If we’re talking about rewinding time then Braid (2008) is the cool example, but it has so much good stuff going on that I would only get distracted if I discussed it. So we’re going with Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2003).
What The Sands of Time and Braid have in common is a rewind-time mechanic that lets you immediately undo your mistakes with a cool reversal of the on-screen action. Apart from being completely rad, this device addresses the “hero problem” of game narrative.
The hero problem is the tension between a narrative of heroic success and a game mechanic of failable challenges. That is, if the story is about Link defeating Ganon, then what do we do with the fact that Ganon might kill Link in the final battle? What we actually do is forget it happened and try again, but that is an untidy shortcut to properly telling a story, and there are ways around it.
About The Sands of Time (and not about Braid)
The time-rewind mechanic — and, more importantly, the explanation for it in the narrative — short-circuits the hero problem by allowing failure into the narrative, but giving a reason for it not to conflict with eventual success. Yes, the prince gets mashed under a falling hunk of masonry, but his magical powers let him reverse the event briefly and get out of the way next time through. It’s a clever solution, and it’s fun to play with.
Unfortunately, The Sands of Time doesn’t display any awareness of how clever it is. The rewind feature is dependent on your platform-jumper collecting twinkly items to fill up his magic sand-dagger meter (oh, videogames!) and so if you don't have enough sand in your dagger then next time you thoroughly perforate yourself on some improbable spikes it will be final. But not really final, of course. The prince is back at the last checkpoint, ready for another try, as if by magic — except this magic doesn’t come from a sand-dagger or anything else in the story, it’s just the same old videogame magic that we have learnt not to see: he never fell on those spikes.
OK, just one quick thing about Braid
Although I don’t want to get started on Braid, it does show us by contrast what The Sands of Time missed. Firstly, Braid’s rewind mechanic is pretty much unlimited and unconditional — certainly there’s no magic sand to collect — and secondly, the telling of the narrative is allowed to sit alongside the playable mechanics of the game, rather than be mixed up with them.
The story of Braid is set out — terribly cryptically, and maybe a little wishy-washily if we’re being mean — in on-screen text between the action stages of the game. The action parts are then free to let us explore feelings and ways of thinking that complement the narrative, without having to cover the exposition.
This is kind of a quick and easy way to avoid the hero problem, because it just pulls the actual telling of the narrative away from the interactivity of the game. Nonetheless, it’s a technique that really works.
(The same technique can also solve the Freeman problem. That’s the tension between authored scenarios and player freedom within those scenarios — like when your character vows to help a villager in some JRPG while you loot their house right in front of them. If the vowing scene wasn’t playable then you could avoid that contradiction.)
However, Braid doesn’t simply separate narrative and interactivity as an easy way out. Armed with its rewinding mechanic, it takes down its divide between the two and throws the player into a climactic, interactive narrative sequence. For once, I won’t spoil it, but suffice it to say that it doesn’t undo the neat congruence of its narrative and its mechanics, or of its system and its metaphor. On the contrary, it’s a suitable pinnacle to the game, and definitely one of the great videogame endings.
Another thing I like about Braid is that it achieves its exploration of subtle themes and complex mechanics without sacrificing gaminess. Hidden collectibles, Easter eggs, and a replayable levels-based structure all sit happily amid its clever ideas and can just be enjoyed like we’ve always enjoyed them. The tensions between interactivity and narrative are dissolved without giving up on any traditional videogame appeal.
I knew I shouldn’t have brought Braid into this.
What was the topic again?
Games undermine their narratives when interactive action tells the story of the player-character’s death, only to then untell it tacitly with a retry. That puts a burden on the player’s suspension of disbelief. It’s a burden all gamer’s have learnt to handle, but it’s untidy all the same.
A time-rewind metaphor allows both the telling and the untelling to have a real place in the narrative. This relieves the player of the work of evacuating the story to erase memories of failed attempts, which lets us engross ourselves freely and enjoy a story told through — and not alongside — our gaming.