From Elika To Ellie: Comparing Prince Of Persia And The Last Of Us
I’ve made it clear that I am a big fan of the 2008 Prince of Persia. It’s a fantastically underrated game, so ahead of its time that I think some people maybe weren’t ready for it, or just didn’t get it. Or, they didn’t like it, which is fine, too.
Naughty Dog’s recently released The Last of Us is one of those rare games that has received almost universal acclaim – and deservedly so. Sitting silently in a dark room watching the credits roll, I was confident its most-touching scenes will be among the most emotionally resonant moments in video games for some time.
Spoilers ahead for both The Last of Us and Prince of Persia
It may seem odd to compare Prince of Persia and The Last of Us, but they share similar themes. Both tell the tale of an isolated man and woman trying to correct a disaster that has affected their world. One takes place in a fantastic realm of magic and color, and the other takes place in a grounded, post-apocalyptic version of the world we live in today.
The biggest similarity between the two, however, is in their endings. In The Last of Us, Ellie needs to sacrifice herself in order to create a vaccine that could counteract the cordyceps fungal infection that has destroyed the world. Ellie does not get to make this decision of sacrifice, but knowing Ellie as we come to over the course of The Last of Us, you know that she would have.
In Prince of Persia, a similar sacrifice is necessary to restore order to Elika’s broken kingdom. She must sacrifice herself in order to imprison Ahriman, an abstract shadow creature that shrouds the world in darkness.
In The Last of Us, Joel cannot accept Ellie’s sacrifice and pulls her from the operating table right before the fatal surgery that would create a vaccine. He then lies to her about what happened because he knows that she would not approve. He cannot admit to her how important she is to him. Despite their journey and their goals, he cannot bear to part with her.
In Prince of Persia, The Prince also chooses not to accept Elika’s fate, undoing her sacrifice and re-releasing the evil Ahriman, the entity they have fought the whole game to imprison.
It’s impossible to deny that one of the endings was more effective than the other, despite their similar natures. When Prince of Persia released in 2008, the ending disappointed many players. Ubisoft later released DLC that extended, and to a reprehensible degree, changed it.
An ending resonates for more reasons than what is simply stated on paper. Just because both games feature a man preventing a woman from making a world-saving sacrifice, that does not mean they are the same. I would argue that both endings work in their own way, but The Last of Us’s ending is the more satisfying culmination of the people we have come to know through the course of the game.
The Prince and Elika have a fun relationship. They’re the kind of couple that would have teased each other mercilessly in grade school, everyone around them knowing they were in love, but they themselves too afraid to admit it. They’re also a team. One cannot navigate or function in the environment without the help of the other, making them both strong, independent characters. They take care of each other equally.
In The Last of Us, Ellie proves that she is capable of taking care of herself. We, as players, recognize that Ellie is stronger than anyone is willing to give her credit for, and Joel can be counted among that group of dissenters. However misguided, he is committed to taking care of Ellie, in a way The Prince never is of Elika.
Where we see The Prince pull Elika from her sacrifice as a romantic gesture, Joel pulls Ellie from the operating table because in his mind he does not have a choice. He can no longer imagine a life without Ellie – a life he has stubbornly survived despite immense loss.
In Prince of Persia, I believe that The Prince loves Elika. I am not convinced, however, that The Prince would be lost without her. He would just be very sad. With Joel, I worry about the mental and emotional state of a man who would lose a daughter, inadvertently adopt a new one, and then lose her again. The Prince’s ambition to save Elika is noble, but the game’s finale never quite reaches the emotional crescendo that Naughty Dog was able to hit in The Last of Us and Ellie.
To say that the Prince of Persia ending failed in its ending is only partially fair. The DLC hurt the impact of game’s ending significantly, but the pre-DLC ending was strong, heartfelt, and surprising in the many of the same ways the ending of The Last of Us was.
Where Prince of Persia comes up short compared to The Last of Us, is the relationship between Elika’s trial to save her world, and the Prince’s feelings about her world. The two learn an immense amount of information about one another, but The Prince is aloof, constantly cracking jokes and it’s difficult to believe he is sympathetic to Elika’s plight, even if he does clearly care about her.
Joel has a similar lack of concern for Ellie’s needs, but Naughty Dog took special care to change Joel’s mind by giving him the opportunity to leave, and showing his unwillingness to do so. The Prince is never afforded that moment of growth, seemingly until the very end, when he squanders his chance to leave by staying for Elika’s sake. Unfortunately, by that point, it is too late. You’re left wondering, “when did that happen?”
Video game storytelling has made large leaps in quality in the last few years with games like Bioshock and The Walking Dead making motivated attempts to realign focus toward that formerly overlooked aspect of game design. Looking back at the Prince of Persia and comparing it to The Last of Us gives up the opportunity to see how far video game storytelling has come, while highlighting the innovative games of the past that were perhaps restricted by technology, or the developer’s personal fear of disappointing the player.
Prince of Persia was a risky game, and many players were turned off by its departure from Sands of Time. It was a risk worth taking, however, and seeing a game like The Last of Us with similar themes pull off a difficult story inspires respect for what Prince of Persia was trying to do, even if it didn’t completely pull it off.