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Game Design: Theory & Practice Second Edition: 'Interview with Jordan Mechner'
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Game Design: Theory & Practice Second Edition: 'Interview with Jordan Mechner'

December 24, 2004 Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next

The following excerpt comes from Richard Rouse III's book Game Design: Theory & Practice, which has just been released in a thoroughly revised and expanded second edition. The book covers all aspects of game design, from coming up with a solid idea to creating the design document to implementing the gameplay to playtesting the final game. The book also explores the craft of game design through in-depth interviews with some of the field's most experienced and successful game designers. The interview subjects include Sid Meier, Ed Logg, Steve Meretzky, Chris Crawford, Jordan Mechner, Will Wright, and Doug Church. Below is an excerpt from Mechner's particularly thorough interview, covering his superb but overlooked The Last Express, as well as his most recent triumph, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.


The only complaint one could have about Jordan Mechner's work in computer games is that he has not made more of them. Each of the games he has designed and spearheaded - Karateka, Prince of Persia, and The Last Express - has had a unique elegance and sophistication that one seldom finds in the world of computer games. But the game industry has had to do without Mechner for several periods of time while he pursued his other great love, filmmaking. Indeed, it is Mechner's knowledge of film that has helped to contribute to the quality of his games. But this quality does not come through the epic cut-scenes and barely interactive game mechanics that so often come about when developers attempt to merge film and gaming. Instead, Mechner has blended film and game techniques in unique and innovative ways, helping his titles to tell stories visually while still retaining the qualities that make them great games. This is the most apparent in his most recent work, the amazing Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.

As far as game design, it seems that Prince of Persia was a logical extension of what you did in Karateka, and Prince of Persia 2 was in turn an extension of that. But The Last Express seems to be off in a completely new direction. What provoked you to do something as different as Last Express?

I guess I don't think of Last Express as being off in a new direction. I was still trying to tackle the same problem of how to tell a story and create a sense of drama and involvement for the player. There are a number of proven action game formulas that have evolved since the days of Prince of Persia. Part of what interested me about doing an adventure game was that it seemed to be a wide open field, in that there hadn't been many games that had found a workable paradigm for how to do an adventure game.

So it wasn't the inspiration of other adventure games?

No, on the contrary in fact. If you look at the old Scott Adams text adventures from the '80s, it's surprising how little adventure games have progressed in terms of the experience that the player has: the feeling of immersion, and the feeling of life that you get from the characters and the story. So I guess it was the challenge of trying to revitalize or reinvent a moribund genre that attracted me.

What inspired you to set the game on the Orient Express in 1914?

The Last Express

In computer game design you're always looking for a setting that will give you the thrills and adventure that you seek, while at the same time it needs to be a constrained space in order to design a good game around it. For example, things like cities are very difficult to do. A train struck me as the perfect setting for a game. You've got a confined space and a limited cast of characters, and yet you don't have that static feeling that you would get in, say, a haunted house, because the train itself is actually moving. From the moment the game starts, you're in an enclosed capsule that is moving, not only toward its destination - Paris to Constantinople - but it's also moving in time, from July 24th to July 27th, from a world at peace to a world at war. The ticking clock gives a forward movement and drive to the narrative, which I think works very well for a computer game.

The Orient Express, of course, is the perfect train for a story that deals with the onset of World War I. The Orient Express in 1914 was the "new thing"; it was an innovation like the European Economic Community is today, a symbol of the unity of Europe. At the time it was possible to travel from one end of Europe to the other, a journey that used to take weeks, in just a few days, without trouble at the borders and so on. On that train you had a cross-section of people from different countries, different social classes, different occupations - a microcosm of Europe in one confined environment. All these people who had been traveling together and doing business together, found themselves suddenly separated along nationalist lines for a war that would last four years and which would destroy not only the social fabric but also the very train tracks that made the Orient Express possible. To me the Orient Express is a very dramatic and poignant symbol of what that war was all about. And a great setting for a story.

So would you say your starting point for Last Express was: "I want to make an adventure game; what sort of story can I tell in that form?" Or was it: "Here's a story I want to tell; what type of game will allow me to effectively tell it?"

Definitely the latter. Tomi Pierce [co-writer of The Last Express] and I wanted to tell a story on the Orient Express in 1914 right before war breaks out: how do we do that? I didn't really focus on the fact that it was a switch of genre from Prince of Persia or what that would mean for the marketing. It just became apparent as we worked out the story that given the number of characters, the emphasis on their motivations and personalities, the importance of dialog and different languages, that what we were designing was an adventure game. I consciously wanted to get away from the adventure game feel. I don't personally like most adventure games. I wanted to have a sense of immediacy as you're moving through the train, and have people and life surging around you, as opposed to the usual adventure game feeling where you walk into an empty space which is just waiting there for you to do something.

Was this your reason for adding the "real-time" aspect to Last Express, something we're not used to seeing in adventure games?

Of course, it's not technically real-time, any more than a film is. The clock is always ticking, but we play quite a bit with the rate at which time elapses. We slow it down at certain points for dramatic emphasis, we speed it up at certain points to keep things moving. And we've got ellipses where you cut away from the train, then you cut back and it's an hour later.

But still, it's more real-time than people are used to in traditional adventure games.

Or even in action games. I'm amazed at the number of so-called action games where, if you put the joystick down and sit back and watch, you're just staring at a blank screen. Once you clear out that room of enemies, you can sit there for hours.

You mentioned filmmaking back there, and I know in 1993 you made your own documentary film, Waiting for Dark. Did your experience with filmmaking help you in the making of Last Express?

It's been extremely helpful, but I think it can also be a pitfall. Film has an incredibly rich vocabulary of tricks, conventions, and styles which have evolved over the last hundred years of filmmaking. Some have been used in computer games and really work well, others are still waiting for someone to figure out how to use them, and others don't work very well at all and tend to kill the games they get imported into. The classic example is the so-called "interactive movie," which is a series of cut-scenes strung together by choice trees: do this and get cut-scene A and continue, do that and get cut-scene B and lose. For Last Express, I wanted the player to feel that they were moving freely on board a train, with life swirling all around them and the other characters all doing their own thing. If someone passes you in the corridor, you should be able to turn around, see them walk down the corridor the other way, and follow them and see where they go. If you're not interested, you can just keep walking. I think of it as a non-linear experience in the most linear possible setting, that is, an express train.

All of your games have featured cut-scenes in one way or another, and in Karateka, Prince of Persia, and Last Express they've all been integrated into the game so as to be visually indistinguishable from the gameplay. Was this a conscious decision on your part?

The Last Express

Absolutely. Part of the aesthetic of all three of those games is that if you sit back and watch it, you should have a smooth visual experience as if you were watching a film. Whereas if you're playing it, you should have a smooth experience controlling it. It should work both for the player and for someone who's standing over the player's shoulder watching. Cut-scenes and the gameplay should look as much as possible as if they belong to the same world. Karateka used cross-cutting in real-time to generate suspense: when you're running toward the guard, and then cut to the guard running toward you, then cut back to you, then back to the shot where the guard enters the frame. That's a primitive example, but one that worked quite well.

Same idea in Last Express: you're in first-person point-of-view, you see August Schmidt walking toward you down the corridor, then you cut to a reaction shot of Cath, the player's character, seeing him coming. Then you hear August's voice, and you cut back to August, and almost without realizing it you've shifted into a third-person dialog cut-scene. The scene ends with a shot of August walking away down the corridor, and now you're back in point-of-view and you're controlling it again. We understand the meaning of that sequence of shots intuitively because we've seen it so much in film. A classic example is Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window. The whole film is built around the triptych of shot, point-of-view shot, reaction shot, where about half the movie is seen through James Stewart's eyes. That's the basic unit of construction of Last Express in terms of montage.

I thought one of the most innovative design elements in the game is the save-game system you used. Players never actually save their game, but Last Express automatically remembers everything they do, and they can "rewind" to any point in their game they want, if they want to try something a different way. How did you come up with this system?

I'm glad you asked. I'm very proud of the save-game system. The funny thing is that some people, including some reviewers, just didn't get it. We still occasionally get a review where they say, "It's too bad you can't save your game." Our goal, of course, was an extension of the design philosophy that went into the point-and-click system; we wanted it to be very simple, very transparent, and intuitive. To have to think about the fact that you're on a computer, and you have to save a file, and what are you going to name the file, and how does this compare to your previous saved game file - to me that breaks the experience. The idea was that you'd just sit down and play, and when you stopped playing, you could just quit and go to dinner, or use the computer for something else, or whatever. And when you go back to playing, it should automatically put you back to where you left off. And if you make a mistake, you should be able to rewind, like rewinding a videotape, go back to the point where you think you went wrong, and begin playing from there. And I think it works. The six different colored eggs were inspired by, I guess, Monopoly where you can choose which piece you want: the hat, or the car... The idea was that if you have a family of six, everybody will have their own egg, and when someone wants to play they can just switch to their own egg and pick it up where they left it off. People who complain that you can only have six saved games, or that you have to use colors instead of filenames, are fixated on the conventional save-game file system; they've missed the point. An egg file isn't a saved game; it's essentially a videotape containing not just your latest save point, but also all the points along the way that you didn't stop and save. You can usually rewind to within three to five real-time minutes of the desired point.

Again differing from many other adventure games, Last Express offers a fairly non-linear experience for the player, where there seem to be multiple ways to get through to the end. Do you think non-linearity in adventure games is important?

The Last Express

It's crucial; otherwise it's not a game. There are a couple of game models which I wanted to steer away from, one of which is where you have to do a certain thing to get to the next cut-scene or the story doesn't progress. Another is the kind of branching-tree, "Choose Your Own Adventure" style, where there's ten ways the story can end, and if you try all ten options you get to all ten of them. One of the puzzle sequences that I think worked best in Last Express is one of the first ones, where you encounter Tyler's body and you have to figure out what to do to get rid of it. There are several equally valid solutions, and each one has its own drawbacks, ripple effects down the line. For example, if you hide the body in the bed, you risk that when the conductor comes to make the bed he will discover the body there, so you have to deal with that somehow. You can avoid that problem by throwing the body out the window, but if you do that, then the body is discovered by the police. And they board the train at the next stop and you have to figure out how to hide from the police when they're going compartment to compartment checking passports. Either way, your actions have consequences on the people around you. As another example, if you throw the body out the window, you may overhear François, the little boy, saying to his mom, "Hey, I saw a man being thrown out the window." And she'll say to him, "Shut up, you little brat, don't tell lies!"

I hadn't even noticed that.

The game is full of little things like that.


Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next

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