In-depth: Mechner on creation, from Karateka through The Last Express

In an NYU lecture, Karateka and Prince of Persia creator Jordan Mechner looks back on a career of pushing boundaries, and helping games fulfill their potential as a medium that can tell stories and touch people.
Although a New York native, last night's NYU Game Center lecture marked the first time storied game designer Jordan Mechner, of Prince of Persia fame, had lectured in the city. Mechner's currently at work on a remake of his early dojo game Karateka, and while that remake is tightly under wraps, he spoke to students about his career in game design, during which he always asked for more from the medium than it had been accustomed to giving -- a trait that keeps his games well-beloved to this day. "The very first game that I tried to sell was a direct ripoff of Asteroids," Mechner says - unfortunately that was right when Atari had just decided it wasn't going to permit any more clones. The next attempt, Death Bounce, failed to impress Broderbund, but from that rejected submission Mechner ended up learning about Choplifter -- the helicopter rescue game that touched him in surprising ways. "As small as they are, I could feel the emotion of the little characters waving, trying to get my attention... and they seem so happy when they're running towards [the helicopter]," he recalls. And at Choplifter's conclusion, players are greeted with a message reading "The End" rather than "Game Over," and Mechner found himself touched by the little ways games could create emotion in players. "The idea that I got from Choplifter was the idea that a game can have a closed story; it can have a beginning, middle and an end, and if you die, it's not 'game over', it's 'the end,'" says Mechner. That was the idea seed that led to Karateka, and to the aspiration to make games that tell stories and engage the player emotionally that would sustain him for his whole career. He created Prince of Persia right after college, inspired by old swashbuckling movies like Errol Flynn's Robin Hood or Indiana Jones films. He wanted to combine platforming play with the thrill of an action movie, within the limits of what the Apple II would allow. For that, he wanted rich graphical animation to help players view the hero as a real person. His brother David helped him create the game's animations - David ran and jumped around Chappaqua's Horace Greeley High School, and Mechner rotoscoped his movements through an incredibly complex and detail-oriented process. "I was amazed my brother's personality and his particular way of moving came through," says Mechner. David went on to become a neuroscientist: "This was his athletic peak," he joked. The wish to create and edit levels more easily led to a significant investment of time in creating a level editor for Prince of Persia. Then a year and a half or so into the game's development, a colleague expressed some skepticism about Prince of Persia, a game where you can't shoot anybody or beat anybody up: "All struggle and no triumph," in the colleague's words. But Mechner felt passionately about doing a game about logic. In a world of deathtraps, the prince was not himself a violent person. "But ultimately, there comes a point when talking and defending your idea has to give way to handing people the joystick and seeing what they do," he points out. And what happened was audiences were thrilled by the fluid animation, and not much else. "That was the kiss of death; that told me I'd spent a year and a half making a game that wasn't fun... that people were saying nice things about, but it wasn't grabbing them." The colleague continued to insist that Mechner should add combat. Yet the beautifully rotoscoped frames of David running and jumping as the Prince had used up all of the memory available at the time, leaving little room for any other characters. "I'd painted myself into a corner, making this character very specific... and if the enemies all looked like that, it just wouldn't work. The character was designed to be likable," says Mechner. Thus "Shadowman" was born: "This gave rise to the idea that there would be a magic mirror, it would be a trap - that when you jump through it, your evil shadow-self splits off from you, and for the rest of the game... becomes your nemesis," Mechner explains. "And in the end, you have to fight your shadow self one-on-one in a swordfight." That creative idea solved the majority of the challenges in creating a worthy opponent for the prince, although freeing up some memory later on made room for castle guards. Many players were puzzled by the Jungian square-off between the Prince and his shadow self in the end, where killing the shadow results in one's own death, and running at the enemy to reunite the prince and his shadow is the only way to triumph. But it's one of the creator's favorite moments in his game for many reasons, despite the fact that the philosophical justification came later: "All of my explanations for why this is so great conveniently ignore the fact that I was out of memory," Mechner jokes. When Prince of Persia shipped at last, Mechner said he found himself conscious of the "life not lived," and instead of starting another game, he decided to apply to film school at NYU. Since he had no film reel to show, he sent in a tape of gameplay from Prince of Persia, accompanied by what he thought was an eloquent essay on the potential of games as a medium and their relationship to the film and animation world. "I didn't get in," says Mechner. "Clearly, the VHS tape of a computer game was not a film." But he spent a year in New York doing some film workshops, and then he traveled, making a short film in Cuba and learning languages in Europe. "I'd spent so long in that industrial park in Northern California, I just wanted to go out and live life and have the kind of adventures that I hadn't been having until then." Karateka and Prince of Persia had both been widely successful, and fans were eager to see Mechner make another game, but the inspiration wasn't there: "I've never been good at doing things that I wasn't really excited about doing," he says, categorizing himself as the sort of person who needs a burning inspiration to work hard at something. At last, a colleague - the same one who'd pushed him on ways to make Prince of Persia more - gave him the idea to make a game set on a train. The Last Express was a game about intrigue and characters with their own lives and behaviors on an Orient Express train. The finite space and contained character groups provide some inspiring design constraints, so that some interesting interactions would be possible, the train - and time - would continue to move as the train pursued its schedule across Europe. It would be Mechner's only commercially-unsuccessful game, which he calls "sobering... but also great." Except for Myst, no adventure game sold more than 100,000 copies, despite hopes that the adventure genre would be the game industry's ambassador to the mass audience. The Last Express was finished through "a series of miracles," and earned critical acclaim - but Mechner had spent all of his Karateka and Prince of Persia royalties into the game's development, and found himself broke afterward. But when Ubisoft revived the Prince of Persia brand on modern consoles with Sands of Time, Mechner had a new opportunity to realize his vision, and at the busy Montreal AAA studio he felt a long-awaited payoff for all his experience with the challenges involved in pushing -- and ultimately pulling off -- meticulous and uncompromising, often over-ambitious visions. "Every time somebody makes a game, hopefully... it pushes the envelope in some way," he says.

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