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The Auteur Forum: Mechner and Chahi on Inspiration

Two creators of early cinematic masterpieces (Prince of Persia, Another World) ruminate on the nature of inspiration, why they walked away from game development at different points in their careers, the shape of the industry, and the process for getting your ideas out into the world.

January 11, 2010

12 Min Read

Author: by Eric Viennot

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.

What do you think should be the primary motivation for a game designer?

JM: For me the driving force in making a game, movie or graphic novel is to tell a story -- to create a world and characters that will come to life in the player's imagination, and give them a memorable experience. The greatest satisfaction for me is when people tell me they played one of my games years ago, at a certain point in their life, and that the memory stayed with them.

The difference with game storytelling, as opposed to movies or graphic novels, is that the experience has to be earned by the player through playing, rather than being a story that's told to them visually.

EC: The primary motivation is to take the player through a playful experience focused on interaction. You have to give him enough choices to create his own experience within the boundaries of the designer's intent.

Those choices can weave a story or not -- you do not necessarily have to tell something or even embody a character. Your intent can be pure entertainment, a philosophical reflection, a feeling, a color, an impression: there are no rules, everything is acceptable.

So we have what the player experiences during play, this instant gratification, and what remains when the game is over. Here the medium becomes the player's memory. In the end, though, the most important aspect is that the player does not get bored!

What are you working on at the moment?

JM: I'm now writing the film adaptation of Fathom, a graphic novel by the late Michael Turner, for Megan Fox (Transformers) to star. It's the first time I've adapted someone else's creation as a screenplay, rather than something I originated myself, and it's a nice challenge and change of pace.

I'm also writing a Prince of Persia graphic novel anthology, illustrated by six different artists, that Disney will publish in April 2010 as part of the Prince of Persia movie launch.

And a graphic novel trilogy for First Second books, illustrated by LeUyen Pham & Alex Puvilland, that's an original story, a swashbuckling historical adventure in the spirit of Alexandre Dumas, set in 14th century France -- the first volume is also due to be published in spring 2010. As well as a few other projects that to some degree overlap the spheres of video games, movies, and graphic novels, too early to talk about because they're still in the gestation phase.

EC: I cannot talk about my new game in case I get told off by my publisher. Anyway, I would rather wait until the project has fully matured before discussing it.

Prince of Persia

Do you still play for fun? What genres are you into? What are the last games you really liked?

JM: These days I mostly play casual games. While I admire the beauty and technical achievement of today's next-gen console games, it's hard to carve out eight or 10 hours to mastering a single game, much less 20.

EC: It's pretty much the same for me, not to mention the fact that games are often repetitive. I can't even count the number of games I've bought and gave up before the end. The last game I completed was Soul Bubbles on DS, which is a truly excellent game.

But to be honest, I'm more interested in another kind of play. Nowadays, I get more pleasure at the theater. Acting on stage with other people is really playful, the interactions are more subtle, there is an instant pleasure to it and it never ceases to reinvent itself...

In general, what do you think about current productions? Which recent developments strike you as important and why?

JM: I can't recall a time when such a large portion of the game and movie industries' resources has been allocated to sequels, remakes, and licenses. I don't think it's ever been as difficult to get major game publishers or film studios excited about new IPs (or original screenplays) as it is now.

EC: This holds true for big budget titles. But at the same time, the means of distribution are more powerful than before and quite accessible to indie developers, so things even out in the end.

As far as evolution is concerned, we are confronted with a variety of systems and interfaces. The interface is the physical connection to the virtual world of the game, but it is also a limitation which strongly defines the nature of the interaction.

In order to change the modalities of interaction, we need to rethink the way of playing, so potentially, it's an important vector for innovation. Blurring our points of reference forces us to explore new paths.

You both hold game design in high regard and consider it the work of an auteur. Can you think of contemporary designers who fall into this category?

EC: Yes. Fumito Ueda for instance, or Keita Takahashi, Jonathan Blow, Jenova Chen. These auteurs use video games to go beyond pure entertainment. Even though they sometimes rely on classic mechanics, their creations express a personal point of few. They are sincere and uncompromising works.

And now, for the inevitable question: if you could give a single piece of advice to a young designer, what would it be?

JM: A good friend in another field gave me this piece of advice recently. He said that most people approach things "1-2-3."

One is the first inspiration, the vision, the excitement. One is gold. One is touched with magic; everyone wants a piece of it.

Two is all the reasons it won't work, or won't sell, or could get screwed up; all the difficulties -- technical, financial, logistical -- that need to be solved.

Three is doing it.

Most people get stuck on two. My friend's advice was to go in a different order: "1-3-2". Skip two and go straight to three. I'd never heard it phrased quite this way before, but looking back, the things I've done in my life that I'm most glad of, I did them 1-3-2. So that's my advice too.

EC: My advice would be to create a game using the means at your disposal. By which I mean, defining a set of rules which doesn't require more than what you can achieve, because creating a set of rules, creating a prototype and playing around with it is the only way to assess whether a game is interesting or not.

For instance, at its most basic, it would mean creating a board game, which requires no programming whatsoever, only ideas. If you have a small multi-disciplinary team, the rules will have to be designed and adapted to meet the technology and development time available. And always iterate, iterate.

Jordan, your advice strikes a chord but I am not sure I fully understand. Do you mean that inspiration has to materialize in the act of creation? Like, realizing fragments of ideas and intuitions according to an overarching feeling, even though they are not perfectly coherent or fit together? And then, taking these building blocks and fusing them in order to let a vision emerge? In this case, is the vision something that resonates from a set of ideas and inspirations?

JM: What I mean by going 1-3-2 is: don't dissipate the energy and passion of the original idea by becoming your own critic (which would be step 2) too early in the process. Instead, jump straight from step 1 to step 3 -- start taking the necessary steps to turn your idea into reality, while you still feel the clarity and strong desire of that first inspiration.

Later, of course, you'll start realizing what the problems and flaws are, and you'll have to deal with them; but you'll be able to handle them, because you'll already have the momentum of a project that's actually going forward. Whereas if you think about the obstacles in the beginning, you can easily end up talking yourself out of doing it at all.

EC: Ah, it's clear now. I see what you mean. It really makes me think about the development of Another World, when creation was always done by experimenting with ideas first hand. I think that nowadays in our industry, we have a tendency to theorize and rationalize creation, which leaves little room to follow the 1-3-2 pattern. Makes one think, really...

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