The Last Express: Revisiting An Unsung Classic
November 28, 2008 Page 3 of 6
What were those film shoots and recording sessions like?
MM: Well, when Mark says that the days and the weeks were long, nobody worked harder than Jordan. There'd be some times we'd come in in the morning and Jordan would have done a four-page list of bullet points of things that had to be done to improve the game and to tweak it or put it in systems.
We had all the research that we did at the start, and we were really tight about that, and when we got to things like the voice recording for the game, it was really crucial to us that we had native speakers of Serbian and different versions of German.
Anna Wolf speaks in a high Austrian accent; Karl-Heinz Teuber, [who played] August Schmidt, is a regular German and a businessman. We got an English man to do the English character, and real Russians to do the Russian voices.
In a number of cases, we were able to use the same person on-screen as well as in the voiceover -- Alexey, for example, and Chris the Englishman and a few others.
The attention to detail was really important, and we had to spend a lot of time working on the subtitling system -- which stuff would be subtitled and which wouldn't, because so much of the game is about overhearing conversations and being in the right place at the right time. If you play the game a second time, you might hear a different conversation.
And we had the pleasure of actually recording the voices in Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope Studios.
MN: It was just a block away from us.
MM: It was on Columbus [in San Francisco]. We just contacted the studio manager and they said, "Yeah, we rent this out downstairs." So we're being surrounded by pictures of Apocalypse Now and The Godfather I and II, and at one point, Coppola actually called in and spoke to our production manager Frannie, and she just went into a normal conversation with him. She just accidentally picked up the phone.
MN: They were funny about it. They kept asking us if we needed any helicopter sounds. They were like, "We've got lots of helicopter sounds. We've got Hueys..." [laughter]
MM: Yeah, "Anything you need like that!" It was such a cool space, too -- Coppola has such style, so it was kind of an Art Deco space, not that far off from Art Nouveau.
Jordan always had this saying -- the look of games emulates where the designers lived. If you looked at Myst and you actually visited where Rand and Robin Miller were working out of up in Spokane, Washington, it's actually not that different. It's a misty world with lots of wood and green and those deep colors, and we were working upstairs from an antique store on a block of antique stores at Jackson Square in San Francisco.
So in kind of a great sense, we emulated the look of where we were working out of.
Critical (But Not Commercial) Success
How was the game received?
MM: The project took a long time -- more time than we expected and more money than we expected. We got a release from Broderbund, and there were some problems with the marketing at the time -- the whole marketing staff had quit just before we'd came out.
We came out in May , and at the end of the year, we were named adventure game of the year -- by USA Today and in game magazines -- but we weren't in any of the stores. It was also a time when technology had changed in games, and Doom had gone out and become this viral success, so people were looking for something a little bit different.
But I think the bottom line was that everybody I know who worked on it was extremely proud of the work we did. We're proud that we created this game that could be seen as a new model for adventure games, and had what we thought was more depth and an ending that might break your heart a little bit, and was more moving than games at the time.
Since then, there have been games that have done some amazing things that way, and I think The Last Express will be back. I think it'll be back in some other form. I don't know what it'll be. I think Jordan's success with Prince of Persia over the next 12 to 18 months is going to be phenomenal, with the Bruckheimer and Mike Newell picture coming out, which is [Jordan's] original script.
I think the lesson from that is that the first version of Prince of Persia came out 23 years ago. When the movie comes out, it'll be 24 years. So waiting 10 or 15 years for The Last Express to come out on some other form...because the idea is so interesting.
MN: The Last Express is the stereotypical example of the critical darling that has a cult following -- and has had one since almost the beginning -- but is a total commercial failure. If you look at the statistics, the game would have had to be one of the top-selling games of all time in order to break even.
It's not one of the excessive games where it's like, "Oh, they obviously were paying themselves a lot," because the truth is that we had a team of 30 to 40 core people, all making salaries that were much lower than anyone could've gotten working anywhere else in this industry, working 16 hours a day, seven days a week.
And it was fun. There would be marshmallow fights at 4 in the morning on a Sunday night. But it was all these people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s working around the clock to make this game, and the praise for it paid off. If you look, it was in Newsweek twice -- in 1997 it was a big deal for a video game to be featured as a four-page article in Newsweek. And PC Gamer said it was the best adventure game of the year, and it won all these awards. "Best Adventure Game of All-Time" was given later.
It was reviewed in all these magazines and always got 90 percent and five stars, but it was in stores for, like Mark said, for two months. By the summer of 1997, two months after it had been released, you could no longer buy it.
MM: You can now play it on GameTap, though, so you can still play the game.
MN: I learned how to juggle while I was working on The Last Express.
MM: He means literally juggle.
Like, juggle balls?
MN: Literally juggle. As a producer, the programmers didn't really want to talk to me. They all wore shorts and came in late, and they didn't get me or thought I was going to get them. But they were all juggling. They had ordered these special juggling balls from some woman who sews them, and one guy who was a really good juggler -- he could juggle six balls at a time.
So in order to be able to talk to the engineers and find out if we were on schedule and see what I could do to make a difference, I actually went in there and learned how to juggle. I learned how to pass. Mark and I can pass back and forth, and I can pass in groups of three. It's crazy. We actually had a lot of fun, and had phenomenal parties when we would get together.
MM: And though it did cost five million dollars to make, that really is a function of the fact that it took four years -- and a million-dollar photo shoot is part of that budget.
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