Remember When Godsmack Appeared in a Prince of Persia Game?
Scene: A Ubisoft executive suite in a high-rise somewhere in Montreal on a chilly morning in November, 2003.
Soulless Executive 1: “Hey gang, how do we improve upon Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, one of the most critically-acclaimed games ever and a revolutionary title sure to shape the course of 3D video games for the next decade?”
Soulless Executive 2: “I know! Kids these days like antiheroes with zero personality, right? Let’s make the Prince, our titular protagonist, really dull and brooding.”
Soulless Executive 1: “Good, but we still haven’t quite made things edgy enough.”
Soulless Executive 3: “Got it! We’ll water down the excellent ‘Eastern’ soundtrack with some aggressive radio rock. What do the kids like today?”
All Soulless Executives: “Godsmack!”
And so it was that Godsmack became the public face of heavy metal in 2004.
Before watering down their successful formula with trite rehashes of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, acclaimed video game publisher Ubisoft created one of the most enthralling gaming experiences ever in the Prince of Persia trilogy for the Xbox/PS2/Gamecube console generation. The first game in that series, 2003’s Sands of Time, set the bar for immersive action-adventure games, blending impossibly tight 3D platforming with sporadic melee combat and environmental puzzle-solving elements to create an engrossing experience that wouldn’t feel out of place in the Shahnameh. Upon its release, critics praised the game’s seamless transition from parkour-inspired wall running to time manipulation riddles to brief fights with rabid sand monsters, all set against a gorgeous backdrop of Persian scenery and a lush, folk-inspired soundtrack. The game was bright and cheery despite its at-times catastrophic story events, and the Prince, the plucky, player-controlled character, was fun and endearing as he sought to undo the wrongs done to his father’s kingdom and to unravel the mystery of the Sands of Time.
So how did Ubisoft capitalize on the good will generated by their landmark title? By making the most mid-2000s game possible.
You see, the weak link to all that Sands of Time did right was the combat. End-game skirmishes seemed to mostly consist of you vaulting over an enemy’s back and slashing it when its guard was down. It was serviceable, and the ability to slow down or speed up time added a bit of novelty, but it did feel a bit undercooked in an otherwise stellar experience. To compensate for this, Ubisoft, to their credit, recalibrated the entire combat experience for the sequel to Sands of Time, 2004’s Warrior Within. The Prince was given the ability to now wield two different weapons at a time, and players could tailor their combat approach to suit their play-style. If you wanted to focus on speedy stealth skills, you may favor keeping only a dagger in your right hand, freeing the left for choke-holds and arm-bars. If you privileged a more cavalier assault, you could wield twin axes and unleash a devastating stream of combos. Warrior Within‘s combat was frenetic and gory; the Prince could finish his enemies with a variety of fatality moves, spraying sand and viscera across the scene.
However, Ubisoft seemingly decided that the first game’s whimsical, adventurous tone was ill-suited to the increased violence, so they needed something darker, rawer, grittier. And by golly, they committed to earning that M-rated badge of honor to suit the increased violence. Warrior Within takes place seven years after the events of Sands of Time. Hunted by an unstoppable force of nature, the seemingly invincible Dahaka, intent on claiming his life because he was supposed to die during the events of the previous game after unleashing the Sands of Time, the Prince has lost his glib joviality; the man we meet at the beginning of Warrior Within is harried and callous. His constant flight from the Dahaka has transformed him into a stereotypical grim and brooding antihero, one better suited for the grim and brooding violence of the new game. To complement this newfound blandness of character, Ubisoft hired a different voice actor for the Prince, one more capable of capturing that throaty edge so often needed to deliver the full force of childish profanity. And after realizing they now nearly had the edgy hat-trick of violence, swearing, and T&A, Ubisoft’s artistic directors gave the two women in the game absurd proportions and exceptionally skimpy clothing. If the smokey-eyed Prince on the cover didn’t immediately give away the game’s target demographic, the camera’s tight focus on Shahdee’s thonged buttocks within the first few minutes of the game certainly did.
This was a new Prince, one who liked chasing tail and saying the f*ck word and killing people, so he needed some killer hard-rocking guitar metal as a backdrop.
You may recall that in 2003 Godsmack released their chart-topping, Grammy-nominated, certified Platinum third album Faceless. Hell, it would be hard for you to forget. It was nearly impossible to listen to the radio or attend sporting events or watch harmless propaganda tapes for American Imperialism in between blocks of 24 without hearing “Re-Align” or “Serenity” or “Straight Out of Line” (or “Awake” from the previous album in the case of that Navy commercial). Perhaps the biggest single, though, was “I Stand Alone;” hell, that song was in Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s 2002 film Scorpion King (itself loaded with all manner of early 2000s tomfoolery), and by the time Warrior Within was released in 2004, the track was near ubiquitous as THE heavy riff de rigueur for people who didn’t actually listen to very much metal.
So, the soulless Ubisoft executives must have thought, what better song to capture the grit and danger of an unstoppable monster coming to take your soul than “I Stand Alone?” Every time, every single got dang time that the Dahaka appears in the game, “I Stand Alone” plays in the background, blaring across whatever vaguely eastern music Stuart Chatwood had originally composed for the soundtrack. And believe me, that Dahaka shows up a lot, triggering nail-biting sequences where you have to flee across crumbling, trap-filled infrastructure before the immortal beast can seal your fate. Or, these sequences would be some of the very best in the entire game for forcing you to think on your feet and apply your finely-tuned platforming skills to execute daring leaps, if not for that lame Godsmack song and its incongruous delivery over what was ostensibly a fantasy tale in ancient Babylon. Even as a teen who enjoyed mediocre radio metal, CGI butts, pointless violence, and swearing, Godsmack’s discordant inclusion in the swords and sorcery setting was a bridge too far; it didn’t so much create tension as kill it.
To add insult to injury, the game’s producers also included “Straight Out of Line” during the credits. Two Godsmack tracks from Faceless for the price of one. I guarantee nearly every brooding adolescent who played video games in the early aughts thought of Godsmack as the public face of metal for some time. No wonder people thought metal was dead.
With all that mope and grit, you’d think Warrior Within would have sold like hot cakes, and you’d be right. The game, although not quite measuring up to the acclaim of its predecessor, shipped a whole bunch of units and earned multiple nominations of its own. It was also critically raked for its absurdly juvenile delivery, although the gameplay itself was warmly (and rightly) received.
Ubisoft, to their credit, course-corrected after the deserved critical roasting they received, and did so in a surprisingly clever way. The trilogy’s third installment, The Two Thrones, actually featured both Prince voice-actors. The Prince’s character was restored to his original gregarious voice actor and cheery demeanor, but due to time travel and magical chicanery, the Prince would periodically transform into the Dark Prince, voiced by the gruff anti-hero from Warrior Within. While that may sound a bit phoned it on paper, it made much more sense within the wacky time travel shenanigans of the series and allowed the developers to implement both the excellent platforming of Sands of Time (the final boss battle that requires you to scale a structure of magical shifting sands to deliver blows to your arch nemesis is a gaming triumph) and the visceral combat of Warrior Within (now featuring absolutely brutal speed kills that reward fast and crafty players). The Two Thrones remains both a high water mark for action-adventure games and one of the most fulfilling climaxes to a trilogy ever. It was so good, in fact, that I was able to overlook the Godsmack sins of its forebear.
Unfortunately, this wouldn’t be the Prince of Persia franchise’s last misstep. No, that dubious award actually goes to the casting of Jake Freaking Gyllenhaal as the PRINCE OF PERSIA. Whitewashing is real, folks!
Thankfully, Godsmack’s involvement in action-adventure video games was mercifully limited. In fact, I can’t think of a single instance of such a jarring inclusion of a licensed track in a game since. For a brief moment in time, Godsmack was on top of the media empire, but metal, much like the world itself, has moved on, mercifully.