The Prince of Persia: Sands of Time Remake Can’t Shed Its Orientalist Roots

Nostalgia often brings back things left in the past, but this time, we don’t need to turn back time.

As a kid, I watched my older brother play The Sands of Time with fascination. I heard familiar names and saw recognizable architecture. Its historic setting reminded me of oral stories about Asia’s dense history of empires and our past generations arriving from Central Asia. As a Muslim immigrant kid from India who had only been in the U.S. for a few years, I was in awe because I had never seen anything like that in western movies and television shows, let alone video games. But once I saw the 2010 movie adaptation of The Sands of Time as an adult, I noticed major flaws, like the cast being white-washed and Asian cultures depicted as little more than superficial set dressing. The game falls victim to a similar orientalism in its storytelling, and leaves me worried that Ubisoft’s The Sands of Time remake will repeat these mistakes.

The remake, which comes nearly two decades after the original, boasts new visuals, enhanced audio, and modernized controls. Ubisoft’s Indian studios in Mumbai and Pune have rebuilt the game from scratch to correct some of its exoticized depictions, indicating an acknowledgment of the problems with The Sands of Time. But the game’s issues with its cultural depictions run far deeper than the surface. Having Indian studios recreate a white fantasy by simply reducing stereotypical visuals while maintaining the story’s western perspective for the sake of nostalgia isn’t a positive change. Following multiple delays from its Indian studios, Ubisoft Montreal — the studio that developed the original game — is now leading the Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time Remake.

As of a few days ago, the remake was delayed yet again, with the Montreal studio handling most of the rebuilding as they take the reins from the Indian studios before them. With that in mind, they must do so within the frame of trying to shed away the originals’ orientalist roots. Ubisoft Montreal says it is building on what Ubisoft Mumbai and Pune developed, though it’s unclear how much progress the Indian studios made themselves, or if they remain as consultants. Even so, the original game is set in Persia (which, in modern day, is the country of Iran) with only a small portion of the story taking place in India. Ubisoft has no Iranian studios, and there’s been no mention of Iranian involvement in the remake. With the story the same as the original, and written by a white developer, its rooted orientalism continues to cast a long shadow.

The Sands of Time released in 2003 during the height of Islamophobia in the West. The game fantasized Iran’s Persian history for a western audience, while President George W. Bush claimed Iran as part of the Axis of Evil in the 2002 State of the Union Address. Orientalism is defined as western media and scholarly fascination of the East, leading to colonial interpretations and fetishization. “The idea of representation is a theatrical one: the Orient is the stage on which the whole East is confined,” critic Edward Said explains in his 1978 book Orientalism.

Prince of Persia: Sands of Time remake

After the remake announcement, I rewatched the gameplay and noticed a string of issues with the game’s dialogue, storyline, and characters that I hadn’t noticed as a kid. The Sands of Time’s short prologue is set in India. The Prince and his father’s army attack the Indian palace where we meet the deuteragonist princess Farah, the evil Vizier, The Sands of Time hourglass, and get the Dagger of Time. At the Persian ruler of Azad’s palace back from India, the Vizier tricks the Prince into unleashing the Sands with the Dagger, ending the prologue. It seemed strange that India was even a location in this game, but other moments remained incongruous still. The game introduces a Maharaja, a typically Hindu-ranked official equivalent to a king or a ruler, but his daughter was named Farah, a name of Arabic origin. A memorable word throughout The Sands of Time (which is also seen in the remake trailer) is the word “Kakolukiyam” said by Farah to the Prince. This happens to be a Hindu Sanskrit book title in the Panchatantra fables; it has no context in the game besides Farah mentioning it a few times. Viziers are part of Islamic regimes, so it wouldn’t make sense for him to be with the Maharaja — especially with a tilak on his forehead used in Hinduism.

The infamous vizier Jaffar, a notorious villain in many stories like the 1001 Nights and Disney’s Aladdin, likely inspired by the Abbasid empire Iranian vizier, Jaʿfar ibn Yahya. Mechner cited the incredibly racist 1940s movie Thief of Baghdad (which also had a villain named Jaffar) as an inspiration for the original Prince of Persia development. It’s shallow to manipulate things east of the Eurocentric world to the liking of the white storyteller.

It’s not just Sands of Time that’s orientalist, the Prince of Persia series is rooted in it. Creator Jordan Mechner said in the afterword of his Prince of Persia graphic novel that, when first conceptualizing the series in the late 80s, he wanted to create a puzzle-platformer but lacked a story. Ex-Disney animator Gene Portwood, who worked at the franchise’s original publisher Brøderbund at the time, asked Mechner, “What about Ali Baba; Sinbad?” This led to the creation of 1989’s Prince of Persia.

“I wrote a two-page story about a boy who sets out to win a princess’ love by stealing an amulet from the dungeons of an evil sultan,” Mechner said. “I didn’t stop to think, much less do research.”

By the time he was developing and consulting for The Sands of Time years later, Mechner finally did his research. He cited stories such as 1001 Nights, Iranian writer Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh poem, and other West Asian stories as inspiration. However, learning about Eastern cultures through historic texts doesn’t omit the fact that a white, non-Asian person is telling the tale of a foreign place. It’s essentializing an entire people, region, and history, making it feel more like cultural tourism rather than an authentic recreation.

It reinforces an outsider point of view, much like orientalist paintings of the 19th century. At the time, Orientalist European artists painted their perspective of what the East looks and acts like in such a highly detailed manner that they would fool viewers into thinking they were accurate depictions. Orientalism in video games is tantamount to those paintings, but in digital form. This erasive process is evocative of a quote from Said’s book which reads, “a white middle-class Westerner believes it his human prerogative not only to manage the nonwhite world but also to own it, just because by definition ‘it’ is not quite as human as ‘we’ are. There is no purer example than this of dehumanized thought.”

A way to rid western fascination with Asian cultures in the games industry would be to support non-western developers to call the shots with writing and directing. Earlier this year, French studio Sloclap was criticized for its lack of East Asian developers, aestheticization, and cultural tourism in 2022’s Sifu, a martial arts game set in China. Sifu‘s credits list cultural consultants, but even its martial arts consultant was a white person, proving that its white European developers held all the cards. This release contrasts with Ghostwire Tokyo, a game that takes place in a supernatural version of Tokyo, where Japanese developer Tango Gameworks is located. Everything in Ghostwire: Tokyo — from its spiritual apparitions and characters to its visuals and open-world structure — is defined by Japanese folklore and culture. The differences in these titles’ cultural depictions makes it clear that people of that particular culture or region should be the ones leading development, especially as storytellers.

Original Prince of Persia: Sands of Time

Although Ubisoft’s Indian studios took charge and are regionally closer to Iran, their cosmetic and gameplay changes to The Sands of Time center around someone else’s fetishized vision, making their development perspectives seem superficial. When I was younger, the original game was “good enough” simply because that representation was so rare, but I didn’t have any frame of reference for who was behind the game. Years later, seeing changes to on-screen representation isn’t “good enough” — the people designing, animating, and writing the script matter just as much.

An archived article by Mechner, originally published on the website Electronic Book Review, talks about how in-game locations and the prologue in The Sands of Time were a playground for its protagonist. But reading the article, I felt like the entire Iran and India regions were instead a playground for Prince of Persia developers — without a single mention of Iranian or Indian input. Maintaining Mechner’s story and dialogue for nostalgic purposes benefits its western fans at the expense of once again excluding Iranian involvement.

Beyond dialogue, visuals, and storytelling issues, there are also problems with casting. White actor Yuri Lowenthal voices the unnamed Prince again, donning the same British-type accent as the other characters. Lowenthal told GameSpot that he had concerns about this project because of representation in games compared to 2003, but since it’s a remake, he felt it was necessary to stick to the original, nostalgic plot. Gamers have discussed Prince of Persia‘s orientalist qualities before and this remake shouldn’t legitimize problematic parts of the game.

Giving non-western studios the lead in Ubisoft’s first-ever remake is commendable, and Ubisoft’s Indian studios give the game a non-western touch, but it’s not enough to repair its orientalist roots. In truth, it might not even be possible to fix this franchise since it’s so deeply entrenched in a western, white perspective. Nostalgia often brings back things left in the past, but this time, we don’t need to turn back time.