[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.
A Film-Like Production Model
The concept for The Last Express is amazingly strong and coherent for what an unusual game it is, and even the development studio's name ties into that vision -- that sounds a lot more like film production than typical game development, where you have the concept, set up the production studio, and build the appropriate team for the project.
MM: That's very much true. I've spent the last eight years working as a film producer, and every time we produce a movie, we start a production company just for that purpose. People always ask, for tax forms, "Are you a board member or executive of any companies?" I think there are maybe nine for me, because of all the film companies.
There's a lot of research that Jordan did in Europe with a friend of his -- Patrick Ladislav, from France -- whom he had met during some time he spent in Paris.
They actually went and found the last two remaining cars in existence from the 1914 Orient Express. Over the course of history, those cars were used in the wars and kind of destroyed there. They were used for firewood. One of them was in a junkyard in Italy. It was a passenger car. It was a little beat up, but they went in and took a lot of video and a lot of pictures -- stuff that was used later by the 3D modeler to recreate the Orient Express.
They could've bought it, but I think shipping charges would've been too much to get it back to the States. And then, also, I think it was in Yugoslavia.
MN: I think one was in Budapest, actually.
MM: One was in Italy, and the Budapest one was the dining car, which had kind of been converted into a dining attraction, or some ridiculous thing.
MN: "Ride the Orient Express! Dine in style!" It was a really big deal.
Jordan had a friend who had been at NYU Film School when I was there. Jordan would come and work on his friend's movies, and we became friends. We had done a little writing together -- the first early Prince of Persia script attempts for a feature film, which never came of anything.
He knew I knew how to do production, so I did a test shoot where I brought a cameraman from LA and we did a test for a day to see if the rotoscope process would work. There are a lot of tools now that didn't exist in 1993 to 1994, but we did that, and then Jordan asked me to do the main shoot, which was an 18-day shoot.
Mark and I bonded over that, because of all the people who were all programmers and technical people working at Smoking Car Productions, Mark who had no film experience prior to that and was very young -- he was 18 years old -- he actually understood from my end what I was trying to do.
Mark functioned as a second [assistant director]. We hired a first AD who knew how to film and move the actors and do the traditional call shoots and everything, but Mark really was there at all times making sure that things would be right. Technically, we probably had a lot fewer problems than we should have had later on with the integration.
Jordan asked me to stay on after that to be the producer on the game. He had never run on budget before. At that point, we didn't know we were going to spend five million dollars, but we did over the next year and a half to two years. And we kept hiring people, and we had to bring on people from various things, because we were reinventing the wheel.
It was a very complicated process. We were, for example, writing our own sound system, something that you don't really do these days. Now you'd be more likely to write to an API. And we had to write a whole system to deal with frames and the comic book style. We did a whole video transfer, where everything we shot in 16 went to a video transfer house to get non-interleaved format frames, and we would take single frames on little cartridges.
This is all probably stuff that you could do over the internet now. We took those and imported them into our own custom system, which had a custom paint system that originally was supposed to be automated, and then we found out that you really couldn't automate it. So we actually trained a number of artists who at that point were basically low paid but eager young artists, one of whom I'm still very close friends with [and] is now a high-end 3D artist working in Hollywood.
There's also no licensed technology. A lot of the things we did in The Last Express you could never do today. It was pre-digital video, so at the time, the only way you could film images was either to literally shoot on film or on some analog format that was way too low-quality to get the resolution that we needed.
What were those film shoots and recording sessions like?
MM: Well, when Mark says that the days and the weeks were long, nobody worked harder than Jordan. There'd be some times we'd come in in the morning and Jordan would have done a four-page list of bullet points of things that had to be done to improve the game and to tweak it or put it in systems.
We had all the research that we did at the start, and we were really tight about that, and when we got to things like the voice recording for the game, it was really crucial to us that we had native speakers of Serbian and different versions of German.
Anna Wolf speaks in a high Austrian accent; Karl-Heinz Teuber, [who played] August Schmidt, is a regular German and a businessman. We got an English man to do the English character, and real Russians to do the Russian voices.
In a number of cases, we were able to use the same person on-screen as well as in the voiceover -- Alexey, for example, and Chris the Englishman and a few others.
The attention to detail was really important, and we had to spend a lot of time working on the subtitling system -- which stuff would be subtitled and which wouldn't, because so much of the game is about overhearing conversations and being in the right place at the right time. If you play the game a second time, you might hear a different conversation.
And we had the pleasure of actually recording the voices in Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope Studios.
MN: It was just a block away from us.
MM: It was on Columbus [in San Francisco]. We just contacted the studio manager and they said, "Yeah, we rent this out downstairs." So we're being surrounded by pictures of Apocalypse Now and The Godfather I and II, and at one point, Coppola actually called in and spoke to our production manager Frannie, and she just went into a normal conversation with him. She just accidentally picked up the phone.
MN: They were funny about it. They kept asking us if we needed any helicopter sounds. They were like, "We've got lots of helicopter sounds. We've got Hueys..." [laughter]
MM: Yeah, "Anything you need like that!" It was such a cool space, too -- Coppola has such style, so it was kind of an Art Deco space, not that far off from Art Nouveau.
Jordan always had this saying -- the look of games emulates where the designers lived. If you looked at Myst and you actually visited where Rand and Robin Miller were working out of up in Spokane, Washington, it's actually not that different. It's a misty world with lots of wood and green and those deep colors, and we were working upstairs from an antique store on a block of antique stores at Jackson Square in San Francisco.
So in kind of a great sense, we emulated the look of where we were working out of.
Critical (But Not Commercial) Success
How was the game received?
MM: The project took a long time -- more time than we expected and more money than we expected. We got a release from Broderbund, and there were some problems with the marketing at the time -- the whole marketing staff had quit just before we'd came out.
We came out in May , and at the end of the year, we were named adventure game of the year -- by USA Today and in game magazines -- but we weren't in any of the stores. It was also a time when technology had changed in games, and Doom had gone out and become this viral success, so people were looking for something a little bit different.
But I think the bottom line was that everybody I know who worked on it was extremely proud of the work we did. We're proud that we created this game that could be seen as a new model for adventure games, and had what we thought was more depth and an ending that might break your heart a little bit, and was more moving than games at the time.
Since then, there have been games that have done some amazing things that way, and I think The Last Express will be back. I think it'll be back in some other form. I don't know what it'll be. I think Jordan's success with Prince of Persia over the next 12 to 18 months is going to be phenomenal, with the Bruckheimer and Mike Newell picture coming out, which is [Jordan's] original script.
I think the lesson from that is that the first version of Prince of Persia came out 23 years ago. When the movie comes out, it'll be 24 years. So waiting 10 or 15 years for The Last Express to come out on some other form...because the idea is so interesting.
MN: The Last Express is the stereotypical example of the critical darling that has a cult following -- and has had one since almost the beginning -- but is a total commercial failure. If you look at the statistics, the game would have had to be one of the top-selling games of all time in order to break even.
It's not one of the excessive games where it's like, "Oh, they obviously were paying themselves a lot," because the truth is that we had a team of 30 to 40 core people, all making salaries that were much lower than anyone could've gotten working anywhere else in this industry, working 16 hours a day, seven days a week.
And it was fun. There would be marshmallow fights at 4 in the morning on a Sunday night. But it was all these people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s working around the clock to make this game, and the praise for it paid off. If you look, it was in Newsweek twice -- in 1997 it was a big deal for a video game to be featured as a four-page article in Newsweek. And PC Gamer said it was the best adventure game of the year, and it won all these awards. "Best Adventure Game of All-Time" was given later.
It was reviewed in all these magazines and always got 90 percent and five stars, but it was in stores for, like Mark said, for two months. By the summer of 1997, two months after it had been released, you could no longer buy it.
MM: You can now play it on GameTap, though, so you can still play the game.
MN: I learned how to juggle while I was working on The Last Express.
MM: He means literally juggle.
Like, juggle balls?
MN: Literally juggle. As a producer, the programmers didn't really want to talk to me. They all wore shorts and came in late, and they didn't get me or thought I was going to get them. But they were all juggling. They had ordered these special juggling balls from some woman who sews them, and one guy who was a really good juggler -- he could juggle six balls at a time.
So in order to be able to talk to the engineers and find out if we were on schedule and see what I could do to make a difference, I actually went in there and learned how to juggle. I learned how to pass. Mark and I can pass back and forth, and I can pass in groups of three. It's crazy. We actually had a lot of fun, and had phenomenal parties when we would get together.
MM: And though it did cost five million dollars to make, that really is a function of the fact that it took four years -- and a million-dollar photo shoot is part of that budget.
Art, Class Warfare, and Titanic
The look of the game -- rotoscoped and ornate look -- to me, echoes that transition from the old world to the modern era. It is very much a crystallized moment in time of a world on the brink. That's helped by the fact that the game is in real time, echoing the theme of the narrative. It doesn't seem like most games have that strong a sense of themselves.
MN: I think there are games now that are doing things like that -- there's BioShock, and...
MM: I have friends still in the game industry who think that was one of our biggest mistakes. I personally disagree with them.
A mistake in what sense?
MM: That the period of the game is just unappealing to a modern audience -- the end of the gilded age, the end of World War I, and even the artwork of Toulouse Lautrec. There were a few reviewers who, even when the game came out, said, "The look is very ugly." They thought, "Oh, there's these heavy black lines, and it looks like a comic book."
But that truly was the style that was popular in 1914 and that you would have seen on the Orient Express. Our characters look exactly like the artwork that would've been on the walls in the train, but there are definitely some people who feel that that's a period that's just too hard to get into and to wrap your head around.
MN: It's too far removed.
MM: It's very distant, whereas people get more into World War II.
MN: Or medieval times, or Middle-earth.
MM: I think the movie that is closest to our time period is Titanic, the James Cameron film. It came out six or nine months after we finished our game and it was released, but that's two years earlier, in 1912.
Titanic was supposed to come out that summer, but it was still after our game. We both fell in love with this movie. We used to joke about how similar it was to The Last Express. In fact, John Landeau, who is James Cameron's producing partner, was very interested in an early version of the script, and then said, "Oh, this is too similar to Titanic, this movie we're working on."
They both take place in the same era -- 1912 and 1914. They're really about class. After World War I, you don't have class in the same way. You don't think about aristocrats and steerage class, and no one in 1925 or 1935 thinks about, "Is it appropriate for me to go talk to that girl? She was born in a different place than I am." But in 1915, that was very much still relevant. Like with Leonardo DiCaprio's character -- you don't talk to these people. They're from a different world than you are, and they have a different education and different mannerisms.
Titanic has never been repeated, either. That was a one-off, huge success, but nobody raced out and said, "Let's make a whole bunch of movies about the 19-teens and that class warfare that's going on and the emergence of the middle class."
MN: And they both have an American character who kind of breaks the rules. [The Last Express' protagonist Robert] Cath breaks the rules, and DiCaprio's character breaks the rules.
There was a point where people were saying, "Hey, games are going to start to be made more like movies," where you bring together specific people for a project and do the financing and stuff like The Last Express. But in fact that's very hard to do, because you don't get any of the economics of scale -- people who know how to work together and keep working together, being able to keep and use a consistent staff, and being able to use technology over and over again.
But toward the end of The Last Express production and development, we started talking about, "Can we take Robert Cath into the 1920s? Maybe the next game was the Roaring '20s, prohibition, Chicago. Could we do something where, in the same way you're walking around The Last Express and overhearing conversations, you might walk into the big speakeasy, and there would be a singer on stage, and we could have this phenomenal, rich music."
But with The Last Express not making it, obviously we didn't go there, and there is that question of, "Will someone make a game that, without being in a fantasy world or one of the war worlds that we're used to, can give you a great and popular game experience, but maybe start hitting other genres and settings like the way that Hollywood movies do?"
The "I Did It!" Moment, and Exploring Times and Spaces
The thing that appeals to me about The Last Express is that though I may not have had much existing knowledge about that period, that period was so clearly defined and expressed in the game. The game knew its setting, and evoked it in such a way that it made me care about what was going on there. Usually, games deliver settings they know people will relate to -- fantasy, sci-fi, World War II, things that are very much ingrained.
MN: Well, adventure games give you more ability to be more flexible like that, although they do have their own kind of gameplay structures and motifs, and they repeat puzzles and things like that. The one thing you want to try to avoid with an adventure game is the game-stopping puzzle.
But it's funny, because we talk in terms of genres like sci-fi or medieval, but in games, in fact, genres are "first-person shooter" or "real-time strategy," and then you put it together with another element.
The big difference between games and movies that Jordan talks about is that in games, there's no identification necessary. You don't have to go through the same sort of effort as in the movies, because it's all about your action. When you're designing a game, you want to make it seem like a person can do anything, even though it's a limited number of actions. They're making all the choices.
In a movie, you're watching somebody else make choices, but you start to feel for them, and live the movie through their eyes a little bit, even though you're watching them do all of the exciting things. But Jordan would often talk about how in a game, the big thing is the "I did it!" moment. You try something over and over and keep failing.
In Prince of Persia, obviously, it's things like jumping, running, and fighting. In The Last Express, it's things like having to do something that's very plot-oriented by a certain time.
If you don't, we have the rewind clock -- the Fabergé egg that rewinds -- that I thought was a brilliant, advanced interface, and in fact, it was the inspiration for doing that in The Sands of Time. So it did have some value in the long run.
MM: I think games are the perfect medium for an exploratory setting. Broderbund actually had a title called 3D Home Architect, where you could go in and see what it would be like to be in a museum. They're the perfect tool for exploring, in a way that I think a movie is not.
I've only worked in film for the last eight years, but a film can tell a great story, but you can't really explore a whole year. A movie doesn't move at your own pace. It moves at the director's and the editor's pace, and it goes quickly and washes over you.
Whereas, with a game, you can sit there for hours and hours and just explore every crevice. Jordan used to say that the perfect environment for a game is a closed space, be it in the seven cars in The Last Express, or a spaceship, for that matter, or any kind of environment where you can say, "We're going to take a small area and map it out perfectly."
I've always been interested in history, and if you do latch on to a historical period... Some of the things we talked about during The Last Express were doing a game about Jack the Ripper set in 1880s London, perfectly recreating the London Underground just as it's being built in the 1880s, or doing a Huckleberry Finn-type "What would it be like to be on a boat in the Mississippi in the 1840s?" game.
There are these spaces that you can recreate. In The Last Express, we chose the three days on the eve of World War I, real dates in history. We didn't have to make a decision about what the weather would be like. We just looked it up. It's raining on the second day of the game -- Saturday -- because it really was raining all across Europe. There were thunderstorms all across Europe, and so we put it in the game.
MN: Yeah, but then we just had to program it.
MM: Yeah, and that was tough. We wished it hadn't been raining. But once you make a decision to be authentic to the date that you're telling, it's made.
I think a game that does that now masterfully is Assassin's Creed. I adore that game. For Assassin's Creed, Ubisoft decided that this game takes place in 1193. Not the 12th century -- it takes place specifically in 1193, and there are nine people you have to kill, and they are all real historical figures, and all nine of them actually did die in 1193.
The one big liberty that they've taken is that there's no evidence that a single assassin killed these nine crusaders, but that's a game that I feel really captures the feel of The Last Express in a way that's fun and action-oriented, and in some ways, it's a lot more fun to play than The Last Express.
You play in Jerusalem, Damascus, and Acre -- three Middle Eastern cities they've recreated historically. They worked with all these old maps, so if you walked across a plank in Assassin's Creed, at least according to their literature and behind-the-scenes stuff, that's a plank that really did exist in these old maps. All the architecture and buildings -- they used real maps of Jerusalem in 1193. It's the exact same thinking we used for The Last Express -- just recreate a small section of the entire world, and let the player explore.
MN: Right. And we thought that that was a world that people would really enjoy. It was rich and very atmospheric.
The Melding of Genres
Regarding what you said about it being the classic example of the critical favorite that doesn't end up -- you guys came out a year before the other big adventure game example of that, which was Grim Fandango, Tim Schafer's last actual adventure game.
MM: And a great title. It was an amazing game.
MN: Certain adventure game elements have now been absorbed into other games. In essence, when you play a campaign version of a real-time strategy game, there's adventure game and puzzle game elements that you're dealing with in there. When you're playing some of the third-person adventure or first-person shooter games now, you'll find there are adventure game elements in there.
Then what Ken Levine did [in BioShock] where you have basically two ways you can go -- you can play good or bad in his game. I think what we lost when the adventure games went out of style with the more twitch-oriented games was that you did lose that depth you were talking about and the stuff that you love, in terms of plot, story, and character. But I think it's just been a matter of time for technology to catch up to that.
I think we're at a point now where it's being melded together again, and a lot of those qualities are being brought in to those more twitch-oriented games. The struggle is, can you make a game that's more of a twitch game with those elements? You want to appeal to that audience, but can you make it so that the game maybe isn't too hard for someone who isn't so fast with their reflexes or isn't accustomed to that? How much are those audiences segmented? How much are they limited from each other?
MM: One genre that's emerged from that, where they've really taken elements, is that concept of the action-adventure game, which seems to be the successor of the adventure game. The way the adventure game has survived is in games like Tomb Raider and the new Prince of Persia, and Uncharted: Drake's Fortune.
MN: It's bringing arcade elements, but they don't feel arcadey when you're playing it.
MM: Or taking a very smooth action game and adding the same amount of story and character and sense of adventure. Action-adventure has been a genre of movies for decades, going at least back to the '40s. The Raiders of the Lost Ark-style movie is exactly the experience of playing Drake's Fortune or