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In-Depth:  Prince of Persia 's Mechner On Translating Games To Films

In-Depth: Prince of Persia's Mechner On Translating Games To Films Exclusive

July 30, 2008 | By Chris Remo




Despite getting his start as a programmer with Karateka in 1984 and making his name with Prince of Persia in 1989, Jordan Mechner has never fully settled into the role of career game designer.

To a career that has seen documentary film directing and Hollywood screenwriting, Mechner is now adding a story credit on the upcoming Prince of Persia graphic novel.

During the San Diego Comic-Con, Mechner answered questions about his quarter-century ouevre in a lecture which Gamasutra initially covered late last week.

Ostensibly held to promote the graphic novel, the Q&A session ended up focusing much more heavily on the well-known games and feature film adaptation. It was moderated by Mark Siegel, editorial director of publisher First Second Books.

Siegel introduced Mechner, and explained how the publishing deal came about. "We're known for sort of classy, literary graphic novels," Siegel began. "When I was searching for my favorite graphic novelists in the world, I had this fond memory of Prince of Persia. I hadn't played since pretty much the Apple II days - the first Prince of Persia. I was really, really blithely unaware of what had happened to Prince of Persia in the intervening ten or twelve years."

Blissfully ignorant, Siegel contacted Mechner with the proposition. As he recalled, "When I found out there were all these games, and a movie with Jerry Bruckheimer, I thought, 'Oh, well, nice chatting with you, Mr. Mechner.'" Much to Siegel's surprise, Mechner was receptive to the idea, and the resultant book written by A.B. Sina (who, Siegel noted, "may or may not be a member of Iranian royalty - an actual prince of Persia) and illustrated by Alex Puvilland and LeUyen Pham will be released this fall.

(According to Siegel, internet comments on preview pages have ranged from "This artwork is great!" to "This artwork sucks! It looks hand-drawn!")

"In What Way Is This Even The Same Character?"

After that explanation of the graphic novel's origins, the microphone stayed with Mechner for the remainder of the session. Early on, the designer was asked about the evolution of the Prince of Persia series, as well as Mechner's own evolution as a game designer.

"The last Ubisoft game I was intimately involved in creatively was [2003's] Sands of Time, where I was a writer and game designer," he pointed out, indicating that he speaks mainly as an observer when it comes to more recent entries - but he is looking forward to Ubisoft Montreal's fall entry.

"When I started making the first Prince of Persia game in 1985, I was right out of college," Mechner recalled. "I was really focused just on doing a game, getting the bugs out of it, and being able to ship it. At the time, the job 'game designer' didn't really exist as we know it today. So though what I was doing was designing a game, the job I had was 'programmer' - that was my skill. Designing the game, programming it, and doing the animation were so intertwined."

"I didn't realize until after the game shipped that what was valuable was not the coding, but the design, which was something people could take and translate to other platforms," he pointed out. "Now, there's Ubisoft making new Prince of Persia games, which I kind of have to look at and say, 'In what way is this even the same character?' Yet there's something in its DNA that's still the same."

Mechner raised a question about the nature of the titular Prince, one which parallels questions about other long-running game characters such as The Legend of Zelda's Link, and implied some answers may be coming in the graphic novel. "That's like the graphic novel - are all these different princes of Persia the same character?" he asked.

"What is the prince of Persia? In all these different versions of the story, they could all be conflicting. If you've played the games, and you read the graphic novels, you'll find things that are almost echoes of the game," he continued. "It's not like, 'I remember this scene.' It's a totally different set of characters, a totally different story."

"That Style Wasn't My Style"

In 2005, speaking to Wired Magazine, Mechner voiced his distate for a number of creative choices made by the Ubisoft Montreal team in 2004's Prince of Persia: Warrior Within, a game in which he was not substantively involved. "I'm not a fan of the artistic direction, or the violence that earned it an M rating," he said at the time. "The story, character, dialog, voice acting, and visual style were not to my taste."

Asked about that disapproval, Mechner softened his criticism without actually recanting it. "Speaking of sound bites, I said something once that got quoted a lot of places about Warrior Within," he recalled. "You know, I don't like to criticize a particular game. Basically, what I meant to say was that the style wasn't my style. It's not what I would have done. But I'd rather just let that be what it is - Warrior Within and Two Thrones. And the new game is a totally different style. Rather than focus on that, I'd rather focus on the positive, and hope the new game is really awesome. I'm glad they're taking it in a new direction with this game."

Still, the upcoming Mike Newell-directed film Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, which is based on Mechner's own screenplay, is markedly distinct to the post-Mechner games. "Nothing from Warrior Within and Two Thrones is in the movie," the designer said flatly.

"A Video Game Story...Is Meant To Be Played"

Multiple questions dealt with the issue of translating a game story into a feature film or graphic novel. "Adapting a video game script into a movie script is actually, based on what needs to be done, to write an entirely new story," Mechner admitted. "If it ends up being the same thing, it's because on a deep level it's got the same meaning, similar plot elements and characters, and the same genre. But the way you achieve that has to be totally different."

He elaborated on the differences between the types of narrative. "A video game story is not meant to be, 'watch,'" he explained. "It's not meant to be told to you, it's meant to be played. In Sands of Time, you basically spend the game fighting monsters and being acrobatic. It's fun to do, but it's not necessarily fun to watch somebody else doing on screen. On a movie, you don't necessarily want to just watch somebody doing stunts, you want to be taken on an emotional journey. The awesome action is awesome only insofar as you care about the characters and what happens to them."

As an example, he brought up an early plot point in Sands of Time that effectively turns all individuals in the game world, with the exception of the prince and companion Farah, into sand monsters. "This is great for a game - it turns the palace into a place where he has to do all this dangerous running and jumping," he said. "And everyone he meets is a monster who's trying to kill him, which is great, because the only way he can interact with them is to kill them. But there's no button for, 'talk to someone.' All these other ways of interacting with people didn't exist in [our] game. You can't interact with anybody you meet except with your sword."

"For the movie, despite the differences with the Sands of Time video game story, it's very reminiscent of what the game's story is," he continued. "But you want other characters in a movie - not just the one main love story. You want things that happen elsewhere in the world, not just in rooms in the palace. Adapting from an interactive medium to a non-interactive medium means changes to the story, if you want to do it right."

"The Great Thing About The Myths Is That They're Timeless"

Speaking to his ongoing influences across the franchise, Mechner unsurprisingly cited Persian cultural folklore. "There's a book called the Shahnameh - the Persian Book of Kings - written down in the eleventh century," he said. "It's awesome. I had read some of the stories, but I didn't read the whole book until I was doing research for the Sands of Time game. It's a treasure trove."

"It's a lot of mythology, and it's sort of similar to One Thousand and One Nights, which was one of the other influences on the games and movie," Mechner continued. "Some of the stories from One Thousand and One Nights came from Persia, some came from Syria, some came from China, and so on. The great thing about the myths is that they're timeless. The idea of retelling the same stories, but having them be different, is in some ways the same as what we're doing [in video games]. The storyline in Prince of Persia 1 doesn't fit with the story in Sands of Time or Prince of Persia 3D - it can't be the same prince. There are contradictions, but it doesn't matter."

"The Last Express...Was A Labor Of Love For Me"

Asked by Gamasutra about Mechner's 1997 real-time adventure game The Last Express, rendered in a unique rotoscoped visual style and telling a fictionalized account of the days leading up to World War I, the designer expressed fond memories but also held doubts as to the viability of further games in that style.

"I love The Last Express," he said. "It was a labor of love for me and the team. There are a couple of members of the team here today. They coded the elaborate logic that would make it possible for characters to interact around the train. It was incredibly expensive at the time. It was 5 million dollars - that's the kind of budget where you need to sell millions and millions of copies, and adventure games just don't."

"The audience for adventure games is just a lot smaller than the audience for action games," he said. "I'm really fascinated by the potential of that kind of gameplay, but not any time soon."

"POP 3D Was What We Didn't Want To Do"

Though Sands of Time was highly acclaimed with its re-imagining of the franchise, Red Orb Software was less critically praised for its 1999 attempt to bring the series into the third dimension: Prince of Persia 3D. Mechner reflected on how that game informed the design processes of himself and the Ubisoft Montreal team going into Sands of Time.

"In 2002, when Ubisoft Montreal and I were finding how to bring Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time to next-gen consoles, we were looking at Prince of Persia 3D as an example of what we didn't want to do," he stated. "At the time, a lot of other games that had the basic Prince of Persia running and jumping mechanic. [They] just weren't exciting to us."

It wasn't until the team hit on making a more explicitly three-dimensional game that the design clicked. "I think the insight that really got us all excited was that because it's a 3D world, we could be vertical as well as horizontal," he explained. "You could be running on walls, not just running around. The whole game then became about that, about creating levels around that, and a story around that. Parkour was an inspiration. We were trying to do something that would have the same excitement and impact in 2002 that simple 2D fluid running and jumping had in 1989."

Wrapping Up

Towards the end of the session, Mechner fielded a question about Karateka, his first foray into commercial games and one that laid the groundwork for the impressively fluid animation that was Prince of Persia's trademark. Surprising the audience, he revealed that the series will return, and "it's not going to be in the way you expect."

The Q&A wrapped up with a question about Mechner's game system of choice. "For Sands of Time, which is the last Prince of Persia I played very deeply and my hands know how to play, I played it on PlayStation [2], since that was the lead development platform," he recalled. "Now I have an Xbox 360, and that's the one I play a lot of different games on."

Following the Q&A, Gamasutra sat down for an extensive The Last Express retrospective with technical lead Mark Moran and producer Mark Netter - look for it in the near future.


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