Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2003) invokes a nostalgia among its player base. As a gamer who never played the POP series prior to the Digital Iran project, I found POP: SOT to be a perplexing challenge. As an avid WoW gamer and Mario fan, I only had a minute experience games that required puzzle-like mechanics in the environment. Then as an academic, I noted the treatment of the NPCs (non-player characters) as reductionist. How can someone enjoy a game that flattens gender with faceless sexualized sand zombies that are concubines in the palace of a Maharaja? I felt uncomfortable with these sand zombies, and with Farah, Princess and daughter of the Maharaja as well as a sidekick at best throughout the game to the Prince. Farah is dressed in non-traditional garb for a princess and Muslim.
To understand the grip of games such as the POP series, I found it prudent to cultivate a gaming community of purposes of public dissemination and public guidance. Quite quickly, POP gamer fans trickled in and added to the conversation with the other gamers during streams on twitch.tv/digital_iran. I learned quickly from the viewers that their own identities richly perplex the game content. They grew up enjoying Prince of Persia, and still know the mechanics of these games through muscle memory. Yet, they note the problems inherent in the game. One graduate student in London stated that the developer Jordan Mechner “relied heavily on the Indian-Hindu culture to create the scenery of the game because the archaic Iranian culture has diminished” and that such discourse “implies that contemporary Iran possesses no remnants of archaic Iran.” Based on this gamer’s sentiments and my own research, I argue that the POP: SOT provides an amalgam of the Iranian, Arab, and Indian-Hindu culture, jumbled together confusedly. In tandem, one gamer points out the “unconscious Isamophobia” present throughout the game.
Isamphobia, queer phobia, and masculinity embody the palimpsest of the game. Particularly, queer masculinities are digitized as both inherently weak and ill. This is particularly seen with the evil Vizier, better known as Jaffar in the earlier game called The Prince, based off the Disney’s Aladdin, and One Thousand and One Nights stories. The Vizier seeks to unleash the sands of time with wavering health as seen when he coughs blood into a handkerchief, and his face and mannerisms are feminized. While the character is clearly based on Jaffar ibn Yahya of the Abbasid caliphate, a patron of science and papermaking enthusiast Persian vizier, he has become a queered villain in the most negative sense. Rather than giving the character nuance or a story, I am left with the aftertaste of something transgressed.
The game strikes a heteronormative vibe, where the woman is constantly questioned, and put in her place by the protagonist the Prince. The gameplay seeks to strike disdain for the only woman character with a face, as she continually shoots her arrow accidentally at the Prince when he is low health. Yet, viewers noted that while the game flattens India, Persia, and Arab countries as one, they at the very least appreciate the POP series stories. “At the very least,” one gamer stated, “we do not see car bombs associated with the Near East.” If that is our calibration for good gaming content and Middle East cultural representation, it is tried and found wanting.