The Last Express: Revisiting An Unsung Classic
November 28, 2008 Page 6 of 6
The Melding of Genres
Regarding what you said about it being the classic example of the critical favorite that doesn't end up -- you guys came out a year before the other big adventure game example of that, which was Grim Fandango, Tim Schafer's last actual adventure game.
MM: And a great title. It was an amazing game.
MN: Certain adventure game elements have now been absorbed into other games. In essence, when you play a campaign version of a real-time strategy game, there's adventure game and puzzle game elements that you're dealing with in there. When you're playing some of the third-person adventure or first-person shooter games now, you'll find there are adventure game elements in there.
Then what Ken Levine did [in BioShock] where you have basically two ways you can go -- you can play good or bad in his game. I think what we lost when the adventure games went out of style with the more twitch-oriented games was that you did lose that depth you were talking about and the stuff that you love, in terms of plot, story, and character. But I think it's just been a matter of time for technology to catch up to that.
I think we're at a point now where it's being melded together again, and a lot of those qualities are being brought in to those more twitch-oriented games. The struggle is, can you make a game that's more of a twitch game with those elements? You want to appeal to that audience, but can you make it so that the game maybe isn't too hard for someone who isn't so fast with their reflexes or isn't accustomed to that? How much are those audiences segmented? How much are they limited from each other?
MM: One genre that's emerged from that, where they've really taken elements, is that concept of the action-adventure game, which seems to be the successor of the adventure game. The way the adventure game has survived is in games like Tomb Raider and the new Prince of Persia, and Uncharted: Drake's Fortune.
MN: It's bringing arcade elements, but they don't feel arcadey when you're playing it.
MM: Or taking a very smooth action game and adding the same amount of story and character and sense of adventure. Action-adventure has been a genre of movies for decades, going at least back to the '40s. The Raiders of the Lost Ark-style movie is exactly the experience of playing Drake's Fortune or Assassin's Creed.
They're more fun than the traditional adventure game. There's more action, and there's more real-time stuff, but they're very rooted. They have a sense of story and purpose and movement that I think is very different from an old-fashioned arcade game.
MN: The other key, as far as gameplay theory goes is that, while I know people love great cutscenes, and they're part of so many games, really the key is not to have the game stop -- to be able to give story that you can do as you're still in character and moving around. Not have it stop and be a passive experience, but really be active, kind of like the way Half-Life was able to do it.
That has been happening, and that's what we were trying to do, essentially, with the primitive tools -- like stone hammers -- back in the day we were making The Last Express. I think it pointed the way to some of what you're seeing now.
Interactivity and Choice
MM: Chris Crawford was talking about that exact same point, literally, in 1992 and 1993 -- the difference between interactivity and narrativity, and how they're basically diametrically opposed. The more narrative in your game, the less interactive it is, and the more interactive it is, the less narrative it is and the less you can tell a good story.
Obviously, adventure games lean more toward narrative, and a classic arcade game or classic simulator leans more toward interactive. But I actually think that The Last Express -- even though it's a real-time game, and the train is clearly going from Paris to Istanbul -- in some ways is more interactive and more variable than a lot of successor games. With Drake's Fortune, there's no branching narrative to that.
It's basically on rails.
MM: Yeah. There are 18 chapters, and it's fun because you're shooting things, but you have to shoot 40 things to get to the next chapter, and then shoot 20 more things to get to the chapter after that. But there's no choice.
In The Last Express, before the train arrives in Vienna, there are seven different ways that your character can get to Vienna. Three of them will let you go on, and four of them result in you either getting off the train, having won the game in the middle, or getting killed, because there's a real running character logic, where they're actually making decisions based on what the player has done, where he is, and what he does at that moment. I would say that there's more AI and interactivity in The Last Express than there is in many adventure games that have come later.
MN: It's essentially a very complex series of state machines. That was how it was designed. What we're talking about here is the exact same conversations we were having 14 or 15 years ago. We were talking about this stuff every day. We were fascinated by it, and were trying to break through and make something new and exciting within that space.
I think it's interesting that these same questions exist and these same problems exist, although I do think that the tools are better for getting over it. The only other question really is, "Will there be a big enough gamer audience to buy enough games to cover games that aren't in genres that are tried and true?" Or settings that are tried and true. Will you be able to do your Lawrence of Arabia game? Maybe that's Assassin's Creed. I don't know.
In that amount of time, combat AI and rendering and so on have come huge ways, but it's still difficult to find really dramatic examples of evolution of narrative. BioShock has come up, and it's a great game, but systematically it's not hugely different to System Shock 2 in 1998.
MN: Same team, right?
MM: Because the way he's done it, it's like Aristotle in the Poetics describe fundamental dichotomies -- "You can do either this or that."
Do you want to be told a great story, or do you want to choose your own adventure and tell me a great story? The truth is, we want a little bit of both. Sometimes we're in the mood for more of one or more of the other, but the fact that we're still navel-gazing 15 or 20 or 2500 years later.
I think it's really true, although you bring up a good point. Narrative to me is an area that's evolved the least in games over the past 10 to 15 years. They're more beautiful than they've ever been, they're more fun to play, the controls are better, and they're more fluid, and yet they're not telling better stories. They're not better at telling stories than they were 15 years ago, and I don't feel like they're trying.
Games have gotten so expensive to make, it's actually harder to try some fundamentally new game design, the way that Doom was a new game design or Command & Conquer was a new game design. Guitar Hero is probably the best example of a fundamentally new game design, where someone is saying, "This is something that's totally different."
Looking back, how do you think about your experiences developing this game?
MN: I will tell you this about The Last Express: The Last Express was a great experience. Sometimes painful, but ultimately rewarding in terms of the quality of the product. Terrible sales.
MM: The royalties have been great.
MN: Yeah, right. [laughs]
But I will tell you that there are still these moments. In the Comic-Con panel in that room with Jordan asking who played The Last Express, and a guy shouted out, "Yeah!"
Or when I was in Vancouver for VIDFEST a year ago and I met some guys who had just started up their own video game company, and I mentioned that I had been in video games and produced The Last Express, and I got the jaw drop -- I got the worshipful moment.
The great thing is that the folks who have actually played the game generally have loved it. On IMDb and Amazon, you can read these reviews that, I swear to God, we didn't write.
MM: At least some of them.
MN: The fact that we've inspired people like that -- there's always works of art that don't get their due in their time, and we don't think any less of them for that.
Mendelssohn essentially rediscovered Bach something like a century later.
MN: Yeah. [laughs] Well, hopefully we won't have to wait that long.
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