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The Auteur Forum: Mechner and Chahi on Inspiration

January 11, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

Jordan Mechner, of course, is best known as the creator of Prince of Persia -- a game that made waves for its cinematic style when it was first released, even though it did not rely on cutscenes. Eric Chahi's Another World (known as Out of This World in the U.S.) was another early '90s title that pushed the boundaries of cinematic style within the context of gameplay.

Late last year, the two came together to discuss inspiration, creativity, and the idea of gaming auteurs with developer Eric Viennot. The resulting interview was published in French on the Viennot's Blog. Gamasutra is happy to publish this translation, rendered in English by journalist and translator Tristan Ducluzeau.

The interview, which discusses why both creators stepped away from games for a time and the very source of inspiration, contains the hard-won insights of these creators of foundational works.

"A game should be about something, not just about other games," says Mechner. Meanwhile, Chahi teases his unannounced new game project. For more, keep reading:

You both created games which eventually attained cult status. Prince of Persia started one of the most beautiful video game franchises and many critics regard Another World as one of the first artistic works in our field.

What's more, these games were practically single man endeavors. Do you think this kind of approach is still possible today? Does the industry have room for auteurs?

Jordan Mechner: I think it's absolutely still possible today for one person to create a game that will have a major impact on the field. The level of technology and tools available, and the instant worldwide distribution network afforded by the internet, are absolutely incredible compared to what we had to work with in the 1980s. That doesn't make it any easier to do, but it wasn't easy then either.

Eric Chahi: Absolutely. I fully agree with you, Jordan. You can create beautiful works while keeping it modest; you don't have to go down the path of multi-million dollars blockbusters.

Another World

Over the last decade, video game development has gradually become an industrialized process. Is this the reason why you put some distance between you and the industry?

JM: I seem to average one videogame about every five to seven years. That's not very prolific, but it's not the fault of any changes in the industry. My problem is that I also love making films, writing screenplays and graphic novels, and there are only so many days in a year. This was my problem even back in the 1980s, when I had to balance programming Karateka and Prince of Persia with finishing college and writing my first screenplay.

EC: For me, the industrialization of video game development was only part of the reason. Suffice it to say that after Heart of Darkness, I needed to take a break, to clear my mind and explore other avenues.

It is true that by the end of the '90s, the direction the industry was moving in was such that creating a new game was the last thing on my mind. Our field was going through a period of mutation and restructuring as marketing was establishing its iron grasp. In the end, it didn't prevent me from getting back on board. I just needed to take a step back from it all for a while.

Today, things are a bit more organized; I have been working with a team on a new game for a year and a half now. Actually, Jordan, I have the opposite problem: when I start working on a game, it becomes an obsession. It's all I can think about until it's done and it's difficult for me to do anything else.

Many people still picture developers as geeks stuck in front of their screen, but both of you are passionate about things that don't have anything to do with video games: Eric is into painting and volcanoes while Jordan is interested in the Templars, comics, and cinema. Do you use these as a source of inspiration or are video games simply one of your many areas of interest?

JM: In all creative fields, innovation comes from combining things that haven't been put together before. If you immerse yourself too single-mindedly in your chosen art form, whether it's video games, movies, comics or whatever, your work can easily become just a reflection of what others are doing in that field, rather than breaking new ground. A game should be about something, not just about other games.

EC: Video games have to find their inspiration somewhere. Unless you are aiming for a completely abstract game, the interactive material from which video games are formed relies on symbols, codes, behaviors, rules, perspectives, points of view and emotions, all of which stem from our experiences outside video games.

Video games, like other expressive forms, cannot exist in a vacuum, they cannot feed on themselves. Video game creators draw from the real world, from their passions. All these inspirations brew in their subconscious until they find their definitive form, whether it ends up as something new or not.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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Reid Kimball
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Great interview with two guys who have made a lasting impression on me with their games, the PoP series and Another World. The 1-3-2 advice is completely true. There may be blockers that do need to be sorted, but they will be much easier to surmount after some work has been done and momentum picks up.

Andrew Spearin
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One of the finest discussions on game design I've read in a while!

Good to know my intuition seems to be taking me in the right direction... I hope other budding game designers are left with the same impression!

Michael Murphy
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"If you immerse yourself too single-mindedly in your chosen art form, whether it's video games, movies, comics or whatever, your work can easily become just a reflection of what others are doing in that field, rather than breaking new ground. A game should be about something, not just about other games. "

Too true, as a young hopeful game design student our class was assigned to model a 3D racing enviroment or connecting series of rooms (for FPS) complete with a gameplay theme, setting and rules. So many of these followed concurrent industary trends. For those who choose Indoor locations? Spacestations, corridors or zombie infested clubs, buildings etc. I noticed those who choose outdoor locations to have much more varied ideas and settings. Such as a racing track in a garden, familar of micromachines. A futuristic complex of interconneting tubes system for high speed racing. A ratrace steampunk around the world get-to-A-to-B town racer. A real life dash simulator based of our town incorpating concepts such as traffic and real life driving rules. A parkor on foot racer set in shack based slums using changing enviroments.

All work was very well done and passionate, but it perturbs me that to be considered creative all you have to do in create what does not exisit.

Tim Carter
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This is the conundrum I found myself when teaching game narrative design. How will these students gain outside world experience when they have been sealed into the self-contained world of game development? How will they have a basis to drawn on? They'll know everything about how to implement technology, but their experience in the outside world will be a quarter-of-an-inch deep.

Christian Nutt
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@Tim, The solution seems simple -- well, not simple, but doable. When I went to the Academy of the Arts in the '90s for the Writing for Media and Performance program, which was really geared towards scriptwriting for film/TV (as well as some, cough, "multimedia") there was every attempt to get us reading and absorbing.

For one, we -- alongside the animation students -- had two semesters of film history classes as core curriculum OF THE MAJOR. I think this is incalculably valuable. We watched and wrote about a ton of films. Some of the animation students hated it and didn't see why, but most got into the experience.

Second, our 100 level writing class didn't even expose us to screenplays. We did genres of literature and produced short stories in those genres. It did a ton for my appreciation for literature and ability to write in genre while still being practical to my end goal and I understood that completely.

We also had a core curriculum class called "modernism" that took in every medium (film, art, dance, etc.) Theoretically your students should have some core curriculum classes if nothing else, right?

Obviously, I don't know how much control you have over the curriculum. Even if you don't have much, you probably can talk to the person running the program if you perceive a deficiency in the education of your students, to try and slip in some more culture. Hell, show a movie every semester and have them remake it as a game -- and, like, a real movie.

This message brought to you in part by The Society To Stop Game Developers Remaking The Matrix, Aliens, Lord of the Rings and Star Wars.

Brian Handy
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Personally (as a sophomore pursuing a career in Art Games) I've actually found that the path less traveled is far more rewarding. I'm down in Southern California at Loyola Marymount, a liberal arts school with no Game Design major. Nada. My major is in Multimedia Arts, with a minor in Computer Science, but my range of classmates here is as diverse as it gets. It's a small school, so it's rare to find someone else with an appreciation for video games from the industry side, but a large majority of the students here have an interest in one form of arts. Whether it's Animation, Film and Television, Literature, Fine Arts, Theater, Dance, Music, Graphic Design or Recording Arts, I'm getting a lot of exposure to a wide diversity of artistic mediums.

It seems to be paying off too. I often find myself looking to other mediums for similar ways to express the same message. Recently I found myself looking up Film Noir on Wikipedia, and trying to familiarize myself with names like Vivaldi in Classical music. The industry really dried up after the switch to 3d and the mainstreaming of the market, and I really hope there are more people out there like myself who are interested in actually expanding the culture of video games. (I would reference the indie game Love as an example of the kind of stuff that interests me)

If anyone knows of any such individuals, I would gladly ask to be sent their way. Currently, aside from this article, I have not run into this viewpoint often. Then again, I have only recently begun to regular Gamasutra's featured articles. (and I have no intent of stopping that any time soon)

Tim Carter
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Well, I think you need to have outside experience to design a game that draws on life. And I mean *outside experience*. Oliver Stone had a Bronze Star for combat in Vietnam - that shows in the script for Platoon. (You might say the same about Norman Mailer and The Naked And The Dead.) John Le Carre was an actual spy - that shows in his novels, like The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. Joseph Wambaugh was a cop when he wrote the gritty true-to-life novel The New Centurions. If you have military experience, you probably might agree with me that anybody who doesn't have it can't design a military-themed game worth sh*t (pardon my French). That's just one example. (Though, to be honest, Stephen Crane was not a Civil War vet, and yet real Civil War vets said The Red Badge of Courage was absolutely realistic in its depiction of the inner dimension of war.)

If you want to bring a true-to-life dimension to a game, how can this be any different? Are game designers somehow exempt from this kind of primal research? That is, if you *really* care about quality.

Matt Cascio
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It's articles like this that keep me coming back to this site time and again. As a student/aspiring game designer, hearing these two men speak about video games the way they do inspires me to not give up on my dream. It also shows me I am not the only one out there who desperately wants to see the medium be pushed in new and exciting directions, far and away from the bland, sequel filled times of today (You're not the only one Brian Handy).

I just want to say thank you to these two men who clearly understand the true meanings of game design and decide to share their knowledge with the rest of the world.

Brandon Sheffield
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People should note that Viennot is a bit of an auteur himself, as a pioneer in interactive fiction and ARGs with the game In Memoriam. See here:

jaime kuroiwa
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@Tim Carter:

I've always been taught, "write what you know," but I don't believe that required firsthand experience; it meant I needed to be sincere. "Sincerity" is what I believe is lacking in most games nowadays, not the presence of "outside experience."

The magic (for me) of Prince of Persia and Out of This World were in Mr. Mechner's and Mr. Chahi's creative solutions to animation and hardware limitations for telling the story, not necessarily the story itself. While their "outside experience" certainly contributed to the game's success, it was obvious that they had used them for the sake of the game, not the audience.

Christian Nutt
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@Tim, One is addressable by curriculum and one is not. I also don't think there's any replacement for real experience, but that's not something an educator can really control.

Andrew Spearin
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Brian, you're definitely not alone. Maybe check out for some names. Seems sparse right now, but something to follow.

Also, if anyone is interested in a longer response to this article about the outsider perspective, I wrote a blog about it:

David Boudreau
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The 1-3-2 order has been described before in a business context (I don't know the source) expressed as, "ready, fire, aim" (and repeat often). Maybe this is even what the interviewee's friend was referring to in the first place.

Igor Hardy
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Excellent advice from two game design legends. Interesting to learn that the working pace (on games) of these two guys is not the industry's preferred model of someone who sees games as their sole meaning in life. I can see those two approaches among the modern indie devs too, where the average production time is often much longer. Some (very few) keep churning up new and new titles out of love for the process of making games, others spend years on a single project, wanting it to be deliver something important...

Or do they take so long it because they do things the 1-2-3 way and easily lose motivation? Could be both.

Zachary Myers
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Amazing interview, though i wouldn't expect less.

Mr. Hardy: Well, the 1-2-3 way takes longer but it dilutes your original inspiration with criticism. You should iterate only to find what works, not focus on what doesn't; or trying to fix it.