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The Last Express: Revisiting An Unsung Classic

November 28, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

[Jordan Mechner's evocative 1997 adventure game The Last Express is many things - cult classic, commercial failure, time-reversing Prince Of Persia inspiration - and Gamasutra caught up with the game's producer and technical designer to document its fascinating genesis.]

In 1997, Prince of Persia creator Jordan Mechner's studio Smoking Car Productions released The Last Express, an ambitious adventure game that played out as a tense train ride through Europe, in a compressed real-time version of the three days preceding the outbreak of World War I. Its unusual rotoscoped animation style echoed the elegant Art Nouveau movement that collapsed as war broke out.

Upon release, the game was hailed as an achievement, winning a number of adventure game of the year awards in the gaming press and receiving acclaim from outlets like Newsweek, MSNBC, and USA Today in an era when such mainstream attention to games was rare.

But The Last Express had taken four years to develop and was wildly over-budget, in no small part due to the copious amounts of investment and time required to execute its film shoots and proprietary animation techniques. Furthermore, publisher Broderbund had recently lost its entire marketing staff, resulting in a dearth of advertising for the game.

To make matters worse, key publishing partners fell through and Broderbund was acquired by The Learning Company, focusing its scope to educational titles -- all of which meant The Last Express was soon out of publication, unable to reach the long tail sales on which adventure games traditionally had thrived.

In the decade since its release, The Last Express has gained a growing following of fans who appreciate its atypical setting and its innovative systems -- the unbroken, real-time nature of the gameplay means that on a given playthrough, the player may hear entirely different conversations at any moment, depending on his position on the train, leading to different solutions to puzzles and different outcomes to the narrative.

And as an interesting historical footnote, its player-driven time manipulation mechanic was later revisited by Mechner for 2003's Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Though it never found the audience it would have needed to justify its budget, The Last Express stands as a fascinating fictional recreation of a defining moment in world events, as well as an impressive exploration of a game genre that often trends towards the technically conservative.

Gamasutra recently caught up with two original leads on the project, producer Mark Netter and technical designer and lead programmer Mark Moran, to discuss the game's long development process, the goals and philosophies behind its setting and narrative, early 20th century class warfare, and what games do better than movies.

Creating the Concept

What was the genesis of Smoking Car Productions?

Mark Netter: It was formed in 1993 specifically for the purpose of doing the game. I think towards the end maybe we thought we'd do some others, but it ultimately didn't make sense. It was structured in a way that it was really about doing this passion project of Jordan's. It was also something that we thought was going to be phenomenally successful at the time.

Mark Moran: Smoking Car, the name, refers to the smoking car room in a train, so the name of the company was conceived to match the focal point of the Orient Express and that whole train culture, in what today you'd call the observation deck. I guess smoking is out of fashion.

MN: It doesn't really exist anymore, in trains.

MN: In the car itself, there's the dining room, and then there's the lounge, which is the social epicenter of pre-World War I Europe, where all the great intellectuals and aristocrats and anarchists are all hanging out together, because the one thing that they have in common is that they all drink and they all smoke. That's just a slice of 1914 life. But that's why it's called Smoking Car Productions.

How was the game conceived? Was it Tomi Pierce and Jordan?

MN: Tomi Pierce was the co-writer with Jordan Mechner. Jordan had been living in Paris, and she [Tomi] thought that Jordan should do another video game, because he hadn't actually done an original video game since the mid-'80s. He'd lived in Cuba for a while and made a documentary film, and was just kind of hanging out in Paris.

Broderbund had made a sequel to [Prince of Persia], which he had some involvement with, but Tomi thought that he should do another game. She said, "What about the sentence: 'I was taking the midnight train to Berlin'?"

She had heard this sentence from a college professor when she was at Yale. She was one of the first women to go to Yale in the '70s. She had a history professor who was lecturing their class, and he started telling a story one day with, "I was taking the night train to Berlin."

He was describing this train right after World War II, and she thought, "We should do a game about World War II," and Jordan immediately said, "No, let's not do World War II. Let's do World War I, because everyone's done World War II." There were a million World War II games.

Funny how that was several years before the real onslaught of World War II games.

MM: Well, even when I was a kid, there were those games like 1942, and everyone's been doing them. The History Channel, I think, could have originally been called The World War II Channel, except now they actually have a Military Channel.

MN: The Last Express is pre-World War I. It's the last three nights and two days before World War I, virtually in real time. It's real time sped up by a factor of six.

Two things about [the period], I think, fascinated Jordan. One is the art style -- the whole Art Nouveau movement. Fascinating, beautiful, on the cusp of modernism.

The other thing was that World War I was really the break between the old world and the new world. There were huge family dynasties and all kinds of royalty and sub-royalty in various countries in Europe that got completely capsized by the four years of the war.

So it's a fascinating window into this pre-modern era, just on the cusp of it. In the game, you've got these different factors -- you've got the old czarist, you've got the young anarchist, you've got the Serbian rebels, and the German munitions guy. It was a great chance to really bring those together.

The story was very much like a 1940s noir, like The Maltese Falcon, or Casablanca -- Casablanca in the mix of characters, and The Maltese Falcon in the mysterious object, which in this game is also a bird.

But it also did something original, by putting it back into that moment on the cusp of World War I. Ultimately, the game at the end created a fantastical, magical explanation of the start of World War I.

Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

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Meredith Katz
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Excellent article, and I desperately want to play this game now.

Tim: I think they meant, it wasn't a hazy date "sometime in the 12th century", it was specifically 1193 (in the 12th century) and all that entailed.

jaime kuroiwa
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Thank you so much for posting this interview, Mr. Remo. I recently referenced The Last Express in a comment to Jonathan Blow’s criticism of narrative in games at the Montreal Games Summit, to which his response was dismissive. The Last Express was just one shining example of how games could provide both a story and a challenge without sacrificing either. I hope that this article reaches Mr. Blow so he can revisit (rethink?) the argument.

I can only hope that game studios will use this interview as inspiration for future projects, and the game industry uses this as a path to pursue. I certainly hope GameTap gets a spike in sales.

Jordan Mechner
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Mark and Mark, I'm amazed at your powers of recall. Reading this interview really brought back memories. Just one correction: We tracked down that derelict 1914 sleeping car in a trainyard in Athens, Greece. Also, there's a little graphics glitch on CD3 I've been meaning to talk to you about. I think now might be the time to fix it.

Arthur Protasio
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Narrative plays a very important role in all sorts of media. While a good story isn't exactly necessary in order to make a great game, it does add to the experience. If adequately applied, narrative can in fact play a larger role than gameplay and reveal that there still is much room for it to grow in games.

Nevertheless, examples of great and well applied narratives aren't new, but it definitely is an area that would benefit from more attention.

If it is possible to combine both excellent gameplay and narrative. It is even better to intertwine them and make the experience dissociable. In this sense, Mechner's background of film and game stands out.

Kudos to the article and the game. I wish to play is asap.

Warren Thompson
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Great article, guys.

Jordan Mechner, you're my all-time favorite game designer.

This isn't the place to argue narrative vs gameplay, but I have never agree with the paradigm that "great games don't need a good story".

There isn't a single game in my top 20 list that doesn't have a decent story. Narrative is the reason a lot of people play, even space invaders relies on the fiction of fighting off an alien invasion. The difference is backstory vs emmergent story.

I specifically say this because I've always loved Mechner's games for their writing. The character development in Prince of Persia was a great leap forward in video games, if you ask me, so I don't understand why Americans reject these accomplishments and try to strip games down to their 1981 counterparts. Let's evolve, guys.

But back to the Last Express. The real-time made the game magic, kudos. I wonder if someone could shed some light on something. At the end of the game, if you "lose", the guy tells you a secret... something about the "12th tribe". It's never fully explained what he means by that.

I know there is a book called the 12th tribe, about a theory that Europeon Jews are not descended from Jerusalem. Any thoughts on the "bad" ending?

Jonathan Coster
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A great interview about a game with a great concept. This era has always interested me. I have yet to play this but was intrigued by another great review of it in Edge Magazine a while back.

Stephen McDonough
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"There isn't a single game in my top 20 list that doesn't have a decent story. Narrative is the reason a lot of people play, even space invaders relies on the fiction of fighting off an alien invasion. The difference is backstory vs emmergent story."

I struggle to imagine how a game could exist that doesn't have a story by your definition. And emergent story could be the critical plays and close matches that directed the course of a season in a sports title.

It is not so much 'narrative vs. gameplay' as it is 'emergent vs. scripted story'; the challenge of marrying the two in gameplay. Emergent stories come from the player's interactions with the game whilst the scripted sections are pre-designed narratives from the developers. In most cases games will go one way or another, providing minimum backstory and letting the player roam within its confines, or providing scripting to account for as many choices as possible within the game's confines.

Warren Thompson
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Right, Stephen, that's my point. There isn't a game out there that doesn't have a story.

Or, as Jesper Juul puts it, a game is in-and-of-itself an act of fiction. You're following rules, you're choosing to live within that alternate universe.

The real question, however, is narrative in games and why we shy away from it.

But like I said, this isn't the time or place to discuss that, and there are plenty of articles on this site for the debate. But here is a great game that wouldn't have been the same without the narrative.

John Vincent Andres
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I just found a copy on ebay. I'm looking forward to playing it!

John Ingrams
profile image now have the game and up until midnight 31st Jan 2011 it's only $5 - half price!!! I still have the original in that fantastic big box that also had an excellent design! I get the game out regularly and still see/hear new things, or have new insights about what's going on! :)