[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?
The 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.
No "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.
What 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.
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.