Jordan Mechner, creator of Prince of Persia and Karateka, has long relied on amazing running animations to sell his games. How then does one transition into becoming an acclaimed game writer and designer? While that mystery may never be solved, Mechner is currently at the forefront of Hollywood and games convergence, writing drafts for the Prince of Persia movie, and even supervising a new Prince of Persia graphic novel, unveiled exclusively to Gamasutra in this interview.
Gamasutra spoke with Mechner at the Hollywood & Games summit in Los Angeles after his panel on crossing the digital divide, which wound up focusing a lot on game writing. In this interview, we discuss his working relationship with Ubisoft, the aforementioned new Prince of Persia projects, the importance of solid game writing, and the inspiration for the original Prince of Persia on the Apple II.
So you don't technically work inside Ubisoft? Your credit is "the Prince of Persia guy," yet you're not inside the company. How does that work?
Jordan Mechner: Ubisoft and I collaborated on Sands of Time, and I ended up being titled as writer and game designer. But I was never a Ubisoft employee. For me, it was the best of all worlds, because I had the great experience of collaborating with a tough and passionate team. But because I wasn't a part of Ubisoft, I also had a little bit more distance.
Ultimately, I was there because of Prince of Persia, and at the end of the day, the team went on to other Ubisoft projects and I went back to LA to set about my next project, which was trying to set up the movie version of Prince of Persia.
How's that going?
JM: Great! John August and I set up the project with Bruckheimer and Disney, and I wrote a bunch of drafts of the screenplay. It's in really good shape, and it looks like the movie's going.
Were you actually in-house at Ubisoft when you were working on stuff? Did you have an office?
JM: The cool thing at Ubisoft is that they try to keep the teams together, so on Sands of Time, everybody was on one floor in a big open space. Even Yannis Mallat, who was the producer of the project. He didn't have an office so he could close the door. He just had a desk.
That has a lot of big advantages, but the big one is that it promotes a lot of cross-pollination. Everybody on the project, no matter what their job is -- it feels like everybody's working on the same project.
It's not like some studios that have a separate ghetto for programmers. For me, for the first year of the project, I actually commuted between Montreal and Los Angeles where I live.
From my involvement in the beginning, we didn't foresee it being as intensive as it ended up being. Initially, I was just a consultant, and everything just grew from there. I ended up moving to Montreal with my family for the last phase of the project.
I actually talked to Yannis recently about their new digital initiative. Are you planning anything within that world?
JM: You should probably talk to Ben about that.
It just seems like a good place for a writer to be, because there's going to be a lot of writing involved in the stuff they're trying to do.
JM: That's one of the things that came up on the panel today: what role can a screenwriter or film writer play in video games? I'm not really a game writer, in that sense. I'm credited as the writer on Sands of Time and The Last Express, but I think my main involvement in those projects was really as a designer. Writing the dialogue and directing voice actors just made sense for a lot of reasons, for me to play that role on those projects. I've never written a game that I wasn't also designing.
(Transformers: The Movie writer) Flint Dille said in the panel you moderated that you can't just be a writer for games. I don't agree! I know of projects where they just need someone to write the stuff, and it can be okay. I think you obviously wind up having some designer role, but it can be that the writing was primary, and the designing was ancillary, or it could be the other way around.
JM: I can't speak for other projects, but in my experience, I feel that my biggest contribution was to help shape the game in the way that other game designers do, and if I can make that contribution more concrete by providing actual screenplay pages and dialogue, that's great. But I feel almost like if I were a composer. There are game designers who are really talented in music, who can also compose the music for their own games. I'm not, but I do know how to write screenplays and dialogue, so that's something I can bring to a project.
It seems like writing is a more direct way of interfacing with the user, actually. What you write is exactly what they see, and in a lot of other instances, it's much more of a group of people guiding the user. In the writing part, it's one-to-one.
JM: I think writing is really more of a collaborative effort, too, than what people get credit for, especially in Hollywood. The bigger question is: what is the story? What's the world of the movie, or the game? The writer's most important job -- more important than writing and choosing words and scene description -- is to provide the vision of what the thing is. It's a rare project in video games where the writer is the person who provides that vision of what this game is: why is this going to be fun to play? What's the player's experience going to be? What's the universe?
Now, in film screenwriting, it's a lot more common that the writer does provide that, but again, it's not the rule. A lot of times, you have screenwriters come on board a project which is already pretty well-defined, like with a Harry Potter movie. If there have already been four Harry Potter movies and the novel that the movie's based on has already been written, the writer's job is really one of interpretation, in hoping to make someone else's vision concrete. Which is not to lessen it, but it's not like the primordial, creative act of bringing something out of nothing.
I think on games, the writer's role on a particular project can really vary from being almost like the old silent film writers. In silent films, they thought the writer's job was to write the words that go on the title cards. The job of actually deciding what happens in the movie was not done by the writer. It was done by the director, or the actors.
Which is why silent films were so awesome and weird! So, speaking of cross-convergence, you mentioned a new Prince of Persia graphic novel. What can you say about it?
JM: Mark Siegel, who is the editor of First Second Books -- an imprint based on the east coast which does really classy, high-quality, European-style graphic novels -- works with a lot of really good talent. He approached me about doing a Prince of Persia graphic novel. Mark did this in complete innocence of the fact that there was going to be a Disney/Bruckheimer movie, and he didn't even really know about the new generation of Ubisoft video games.
He actually came to me because he remembered playing the old Prince of Persia on the Apple II back in the '90s, and had this weird idea that it might make a cool graphic novel. So don't think he knew what he was really getting into! But because of the way it worked out -- Ubisoft's doing the video games, and Disney's doing the movie -- we had this little window in which we could do a Prince of Persia graphic novel.
So we decided that because this was a unique, once-in-a-lifetime chance to do something that literally nobody would answer to, rather than do an adaption of the movie or any of the games, we would just create a completely new, completely original Prince of Persia story.
And you don't have any input on the Live Arcade adaptation of Prince of Persia, right?
JM: That was a great surprise. Ben Mattes sent me a trailer, and it put a huge smile on my face. It looked so beautiful, and I can't wait to play it.
So you don't mind that you don't have any influence on it?
JM: You know, I made that game once on the Apple II. That was enough!
What was the inspiration to create it for the first time, back in the old days?
JM: I had just done Karateka when I was in college, so I knew I wanted to do another game, and I was trying to settle on the world. I thought part of the reason for Karateka's success was that it was set in medieval Japan, which was this exotic, rich universe.
I was trying to think of what could be like that, only different, and I came upon the world of The 1001 Nights. As far as the gameplay, the inspiration was really the first eight minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, where Indiana Jones runs and jumps and spikes spring out, and he jumps across a chasm and grabs on with his fingertips and pulls himself up just as the gate's closing.
It's pretty much just the suspense of those eight minutes that I wanted to extend into an entire game. At the time -- all games do this today -- the basic idea from my point of view was to combine the trappy, puzzley gameplay of Lode Runner or The Castles of Dr. Creep -- which were two games that I had been playing a lot and enjoying -- with solid physics and animation that would have you believe that this character really had weight and mass, and that when you fell on the spikes, it would hurt.
The recent Xbox Live Arcade update to the original Prince of Persia
It was one of the first games that really kept you on the edge of your seat, because it always seemed like he was just about to get killed.
JM: That was the goal. When you jumped in most of the video games at that time, it was a perfect arc, and you'd land safely. But in a movie like Raiders, just the fact that he jumped and he almost made it but he just missed it and he had to pull himself up by his fingertips -- that made it real. That missing and pulling up was something that I wanted to do.
Did you write the graphic novel?
JM: No, actually I'm supervising the writer and the artist. I found a really great writer who is a really unique talent, and he brings a great background richness in authentic Persian myth and poetry.
His mandate was to take Prince of Persia back to the mythic roots of the story, and I think Prince of Persia game fans will be really surprised when they see it. Hopefully they'll like it for giving them something that's deeper and stranger than they would expect from a graphic novel based on a video game.