mocking someone who saves his life at regular intervals. Likewise, no one speaks out about the game’s simplistically written, stereotypically plotted Concubine, a woman scorned, of course, who takes her revenge in the throatiest voice possible. Is this what a powerful woman in a game is, especially when compared to the far-from-reprehensible Elika?
This last should not be taken as a statement that the Prince is not an attractive (potentially) character to some players. In fact, to simply say that the Prince is an ass, therefore he is not worthy of the story/Elika/our time is reductive and misleading. It may be a common, annoying trope that the asshole is really a Nice Guy (and stems from a problematic assumption about male relationships with perspective female partners), but that, again, is not what people find alarming.
If it were, I would understand: the Prince's "Nice Guy" status has difficulty changing into nice guy (read: actually good or nice) status. He is at best a problematic, dubious hero. In fact, he's far more of an anti-hero than most suppose anti-hero bad boys in video games. Still: this is not what people dislike, not specifically.
We are shown that while the Prince makes bad decisions, he makes them because he is a somewhat deep, multi-faceted character. His ultimate betrayal of Elika’s trust and desires is actually quite interesting, if one cares about the complexity (but not necessarily the quality!) of his character: it shows him for the troubled, selfish, not-necessarily good person that he is. It also asks us to question how he and Elika can be attracted to one another, even if she knows his sense of morals and necessity differs vastly from hers.
The Prince's Failure is a Good Thing... For Us
If one follows the story of the game to its conclusion (including the Epilogue), you’ll find that Elika, reeling from her “new” life, the Prince’s betrayal, and the burden that has, once more, been placed on her shoulders, abandons him, paying him back for his betrayal. I like the place where the story ended (in the Epilogue): it made sense for both characters, and I think it completely vindicates the authors’ choices concerning the Prince’s deep flaws, the flaws journalists and gamers seem to hate.
They want you to believe that they dislike the Prince because he is a shallow, callow, and stupid lead character, who isn’t interesting or complicated enough. This is of course, untrue (as the game’s writing ably proves, again and again).
In fact, I find the writing in this game to be good because it takes a person who acts and sounds like a jerk and shows that he is flawed, but shows that he can create a meaningful relationship with another person. Furthermore, it tells a story of another person, equally as complex as the Prince, whose feelings grow for him, as his grow in kind.
That flimsy argument regarding the Prince’s crass, asinine first impression may be why they dislike him publicly. But I would argue that it partially aggravates them because the Prince and Elika are both sexually aware and unafraid of expressing themselves in a sexual manner, and for some gamers, that can be dangerous, worrisome territory.