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Analysis: All Aboard The Last (Narrative) Express
Analysis: All Aboard The Last (Narrative) Express
September 2, 2009 | By Tom Cross

September 2, 2009 | By Tom Cross
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[In this analysis, writer Tom Cross takes a close look at Jordan Mechner's The Last Express and its attitude to storytelling, discovering how it crafts a sense of time and why it works so well.]

If we want to explore the possibilities for branching, reactive, fluid narratives, we obviously need to explore possible ways to realize this goal. We can talk all we want about the potential for deep, almost procedurally generated stories, or emergent narratives, but it’s also important to examine the material we already have before us, be they video games or other.

The problem with video games, as I’ve mentioned previously, is that they so clearly start and end unto themselves. They do not take place in a world, they do not provide views onto separate lives. Even the ones that aim to do so fail in their ways. Grand Theft Auto creates a city that moves and lives around you, but in your absence, in your presence, during your inactive moments, it refuses to change.

When worlds do change, they do so only in the most perfunctory, ineffectual ways. Stalker: Clear Sky creates a set of factions that war for territory. Yet when one faction defeats another, the effects are only temporary. When you boot the game back up, the same mercenaries will have reoccupied their lost fortress. Tangible, permanent persistence is a lie or trick, regardless of the format or system.

Perhaps the answer is not, then, to create so massive and “realistic” a world, but to consider the ways in which a smaller, more detailed, more controllable world might work as a place for plotting to occur. It’s no secret that games that focus on fewer people and places often can imbue those things with more life, more character. Playing the most recent Prince of Persia, or Half Life 2, leads one to appreciate the controlled, directed method of world-creation and characterization.

In games like this, we see the game space at its most contained and least flexible, seemingly. Half Life 2 is just a long, highly compelling and detailed tunnel, as many have noted. Prince of Persia is much the same thing, albeit with a few twists, turns, and walls thrown in for good measure.

But these are not games that attempt to recreate flowing, open space for the player to live in. Instead, they take what they want from the language of games and of life and represent them carefully. What would a game look like, then, that at its heart was concerned with convincing the player that she was taking part in a set of larger events and trends, as well as the singular path of her own life?

rouse6.jpgThe Most Open of Game Spaces on One Train

An example can be found, however indirectly, in The Last Express, Jordan Mechner’s rotoscoped puzzle adventure game. Superficially, Express would seem to be headed in the right direction for what I’m interested in. Right off the bat, it’s a game that attempts to simulate a consecutive set of events connected by the place they happen in (a train) and the period they occur during (4 days).

To aid in the illusion that time is passing, the train is subjected to a schedule revolving around eating, socializing, and sleeping. People partake in the appropriate activities at the appropriate times, from the mundane to the extraordinary.

Into this mix your character Cath is thrown. A mysterious American who boards the train en route via a speeding motorbike, Cath’s origins, motives, and nature are mysterious and potentially deadly from the start of the game.

This might seem like nothing to some, the kind of thing that movies and books regularly use to keep us on our toes when portraying their protagonists. When you examine the entire cast and plot of The Last Express, you find that the game attempts a kind of world-construction (outside of its “real time” gameplay) most games shy away from.

At the start of the game, all of the actors have goals and weaknesses, desires and secrets. The game never assumes that you need to be informed of these things from the outset, or that you ever need to know everything about everybody.

It’s the mark of a strong game with a strong sense of place and plot that it understands the benefits of storytelling reticence. Most games are overly concerned with explaining as much as possible in as short a period as possible. Even the more story-heavy (and supposedly well-written) games substitute a plethora of plotlines and characters for actual plot depth and narrative intricacy. A certain hero (who is in fact the memory of a lost civilization, or something) comes to mind, as do his overwhelmingly “plotted” brethren.

lastexpress.jpgNo "Everyman" Here, Thank You

The Last Express allows you to be as curious about your own character as you are about everything else in the game. For once, every character in the game is a rule unto themselves. Two women traveling together are trying to work out their relationship differences.

A young woman caring for her ailing father has (by turns) heated and friendly encounters with an old friend.

And these are just the more mundane stories to be found on the Orient Express. There are schemers and villains more “important” to Cath and the story than any of the people I’ve just mentioned. It’s a testament to The Last Express’s dedication to creating a believable, plotted story that these “minor” characters play key roles in Cath’s life and in the course of the story.

This shouldn’t be a revelation, a story and game that create people and places that treat each other as equals. No one trusts Cath, and his lies, his best friend’s death, and other elements contribute to his shifting, mercurial relationships with people. He’s not an omnipotent puzzle solver, a silent soldier, or even an annoyingly verbose savior of the world. You never feel like anything other than a fugitive and a cheat in The Last Express, although you come to know and like these aspects of your character.

None of this identification and immersion would be possible without the AI and pacing of the game. Characters may be involved in important plot nodes (unknowingly aiding Cath in hiding from policemen, for instance), but they otherwise live and move about the train. This is key to the stories sense of place and momentum, as is the constantly ticking clock.

The Last Express achieves this effect by simulating a slightly accelerated form in of time. Every so often, an important plot event happens (a small music show, say). Cath must be there for the event, but before and after he must (although it is often never framed as a necessity) solve certain puzzles, explore the train, learn more about his traveling companions, and uncover more of the plot that lead to his friend’s death.

last2.jpgWhat do They do While You Sleep?

The simulation is easy enough to see through, as all simulations are. Once you have completed all of the puzzles and tasks that are available to you, you must either wait until the next plot point, or sleep (until the next point). This feels natural, but the train’s sudden lack of activities feels strange. If anything, this is our own fault.

The train is still full of life, with people wandering around at night, arguing, conversing, snoring, and spying. We have been unfortunately trained to look for things to do and things to solve. Much as it would be on a real train (even one so wracked with deceit), things get boring from time to time, and you have to wait until something exciting happens.

This realization, that you must allow the world to go about its business for a time before you can affect more lives and events, is something of a revelation.

In some ways, this is the most engrossing, convincing story space I’ve ever encountered, just as it is one of the better plotted (and better integrated with gameplay) stories I’ve played. It’s all well and fine to suggest that a vast, malleable space with an uncountable number of opportunities and options that is highly reactive to the player would make for a “great” story space.

It’s also highly presumptive and not at all correct. People, real people, do not have experiences like this. It’s hard to make the argument that if a game is about a person who ranges all over the world, or across multiple social spectrums, that “their” games would allow for such an open-world game space.

In fact, it’s antithetical to our experiences as humans (which heavily influence our appreciation for the quality and convincing qualities of virtual spaces) to create these bizarre, globe-trotting, absurdly powerful game spaces and protagonists. It might be appropriate for a novel or movie, where we are firm in our belief that another kind of person, a person not us, is leading the plot, but when we examine our own lives, we find manageable, contained experiences and narratives.

I’m not suggesting that fanciful, broad games cannot be made. After all, fantasy and speculative fiction (along with their more “realistic” modern counterparts) are exciting, amusing ways to explore impossible situations and stories. However, if we are truly looking for games which will create “meaningful” story spaces, stories, and opportunities, we have to admit that such grand fantasies are highly impractical.

TheLastExpress.jpg Intimacy and Depth Breed Belief

I emphasize the word grand because it is not the fantastical elements of such narratives that divorce players from their plots, but the outrageous size of these narratives. When I think of games that seemed even partially or plausibly meaningful to me, I think of games that create detailed, compelling microcosms, smaller, carefully connected situations and spaces that continue a strong narrative.

The Last Express is by far the best of these. With its extremely constrained space, carefully written and acted characters, and compelling rendering of “real time,” it feels much more familiar, much more intimate than most games I play.

For tenuously related reasons, Portal and Prince of Persia created spaces which I was less wary of immersion-wise. Both games use contrived, bizarre plot-devices to excuse their highly structured, unyielding gameplay experiences.

In Portal, your silent relationship with the slightly unbalanced GLaDOS (and the increasingly complicated tests she subjects you to) is explained away using a captive/master relationship. In Prince of Persia, the continued proximity of the main characters and their necessity for somewhat cordial relations are caused by two things: a dead world, and an impending threat.

Neither of these games concerns itself with realistically, extensively modeling a time space, a set of people and a situation that binds them to each other while driving them apart. These games are concerned with portraying the relationships between two people, and (along with their entertaining gameplay systems), this is why I find them compelling.

It’s difficult, bordering on impossible, to be distracted or deeply bound by the narratives of other games. Even games heavy with story and character are often focused on anything but stories and characters that seem to be rules unto themselves.

Of course, the construction of a world that is both recognizably reactive and properly immovable (to its human inhabitants, for instance) is a difficult task from many points of view. Specifically, the reactions to our actions and consequences of those actions that are part of our everyday life are even harder to simulate.

In games, such reactions fall on two ends of a spectrum. There are actions that have no discernable reactions and then there are actions that crucially, unconvincingly alter key parts of the game world. In my next article I will examine an interesting (and hopefully) relevant method of world construction and storytelling.


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Comments


Cordero W
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But that's the difference between a short story and a novel: a short story focuses on a smaller number of characters and settings, thus, it's going to have a bigger impact. A novel focuses on a much larger range of characters and the world around them. Though it spreads the emphasis through several elements of the story, it achieves the same level if done correctly as a short story. When someone goes for a short story emphasis in a novel way, then it becomes more like a series of books, each with their own individual short story that, if put together, would be one huge novel.



In terms of games, stories are told both through narrative and the emergent gameplay of the player themselves. Therefore, The Last Express has that feel of a short story, but it can also have the feel of a novel. But then this comes down to how much time the player invest into the game, and other factors relating to this are thrown into the mix.



In short, whether it's confined or left to expand, the point of many stories is to concentrate on key characters, anyway. If anything, dispensable NPCs, such as goons, are given stereotypes anyway in order to help the player not have to focus so much on the same concurring person. It would be nice if a person could explore each and every life of a person in a city scale, but that type of gameplay would require demand from consumers and time to make. Stereotypes make it easier to instantly identify with a character without hearing their backstory or such. If the character isn't an important part of the story and if talking to NPCs isn't a major gameplay element of the game, don't waste time on trying to build detailed stories between a large cast of characters. In a confined game like The Last Express, sure, but not in something like Grand Theft Auto. Though GTA is a sandbox game where the point is for exploration, the game focuses more on action than on talking. That is why the cutscenes are short and the game tries to keep you in much of the action as possible. Instead of showing the character driving somewhere, the game makes it part of the mission to get from point A to point B, while throwing some challenge inbetween, such as cops coming after you for carrying illegal substances.

Glenn Storm
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First, I love the care and subject of your article, Tom. This is great to start with the experience we want, then talk about how to get there.



Cordero hit on the scope aspect I was thinking of as I read this: Smaller focus on character (implying greater depth of character) will resonate with us strongly in terms of relationships between characters (player included) and their goals, motivations, etc. while larger focus on action will forgo the character depth to keep the player gameplay-focused. (it also conveniently ignores the messy problem of dynamic character interaction) I think Cordero said it better than I can.



I think the point you raised about time is an important one and I want to suggest the idea that along with the difference in scope, the difference in time and pacing is a key to action games (where the popular games are now). Game experiences that allow time to linger are rare (imho) because the popular action game is obsessed with pace; or perhaps more accurately, obsessed with fast pace-short rest-fast pace-short rest-... In the same way you describe the problem with many game stories having to be explained with fantasy shorthand (breaking the rule: show, don't tell) and how that trend should be turned on its head, these action game experiences are focused on letting the player do things. The main interaction is in doing, not saying, reflecting the preference of the audience, if in part historically.



I'll agree to an extent that GTA tries to have it both ways, focusing on the action elements as primary, then allowing for "open world" between missions. And I think what you're saying is missing from that experience is the same level of focus on depth and variety in those slower paced moments as there is on action in the higher paced moments. I'd agree with that. I'd follow that by saying that HL2, while strictly scripted, handled the pace and depth balance beautifully, even if the protagonist is silent and NPCs can't do or say things beyond that tight "rail" script.



So, what I think I'm trying to present is the idea that there is a balance between small scope, slower pace, deep character interaction and large scope, high action, dynamism. I think going for both would be difficult to develop (funding, tech, etc), but more importantly, difficult to sell to an audience. Unless what we were going for is the all-things-to-all-gamers experience, where a city is loaded with both high explosives and true cunning, and gamers need look no further, I think the game experience designed must involve a targeted choice in the measure between character interaction and action, just to cater to audience tastes and expectations.

Glenn O'Bannon
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This is an excellent analysis Tom!



I think you are a little harsh where tunnel-based games are concerned. The games you mentioned were a lot of fun and they had interesting stories at least. The tunnel part often comes from a combination of technical limitations and gameplay considerations, such as keeping the player focused.



However, you are correct when you say that the bigger the space and the wider the world, the harder it is to create deep characters and a tight story. I have often thought that some tunnel-based games could benefit from a little down time every now and then so that you can interact with the characters, expand the plot, and just make the game more interesting. Knights of the Old Republic did some of that and it deepened the experience. Bioware did a much worse job of that in Mass Effect sadly, though I still enjoyed the game.

Hans von-Knut
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I totally agree in the possibilities of this approach.



This is not new however, not even when seen in the game.

"It came from the desert" (Amiga+PC) did exactly the same, just a couple of years earlier and with a larger setting.

So did another amiga title, called "maupitti island" or something like that. It was also a murder mystery, set on a little island.



A very recent launch "Arma II" has also splendidly done, what Stalker tried (but failed somehow in).

-so the more "opem" approach is not to dismiss so easily. Some of us also prefer Farcry to HL, meaning that we weight the "real" living world over the scripted.



To tummarize, the two approaches is far from the norm, but we all hope they will be used more in the future. HL2 is good, but we also want other kind of games than splendidly scripted roller-coaster rides.

Matt Diamond
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Not sure I agree with the preceding comments about short story versus novel. Last Express didn't feel like a short story to me, and I think it's a generalization to say that a short story necessarily has a bigger impact because it is less diluted. On the contrary, a novel has more opportunity to be immersive, and not merely through additional background detail. There is more time to experience characters' reactions to events and each other. Last Express embodies this- characters don't just change their attitudes towards each other once, but continuously.



Back to the article though. Although I agree that Last Express is to be celebrated for the way "downtime" builds an unforgettable experience, it did lead to some gameplaying difficulties. Sometimes one would be experiencing downtime (an example is the violin concert; you can listen to the entire thing, 10 or 15 minutes long!) only to infer out through repeated failure that you are meant to be doing something somewhere else on the train. So gameplay sometimes devolved to trial and error, replaying stretches to explore different actions, different parts of the train, not quite sure what was background and what was crucial except in hindsight. Again, very much like real life, but potentially frustrating to gamers then, and probably even ore so now.



I am in awe of this game and am grateful that I played it. More than 10 years later there has been nothing remotely like it. But I must admit, if a new game in this vein were to come out now I'd be hard pressed to give it the time and attention it would need to work its magic. Like children at the art museum, we glance at each painstaking work and then walk to the next room.

Jamie Roberts
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This article addresses something I've had a problem with for a long time in games. Most games treat scope as a foregone conclusion--"of course this game is going to last 10 hours", "of course this game is going to have a huge world, with an ice level and a fire level and everything!" "Of course the player can see and do everything before game end." But really interesting things start to happen when you fiddle with these assumptions. By shrinking one dimension of a production, you can extend another.



What if you make a story-based game, with only a handful of characters and settings, and design it to play out in half an hour? By designing the game to last half an hour, you allow there to be a greater number of choices at any given point. You also give the player a reasonable chance at exploring all those choices, because the shorter play length makes starting over from scratch less of a "punishment".



What if you make another story-based game using the same resources, with three characters and one setting, that is meant to last fifteen minutes? How much can the replayability be increased then? How much more effective will the inclusion of "random" occurrence and variation be? And how can these differences be reinforced in the game itself?



I think the indie game "Facade" tried to tinker with this, but it was bogged down by an experimental (and clunky) interface. Keeping the player-character generic and separate from the backstory didn't help, either.

John Vincent Andres
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It'll be interesting to see what a game like "Heavy Rain" does with its narrative. It seems to be the type of game that Jamie mentioned: shorter play through, yet more choices. It's much narrower than a tunnel. It's like taking a walking trip with dozens of forks in the sidewalk.


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