The big question to answer here is whether plot or gameplay came first in the development of Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. I already know the answer to this because I have cheated, the answer is that the gameplay did in fact come first. I cheated by watching an interview with developer and director Patrice Désilets. In this interview he describes how during development of the parkour, running and jumping the developers got annoyed at having to begin their puzzles again from the start, and essentially found it boring. To combat this they implemented the rewind feature which then became the dagger of time. From this point on the game narrative was formed to contextualise this mechanic.
From the success of the game it is clear that this was a strong decision as it made the game fun. The developers knew it was fun because they eliminated the aspects that were not fun for them and no longer punished the player so harshly for making a mistake.
What this also allowed the POP Team to do was to really show off their technical prowess, rewinding on its own was an incredible feat at that time, particularly with systems that ran at something in the range of 8 mb of RAM. The game took its technical direction even further with a plethora of animations for the Prince and a quality of camera that hadn’t been seen in games before.
Getting back to the question at hand, my final point on the matter is that gameplay elements found in Prince of Persia can be applied to any setting, hence why the gameplay is what came first. This is evidenced by what Patrice Désilets went on to make after this game, Assassin’s Creed. If there is a spiritual successor to Prince of Persia it is Assassin’s Creed, in fact in very early stages that game was called Prince of Persia: Assassins. At its core AC takes the same gameplay features found in Prince of Persia and improves on them in every way it can. The parkour and jumping became even more free form, the combat developed in complexity and all within a free roam open world.
I am of the opinion that Ubisoft have been making the same game now for over ten years, each installment improving on the discoveries, successes and failures of its predecessor. This doesn’t necessarily mean that each game is better than the previous but it goes to show that the mechanics developed in those early Prince of Persia games are applicable to any setting; renaissance Italy, the age of pirates, colonial America to name a few.
Sands of Time did benefit from an initial focus on gameplay but ultimately I do believe that the two sides of the game developed in tandem with each new gameplay feature being provided with some kind of narrative contextualisation. By doing this developers often create a more well rounded and balanced product, and the nature of games allows for some fantastical settings which in turn allows for creative solutions to why gameplay features should or shouldn’t be included.