Few games have such a good grasp of storytelling as Prince Of Persia. Just look at 2003's Sands Of Time. The entire game was anecdotal, told by the Prince himself. Die and he'd butt in to correct the story and undo his death - that wasn't how it happened, after all.
Yarn-weaving is in the Prince's blood, a trait he inherited from his dad, Jordan Mechner. In 1985, Mechner graduated from Yale with his sights set on a Hollywood screenwriting career and his pockets bulging with game royalties.
During his studies, Mechner single-handedly developed Karateka,1 an Apple II karate adventure published by Brøderbund. As the game punched its way up the charts, the publishers were quick to invite the graduate to the company, hoping for a swift sequel.
Inspired by '40s flick The Thief Of Baghdad, Mechner proposed a new game more akin to Ali Baba or Sinbad - in his journals he even gave the game that would become Prince Of Persia the working title 'Baghdad'.
Raiders Of the Lost Ark was a key influence - Mechner loved Indy's grounded response to peril. To emulate the scrambling physicality of Jones' boulder sprint he turned to rotoscoping - tracing live-action film to create realistic animation.
Mechner would film his brother David running and jumping,2 play the footage on a VCR, photograph the TV screen and trace over snaps with marker pens and Tipp-Ex to create useable silhouettes. Needless to say, Tipp-Ex wasn't used during the production of recent rotoscoped movie A Scanner Darkly. We think.
THE WRITE STUFF
If his brother's scampering gave Mechner a flesh-andblood hero, a whole era of filmic swashbuckling inspired the combat.
Captain Blood triggered the idea, but it was Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone's climactic duel in The Adventures Of Robin Hood that showed him the way. Printing stills from the iconic battle, the Brøderbund office was littered with shots of clashing blades, with one flustered dev sitting in the middle, trying to make sense of it all.
Compare the film to the final product, however, and the effort was worth it Mechner's movie love proved both boon and bane. Approaching design with a screenwriter's eye taught him to tease story through events.
You got a sense of the Prince from his action, not some blurb on the box. And who could forget the one-hour time limit, injecting peril as soon as you pressed the on switch. Best of all was the Shadow Prince.
When you jumped through a mirror to progress, a shadowy doppelganger emerged. That you went on to fight the inky blighter later was an incredible twist, if an accidental one.
With computer memory getting tight, Mechner recycled the Prince's character model: thus Shadow Prince was born. However, it was also Mechner's screenwriting career that hampered POP from start to finish.
Script re-writes and Hollywood visits ate into development time, leaving the Prince trapped in a new dungeon: Mechner's to-do list. Starting in 1985 it took four years for POP to come to fruition - only when his film career stalled did Mechner start work in earnest.
By this time, the Apple II market - Brøderband's chosen platform - was waning. Released in October 1989, the critically loved Prince Of Persia leapt energetically into a market that was no longer there.