Jordan Mechner, best known for the classic games Prince of Persia and Karateka, founded his own games development company in 1993 to create a point-and-click adventure game. This game, The Last Express, was released in 1997. With its fascinating aesthetics, the unusual World War I setting and real-time gameplay, The Last Express stands out as a unique game experience.
This conversation with Jordan was conducted by Christian Schmidt on Tuesday, August 13th 2019 via VoIP call. Gunnar and Christian, the hosts of Stay Forever, had previously covered The Last Express in episode #89 (in German) of the Stay Forever podcast. Stay Forever is Germany’s leading podcast on retro gaming.
Full interview transcript
This transcript of the original interview is edited for clarity and better readability.
Stay Forever: Dear listeners of the Stay Forever podcast, in today’s episode we have a very special guest, and I am tremendously excited to talk to him; not only is he the creator of several highly esteemed and influential games classics such as Karateka, Prince of Persia, Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, he is also one of the very few game designers who are at home in the art of movie-making, and indeed his games have from the beginning on been outstanding examples of a confluence of gameplay and cinematic technique. And this person if of course Jordan Mechner. Hello, Jordan!
Jordan Mechner: Hi! Thank you. Happy to be here.
Stay Forever: So happy to have you on the show! We’re meeting today to speak about one of your games in particular, and that game is The Last Express from 1997. We’ve covered the game extensively in a recent episode and we reached quite a few points where we wondered “Why was that particular design decision made?”, and so we decided to ask the person best qualified to answer these questions, which is you. I hope!
Jordan Mechner: Well, it’s my pleasure. I’ll be happy to talk about The Last Express. It’s a game that’s close to my heart.
Stay Forever: To put this into some context, can you outline what your role was for The Last Express and what responsibilities that entailed?
Jordan Mechner: Sure. I co-wrote the script with Tomi Pierce and founded Smoking Car Productions, a small game development company in San Francisco, for the express purpose of making the game. And so, for about four years, I was the game designer, director and also CEO of the company.
Stay Forever: Quite a few hats that you were wearing.
Jordan Mechner: Yeah, you can say that.
Stay Forever: So you’re saying “a small development company”. But to my understanding, the game grew to quite a size for a development team of that era.
Jordan Mechner: Yeah, it got a bit out of hand. It was a small company in the sense that we only had one project, which was The Last Express. But yeah, the size of that project really blew up past what I had imagined in the beginning. I think if I had had any idea how big it would get, I would have thought twice.
Stay Forever: Okay, we’ll come back to that. But let’s jump to the origin of The Last Express, because that story starts quite a few years earlier than 1997, and it starts with you living in Paris. Now, the last time we saw you, you were working at Brøderbund in California. How did you end up in Paris?
Jordan Mechner: It was a couple of years after Prince of Persia had shipped and I’ve been in the Industrial Park for three, four years making Prince of Persia. And at that point I had been in front of my Apple II for ten years, from high school through college, making Karateka and Prince of Persia, designing and programming those games. So I really just wanted to get out and start living my life, as I felt at that time. I didn’t want to spend my entire life sitting in front of a computer screen. So I spent a year travelling, I went to Spain, I went to film school in New York, I shot a documentary in Cuba and ended up in Paris, where among other things I really fell in love with French graphic novels. And I had always been interested in European history as well.
Tomi, with whom I worked – she had been working on her own educational software company while I was making Prince of Persia and contributed a lot of ideas to Prince of Persia, as you can see if you read my old Prince of Persia journals – suggested to me the idea of doing a game that was set on a train. Her opening sentence was: “I was taking the night train to Berlin.” She evoked the idea of a train standing in a station at night and said: “Look, that’s European 20th century history at a glance.” Of course I had my own associations, and my first thought was: Well, let’s do World War I and let’s make it the Orient Express. And so I started reading about the World War I period, which until then I think in games had been less well represented that World War II. And I just became more and more fascinated with that period. So the history, living in Europa was an influence, reading graphic novels like Hugo Pratt’s Corto Maltese, François Schuiten, all of these inspirations as well as the old Hollywood movies like The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, The Third Man – which Tomi and I both loved – all fed into it. And so we came up with this crazy story, and before I knew it, I had moved back to San Francisco and we were starting this development company to make the game.
Stay Forever: While you were in Paris, you were obviously done with games, right?
Jordan Mechner: Well, I was taking a break. I knew I would do another game at some point. While I was in Paris, I was still working with a team on Prince of Persia 2. The Brøderbund team was in San Raphael, and it was sort of Prince of Persia 1.5. They started with the code for the first Prince of Persia and built new graphics, new animations and enemies and backgrounds, but it stayed pretty close to the original Prince of Persia gameplay with new levels. So I was in a little studio apartment in Paris building those levels with a level editor and then going back and forth to San Francisco to meet with the team. While I was doing that – which was honestly a part-time job, I was also making films and writing and so forth –, that desire to do a big project, to do an ambitious game that had been used up when Prince of Persia shipped … it’s like a battery that had drained and that was slowly recharging. And a certain point, I was like: Okay, I’ve been away from games for almost two years – let’s do this!
Stay Forever: And at what point in time are we here when you were living in Paris and contributing to Prince of Persia 2?
Jordan Mechner: That was 1992. 91/92.
Stay Forever: And that call from Tomi that you described – I guess it was a call, or was she in Paris with you?
Jordan Mechner: I think it might have been in person. We started talking about the story when I was still in Paris. Tomi had also lived in Paris previously. She ran Brøderbund France for a while. And she spoke French before I did. We had a friend, Patrick Ladislav, who was my best friend in Paris. He was a sculptor. He wasn’t a video game person, but he was a just a really brilliant, well-rounded guy. He got excited about the challenge of researching what the 1914 Orient Express had actually been like. So we placed an ad in a magazine, a French magazine, called La vie du rail, which is a train enthusiasts’ magazine. This was 1993, so it was a classified ad. It just said: “We’re looking for people who are passionate about the 1914 Orient Express”, with a phone number.
The ad ran in the magazine for a couple of months, and then one day we got a call from someone saying: We have the information. Come meet us at the Gare de L’Est. Go to track 1, go through the glass doors that say “Do not enter”, go down a flight of stairs and we’ll meet you there. This rendezvous was like something out of the game’s script.
So we went, and in fact there’s this amazing association of retired French railway workers at the time in the Gare de L’Est, in the basement. We told them what we were looking for – basically floor plans, the conductor’s manuals, menus from the restaurant car, photographs – anything that could help us reconstruct what the Orient Express looked like in 1914. And they said: “Okay – unfortunately, all of these records were destroyed by the train company a few years ago when they needed to clear out their warehouse.” We were crestfallen. This is what the SNCF train company had already told us. And these elderly retired train workers told us: “Yeah, they got rid of them.” But then their eyes lit up and they leaned forward and said: “They think they were destroyed, but in fact we took them home!”
And so they took our shopping list, they went home, and they came back a week later and had everything: They had the train schedules, they had maps on graph paper, they had mapped out every stop that the Orient Express made, what time it arrived on each station, what time it left the station, old conductor’s manuals, everything we needed. It was amazing. And I think, honestly, that was a key moment in bringing us to this determination to recreate the 1914 Orient Express with absolute accuracy as far as we could.
It was really seeing the passion of these railway workers, that they cared enough to preserve this. And just the thought that all of this could have disappeared forever if we hadn’t asked them, if they hadn’t produced it, became part of our core concept. The idea of recreating something that had been built with steam and iron and the most advanced 19th century technology of its time, to recreate this virtually using what was a new technology in 1993 of 3D modelling and rendering, and the idea that not just the Orient Express, which was already gone, but the knowledge of what the Orient Express had been would also soon be gone if we didn’t act to preserve it. That was incredibly motivating and inspiring for Tomi and Patrick and me, and that became the mission which we passed on to the team. And pretty soon we were 50 people in San Francisco working on this strange, Quixotic mission to recreate this vanished 1914 train.
Stay Forever: Looking back on this with more than 20 years of distance – was it worth it? That decision to meticulously recreate the train to preserve that history about to be lost?
Jordan Mechner: Oh, absolutely. It’s one of the things that I’m proudest of about the game. It was certainly annoying, especially to the programmers. The bends at the ends of the train corridors, I don’t know how much that added to the budget and the number of images and renders that we needed. The fact that when you got to the end of the corridor, it bent around, and so we needed to film different movements for the characters to go in and out of these doors. The programmers where very practical and kept saying “Why not just make it straight?” But we couldn’t. It would have felt like a violation.
Stay Forever: You know, what’s interesting is that your game is generally historically accurate in terms of, for instance, the articles that you have in the newspapers and the food that’s served on the train and the wardrobe and so on, but you are prepared to depart from that whenever it suits the narrative. Not so with the cars. They are meticulously authentic.It seems to me that you decided not to compromise with the design of the cars. Why is that?
Jordan Mechner: Oh that’s an interesting question. I think I’ve always loved historical fiction that’s set against a believable background. Alexandre Dumas is the great master. Reading for example The Three Musketeers or Queen Margot, they’re invented stories about made-up characters, but the fact that D’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers are so believable and their adventures are so classic, I think it’s because they’re set against a background that’s been really meticulously researched. Even though they’re made up, I believe that that’s what a Musketeer’s life was like. Seeing film versions like later Hollywood versions of The Three Musketeer’s, when it’s clear that the costumes aren’t right, that they’re using technology that didn’t exist at the time, it loses a lot of the magic of the original works. So for better or worse, that was just a constraint that we set ourselves. That the things that don’t matter to the story – like how the train looks, how the people are dressed – should be as real as possible. And if all that is real, if we can believe in this world that’s being recreated, then we can accept the fantasy, these fictional characters, and the adventure, which is of course a very fanciful fictional story which even has a kind of supernatural, metaphysical element.
Stay Forever: Right. It’s really interesting to hear why this decision was made and to hear you say that you’re proud about making that decision, and I can see why. From a neutral perspective, that decision led to a couple of problems. I have to say that I really like many things that The Last Express does. I think it’s a fascinating and rewarding experience overall and where it has flaws, it seems to me that these have a common source, and that is a prerogative of presentation over gameplay.
I’ll give you an example: Movement in the train – you already mentioned the bends at the end of the cars – is generally considered tedious in The Last Express, and not only the act of getting from A to B, which involves so many clicks, but also orientation. That is: Understanding where I am, finding the right camera angle. I’ve played the game so many times, and I still get lost in my own compartment; I don’t know which door leads to the bathroom and which to the hallway, because they look the same, and my compartment looks the same as all others. The compartments are tight, confined space, and that may be realistic, but it also means that you have a narrow viewpoint, so looking around means you need to look up and down and take a step to the window and then look left and right and up and down again. This could have been remedied easily by making the compartments larger or by changing the look of the doors to make them more distinct, or by making the interiors of the compartments more varied so that players can tell the compartments apart. But I think this didn’t happen because in this case, your prerogative was an authentic representation of what the Orient Express trains looked like.You made that artistic decision, and then you lived with it.
Jordan Mechner: I agree with that criticism. I don’t know that making the compartments bigger would have fixed it. I think a lot of that difficulty of orientation is because it’s a point-and-click game and there’s just something about dissolving between still renders that makes it pretty easy to lose which direction you’re pointing in. It would be so much easier today if it were a real-time 3D game where you can move the camera around. And you could also do more with lighting. That’s a limitation of that type of game design and the technology of the time. And, yeah, you’re right, by choosing a train, which is a confined space, which is repetitive in the sense that all of the compartments have the same floor plan, and the corridor looks pretty much the same in both directions, just that there’s doors on one side and windows on the other – that’s a very challenging environment to set a game in. So those choices we made upfront did not make things easy on us.
Stay Forever: I truly admire the attention to detail that’s in the game, and the train cars look fantastic. They provide a sense of place and the atmosphere of the time and it feels like you are on the Orient Express of that era. So the game succeeds in that respect. I’ve seen few adventure games which are so dedicated to their setting and their time, and it makes The Last Express tangible and atmospherically dense. It’s also intellectually rewarding to recognize the many cultural and artistic references that you have in the game, and I think that is a rare compliment for a video game. And yet I can’t help but feel that the very same thing is also a liability for the game.
For instance, you have two sleeping cars with nine compartments each, but several are unoccupied or taken by the harem, which feels like it’s just there to fill up space. And then you have the journey of the train itself, which follows the historical route, but the last third is essentially just a cutscene that jumps straight to Constantinople. It feels like you had much more space to fill than you had content to fill it. And again I feel that’s just because you made the decision to stick with the historical details and then you had to live with them.
Jordan Mechner: Well there’s that, and there’s also the fact that this is sort of a hybrid game, it’s halfway between being a game and an interactive narrative. And just because of the constrains of production, we had to pre-plan the game, we had to pre-plan that story. If we’re using today’s technology for instance and if we had 3D models of all the characters, then we could just put them into a 3D world and animate them as needed. That would have given us all the flexibility that we have as game developers today. But we chose to film live actors and rotoscope them into the 3D rendered background, which was really an artistic decision that we made because we thought it would look cool. The subtlety of the differences between individuals and the way that they walk, the way that they move and their facial expressions, the idea that by rotoscoping filmed footage we could make it resemble a kind of a hand-drawn pen and ink drawing reminiscent of the Art Nouveau, the Toulouse-Lautrec style in drawings of the time, that just appealed to us. So we did it.
But from a pure game design and production standpoint, that was a nightmare. Because it meant that we had to pretty much know what we would need to make the game, and we needed to do a film shoot of all our actors in costumes, in make-up against a bluescreen background with props that had been built to match the dimensions of the train, with bluescreen door handles and props in the restaurant car. We had to film all of that before we made the game, before we had a chance to test it and see if it worked, see if it was fun. As a game designer, I knew that’s not really the ideal way to do it. Ideally you want to work for as long as possible on an ugly greybox version of the game, get the gameplay so that’s it solid and you know what’s fun about it, and then design the graphics and the characters and everything else, design the assets in a way that’s going to support that. We just couldn’t do that, because those upfront decision meant we had to do it a different way.
We tried to postpone the real film shoot for as late as possible just in order to give us more time to implement as many features as we could, to get the proof of concept. We worked for a year based on the results of a one-day test shoot we had done with just two actors, just to test the rotoscoping, to test the bluescreen, and so that we could at least get one or two characters walking in the train and sort of get it all working. But at a certain point, we needed the real film shoot to continue, we needed to start working with real assets. And so this film shoot … the whole production was really scheduled around that.
Once we pulled the trigger and said, all right, we’re going to do this film shoot – at that point there was no stopping the train. The production became a runaway train like the one in the game. And it was like shooting a feature, the amount of content of a feature film on a soundstage in two weeks – I mean, the pace was insane. None of the crew had ever worked at a pace like that. We would set up a shot, we would shoot it, bang, we go on to the next. It was crazy. There was no time to rest. And within that we were going for subtlety of performance, for interesting camera angles, we had a very ambitious storyboard for all of the cinematics, all of which had to be matched to renders which didn’t exist yet. It was a crazy way to do it.
So yeah, it was a nightmare. But in a good way. That shoot is a fond memory. I think all of us who worked on it, who lived in that blue world for two weeks, certainly never experienced anything like it before or since.
Stay Forever: Did you direct?
Jordan Mechner: Yes, I did. And the producer, Mark Netter, a friend who had just done the NYU program where we had met a couple of years earlier, he was working in production in Los Angeles. So he came on board, he came up to San Francisco first to produce the film shoot, because we needed someone with real experience to do a film shoot like that. It’s very professional, everybody on the crew needed to be good at their job. We couldn’t go in there as people with game design experience and expect to do a film shoot that would work. It’s like a military operation. So Mark produced the film shoot, and then he kind of got infected with the Smoking Car madness and he stayed for the next three years to be the producer of the entire game.
Stay Forever: Did you do any reshoots?
Jordan Mechner: Well, we couldn’t get the actors in costumes back, but we did do some additional shoots with just Cath. The reaction shots where we see the player’s character. That was one day. And we also did a miniature shot of a model train to get the cartoon train that would go through the landscapes, where we see the train from the exterior.
Now, what we were able to do and what saved us, really what made this all possible was the fact that we were using dissolves between still frames. That is wasn’t lip-sync full motion. And that was necessary for many reasons, technical reasons of time, of memory. There are only a few moments in the game where we have full-motion video, during the fights and other special moments. Because we used this this technique of dissolves between still frames, we were able to re-record dialogue.
We actually recorded the dialogue later with different actors than the ones who had done the body acting, the face acting. There was no lip-sync. And in fact, because there’s such a variety of different languages and accents in the game – there’s only two American characters, and everybody else is from different parts of the world and Europe – we needed authentic French, German, Viennese, Turkish accents. So we voice-casted actors without regard to their physical appearance. That gave us much better performances, and it also meant that we could more easily bring back the actors to re-record voices, to record new dialogue. And we did that. We had four or five separate voice recording sessions during our production.
Stay Forever: That was something that worked out very well then, because the voice acting is amazing in The Last Express.
Jordan Mechner: Thank you. Yeah, it worked out very well. And part of that we were able to do something that even now most video games can’t do, which is that we were able to record audio as audio and then animate to – I mean, that’s how animated films are made. Once they have the final performance and the edit of the audio track, then animators can animate to that. Whereas to bring in an actor and show them an image and have them match for example lip-sync, something that has already been filmed … you just necessarily sacrifice performance there, to a certain extend.
Stay Forever: When I read about the making of The Last Express, it felt to me that the story of the production was always told in this heavily frontloaded way that implies that all of the filming and recording happened rather early on, and then Smoking Car Productions spent basically three years just rendering frames of animation.
Jordan Mechner: Oh, we were making the game at the same time. I mean, there were a lot of things that we couldn’t really start until we had the real assets to work with, and there were certain aspects that should have been done earlier but went way behind schedule. The renders of the train – we thought we were going to have all of that, or almost all of that, by the time of the film shoot. We were off by many multiples at how long it actually took to render all these frames. That was just an unfortunate miscalculation which made the production more difficult and tense and expensive in many ways.
Stay Forever: What was so difficult about rendering the 3D assets?
Jordan Mechner: Ah … it was 1993, 94, 95 technology. We were going for a high degree of beauty. And our lead 3D renderer, Donald Grahame, was a real artist. He had a standard for how he wanted it to look. But he really underestimated how long it would take him to render that number of frames. It was just kind of a collision between individual artist timing and the needs of a large team where you have people showing up to work every day, moving ahead on the schedule, and when they think something is coming and it doesn’t come up, that has repercussions all down the line.
Patrick, who I mentioned, my friend from France whose background was as a sculptor – he had also been to film school, we had actually also met on that film program in New York –, he came to San Francisco and ended up running the 3D department. What we had thought would be done by one 3D artist working out of his apartment in San Francisco, we ended up building a whole department with people rendering, setting the camera, setting lighting, building props – we had a whole department doing what initially we had thought that this one person would be able to deliver. And without that we would have been completely sunk.
Stay Forever: If that film shoot was basically the point of no return and that generated all the material you then had to work with subsequently, was there a point during the production where you wished you could go back and change something?
Jordan Mechner: You know, that’s just a luxury that you don’t have when you’re in the midst of something. The train only goes forward. We had a kind of … not a running joke, but this theory while we were making the game that game development environments end up resembling the game that we’re making.
We had visited Rand and Robyn Miller in the woods outside Spokane where they had a made Myst, which was in many ways an important model and inspiration for the game because that was the first game to do photorealistic 3D renders as a point-and-click adventure. And the fact that Myst was so immersive and had worked so well was part of what made it seem like we weren’t completely crazy to take that choice to do essentially Myst with people. But anyway, the woods where Rand and Robyn lived really resembled that island in Myst. And we had chosen for our office building this old brick building in San Francisco’s North Beach, which had that kind of a turn-of-the-century feeling. We were right around the corner from Zoetrope, Francis Coppola’s studio building. That’s where we did our voice recording.
A friend of ours, the late George Hickenlooper, who I had met at university and who went on to become a film director, he had directed a documentary called Hearts of Darkness about Coppola and the making of Apocalypse Now. And one of the key insights in that film is when Coppola remarks that the journey of making the film kind of recapitulated the story of America’s involvement in Vietnam. He said something like: “We went into the jungle, into this place we didn’t know, with all of this equipment, all of this money and all of these ambitions, and we just got in too deep. We just didn’t know what we were getting into. And slowly, little by little, as time went on, we went insane.”
So we had that in our mind and the metaphor of a train, a runaway express train … it seemed like we were living that. When people joined the team, they came on board. When we went on to the next step, like going to the film shoot even though we weren’t quite ready, putting more money into the company felt like throwing more coal into the furnace and building up a bigger head of steam so we could go faster. Smoking Car Productions really was the smoking car of the train.
Stay Forever: Speaking of money … you already mentioned that this got much larger than you initially expected, and the production crew got much larger. How did you finance this?
Jordan Mechner: Good question. Well, in the beginning it was me. I seeded the production with my Brøderbund royalties from Prince of Persia. In 1993, thanks to Prince of Persia being ported to all these different consoles internationally, the royalties were flowing in very generously. So I figured I could afford to fund at least the beginning of a new game. I thought I would just get it started and then we would find a publisher who would take over. I had in my mind a certain amount that I thought I could afford to risk. You know, I was in my twenties, if you’re not going to gamble on a crazy dream when you are young, when are you ever going to do it?
In fact we blew past that amount pretty quickly. And that point of no return of the film shoot – we actually didn’t have our publishing deal yet at that time. I had thought that we would have a publishing deal in place already, but it just took longer, we were still negotiating. And so we faced the question: Do we stop? Do we put on the brakes, stop the train? All the planning that we’ve done for the film shoot, let’s put that on ice until we have some financial security, or do we just go ahead? We chose to go ahead.
Tomi at that point actually lent me some money so that we could do it, because I had used up what I had at that point. And we went ahead, did the film shoot, which was a pretty big expense. At that point I went way beyond what I had considered a comfortable level of investment. And again, even from there, I kept getting in deeper. We got publisher advance from Brøderbund, spent that; Softbank licensed the Japanese and console rights to the game, which saved us. That was a major source of funding. And we spent that too. All of the Prince of Persia royalties that came in during this period … after a certain point they went straight into The Last Express. So for a couple of years my bank account stayed at empty. In the course of development, I pretty much went from being a millionaire in my late twenties to being flat broke in my early thirties.
That was not what I had planned. You know, when I made my little Excel spreadsheets getting into the project – insanely optimistic Excel spreadsheets –, that was not a scenario that I had even contemplated. But there you go. It was a runaway train, and there we were in the locomotive, shoveling coal.
Stay Forever: But you did publish a game in the end, so you did finish the production.
Jordan Mechner: Yes, we finished the production. There were many points where it seemed like we had run out of funding, we had run out of options and we were going to have to close the doors, but every time, somehow, we pulled it out of the hat and kept going. And we did ship the game.
Stay Forever: Sounds like it must have been an emotional rollercoaster for you in that period.
Jordan Mechner: Oh yeah, it was an adventure for sure.
Stay Forever: How did you keep your optimism?
Jordan Mechner: As with any emotional rollercoaster … it’s like charging up that battery. Sometimes you feel like the battery is empty, and you have a dark day. But then somehow you get back up and you keep going. I don’t know, you just do.
Stay Forever: I’m glad that you did.
Jordan Mechner: I am too. Telling it now it sounds like this really dire story, like a traumatic experience, but what’s interesting is that I think all of us, looking back on it, see it as one of the really fond memories and great adventures of our life. And I can certainly, looking back, think of more practical plans, better money-making schemes. From a business point of view, the PC adventure category in 1997 just wasn’t that big a market segment. I wasn’t thinking like a business or marketing person. Like, a real-time first-person shooter, we could have put just as much passion into that and probably done a lot better. But we had a vision for the game we wanted to make, and we made it.
Stay Forever: Can I ask you a fundamental question, Jordan – why did this have to be a game? It sounds like from the inception of the game, that story idea that you and Tomi had, and also the production process that you had with the film shoot etc., that sounds very much like making a movie. So why make this an interactive experience?
Jordan Mechner: I think that was just part of the excitement of the concept. Of course, there had been great movies made that were set on trains. Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes was a reference. But even though many of us had a film background and I had been to film school, and I was also writing screenplays, it was really the idea of doing it as an interactive narrative that really lit the spark, because that was something that didn’t exist. It was a chance to try to … maybe create a genre isn’t the right term, but at least to try something that wasn’t already a formula. You know, that wasn’t just following established models of the past, but actually trying something experimental, that might work, might not. But we were really the only ones who could do it because we had experience making games and we had seen that technology evolve, and the technology available in 93, 94 was already a huge leap beyond what had been possible in the late 80s, when I was making Prince of Persia as a 2D game. We wanted to try playing with those toys and see what we could make, and we were really the only people who had that particular combination of skills and odd interests, plus being steeped in European history and literature in the way we needed to do this crazy thing.
Stay Forever: Why did you feel like you had to start your own production company? Why not just pitch the idea to developers or publishers?
Jordan Mechner: That’s an interesting route not taken. At the beginning, when we started, because of the success of Prince of Persia, there was no shortage of publishers that were offering to back this in various ways. It was really hubris. I thought that if we made a deal with a publisher, then they would end up taking the pragmatic, conservative path and we wouldn’t be able to do some of more ambitious, experimental aspects that we were excited about. Publishers quite understandably like games, especially games that they’re heavily invested in, to follow models of games that are doing well; that they’ve done well with before or that competitors have done well with. It’s just human nature, it’s the nature of the business. So to do something risky and independent, you have to be independent. You have to be willing to use your own money. Because when you’re using somebody else’s, they get to decide how conservative or how adventurous they want to be.
Stay Forever: I think this ambitiousness and the uniqueness of your approach to creating this game is also reflected in the uniqueness of the game itself. One of the brilliant touches of the game is its unique look, this combination of cel-shaded art nouveau characters with highly detailed rendered backgrounds that you already described. And you know what’s fascinating about this look is that it makes the game eminently recognizable. To this day, you can look at a set of screenshots and the one from The Last Express will look like no other game out there, it’s just completely unique on that visual level. That’s terrific! And to jump back to the production process, that look was generated by a patented process; so I looked up the patent, it’s US patent 606 14 62 called “Digital Cartoon Animation Process”, and it was submitted in March 1997, so that must have been towards the end of the game’s production. Do you remember who decided to try patenting this process, and to what end?
Jordan Mechner: Gosh, I can’t remember who first suggested it, but at a certain point, when we realized that this was patentable, and looking at the amount of work we put into it, we went ahead and got the patent. We called the tool “Grabface”.
It’s interesting, because now it’s so much easier to do that. You can do it with a combination of filters, there are social media apps that can actually do a really good cartoonizing. And I think within a few years, with deep learning, we’ll go even further. We’ll be able to take filmed images and instantly turn them into art of any art style that we chose. But at the time of course it had to be done frame by frame and took a lot of computing power. It was really a hand-made process. In terms of automating the rotoscope, it was certainly well beyond the very primitive hand-made rotoscope that I had used for Karateka and Prince of Persia on the Apple II. We had thousands, tens of thousands of frames to digitize and rotoscope. It was quite an undertaking at the time.
Stay Forever: Do you know whether the patent was ever used for anything else other than The Last Express?
Jordan Mechner: No, the tool was never used again. The Last Express was Smoking Car’s one and only game. We spent everything we had and all our energy to finish and ship the game and then closed our doors after it shipped.
Stay Forever: The Last Express famously – and unfortunately – was not a successful game in its day and it didn’t make its money back. What I wonder is: How did you feel about this, what did this do with you?
Jordan Mechner: Well, of course I’d hoped that the game would be a huge hit like Myst and repay everything that we had put into it. But the reality was, there was only one Myst. The PC adventure game category just didn’t produce any other bestsellers on that level.
The Last Express did kind of what you would expect for that genre at the time. It just wasn’t a good business bet in terms of the investment in the game and the expected return for that category. For a while we had to, at least I, willfully delude myself about that. Because in order to keep working so hard, you have to believe that, who knows, this could be a success. This could be that one game in a million. We certainly believed it. We believed in it, we loved it, and we hoped that the market would too.
But looking back, the marketing of the game was a whole other challenge, a whole other question. I don’t think it was particularly well-marketed. At that time, the publisher by then just said: “Look, this is a title that’s in a category that doesn’t make money.” Their projections were, no matter what we do, it’s not really going to do anything. Unfortunately, that was the timing.
Stay Forever: If you could have published this a year earlier or maybe two years earlier it might have been a different environment.
Jordan Mechner: Maybe. But you know, a runaway hit is never something you can plan. Certainly, when Brøderbund published Myst, they didn’t think it was going to be Myst. Most people at the company didn’t want to publish that game, they thought it wasn’t a game, it wasn’t something that anybody would want to pay for or play. And then when it became the best-selling of all games at the time … with hindsight, it was easy to think of reasons why Myst had become a hit, but you can’t see those things in advance.
Stay Forever: There were a lot of Myst clones in that era, and most of them are forgotten today, because they don’t have anything that stands out. Not so with The Last Express. I would never consider The Last Express a clone of Myst, because it’s just a very different experience from Myst. Much more narrative, not so much puzzle-focused and so on. The Last Express stands the test of time very well. Maybe it’s some kind of consolation that The Last Express is now considered a classic?
Jordan Mechner: Well, thanks for saying that, and yeah, we were very proud of it, we were proud of it at the time and it’s great to see that the game is now once again available on mobile devices. Actually, playing it on an iPad with headphones on a train to me in some ways is the ideal way to experience the game because it’s always had that kind of meditative rhythm. As you mentioned, you’re walking up and down a corridor waiting for something to happen, not sure what you’re going to do next. Which is very different from the reliable, addictive “I’ve got 15 minutes, I want to do one mission”, and you kind of expect a certain balance of combat and adventure and challenge and so forth.
The Last Express is more like a novel. It’s going to takes several hours to play through the game, and there are parts that are fast-moving, parts that are slower. That certainly made it more of a challenge to sell. But I think for those players who get into it, it can be a very rewarding experience. Just feeling that you have time to explore, being on the smoking car, finding a newspaper or a magazine and actually spending 20, 30 minutes reading the articles of the time. It’s a bit odd, like why would we go through that trouble? Why would somebody want to spend 20 minutes, today, reading a surrealist magazine from the turn of the last century within a game? But, you know, it’s there.
Stay Forever: The Last Express to me is very much a game of exploration and discovery. It’s important that there are these small things to discover. And a lot of the things that happen, the conversations, the things that you can find and read, are not necessarily elemental to the main plot, they’re kind of auxiliary, but they serve to provide the sense of atmosphere, of location and of discovery, and that’s a huge part of the fun.
Jordan Mechner: Yeah, that’s one of the things that I enjoy most about it and am proudest of. And that’s something that you can’t do in a film or even on a TV series, because there you’re responsible for setting the pace for the viewer. We’ve got incidental conversations between the train conductors where they just talk about their family, they talk about politics, and you can stand there for ten minutes and listen to this conversation. In a film that would be edited down to at most maybe an overhead snatch of one line of dialogue. So the fact that the player can choose where to direct their attention, that’s really something that’s unique to a game. You can’t really do that in other media.
The character of Rebecca … the couple that you can overhear their conversations in the restaurant car, you might wonder about them. You can break into their compartment and read Rebecca’s journal, and she’s actually writing in her journal as the game progresses. What was fun about writing that was not just to create the voice for this character – Tomi’s idea by the way, this character was inspired by Rebecca West, who had written a book called The Birds Fall Down, which included a train journey and the characters that had inspired Tatiana and Alexey, this young Russian anarchist in love with an aristocratic girl, and her grandfather – but in Rebecca’s journal, she’s writing it from her point of view. Everybody thinks that they’re the hero of their own life story. And so for her, Cath, the player’s character, is not the hero. He’s just a guy on the train.
This is something we couldn’t quite be sure how it would feel when we did it, but I think in the finished game it’s one of those things that’s actually sort of cooler and more fun than we imagined. Just a particular thrill that you get reading this character’s journal and seeing that she’s written about us. She’s describing things that we’ve just done. That feels like we impacted the game world in a persistent way.
Stay Forever: Also, Rebecca and Sophie are gossiping about Cath in French, assuming that he won’t understand them. Yet, he does and we as a player do as well. That’s such a nice touch!
Jordan Mechner: Yeah, that was fun!
Stay Forever: Rebecca and Sophie are a couple, and there’s this one scene where Sophie puts her hand on Rebecca’s during the concert and they share an intimate glance. I think that is a bold choice for a game and for its time. How did this come about?
Jordan Mechner: We wanted all of the characters to have their own journey, their own point of view. And the relationship between Sophie and Rebecca is not just that one glance. They had a whole backstory. If you play the game and follow them, listen to all their conversations and you read what Rebecca’s writing in her journal, at one point they have an argument, then they make it up. That moment in the concert is really the moment where, having had a fight beforehand, the beautiful music brings them together. It’s Rebecca who’s the one who loves more in this relationship, and Sophie is the one who’s not quite so involved.
But to tell the story of that couple, who are completely incidental, they actually don’t interfere with the plot in any functional way. Some of the other characters, there’s an object that they have that you need to get, or they give you a key piece of information. Sophie and Rebecca, they’re present for all of the action, but they don’t impact it. That was part of the concept.
And as far as the lesbian relationship … sexuality existed in the 19th century. It’s always been with us. Why not have a lesbian couple? There’s really no reason not to. Just prejudice.
Stay Forever: That’s a very good answer, and it was a very good choice. Just treat it as the natural thing that it is.
So as we’re already discussing narrative decisions that you made, there’s one thing that we really wondered about. The game starts as a murder mystery as Robert Cath finds his friend Tyler Whitney dead in his compartment, and then over the course of the journey political ideologies and intrigue come to dominate the plot, and towards the end the train gets hijacked and of course World War I looms. So there are a lot of tangible things that drive the plot of this historical thriller. The one thing that you’d think that this game doesn’t need is a supernatural element. And yet that’s exactly what you introduce in the form of the mechanical bird, and the entire finale revolves around this bird. I’ll be honest, this made no sense to us. So, Jordan, why the bird?
Jordan Mechner: The story, this script that we came up with was kind of ambitious in the way that it blended, or bent, established genres. We definitely didn’t want to do a whodunnit. It’s a thriller about these particular characters, but it’s set against the political background of the time. Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes did that, The Third Man, Casablanca, all have this larger political element. I wanted it to be that. And I think this came with the initial concept, with the very first one-liner, that you’re on a train, the last Orient Express that’s going from Paris to Constantinople. And by the time you arrive, World War I has broken out behind us.
It starts at that you’re crossing Europe that’s at peace, you don’t even have to show your passport at the border controls, a lot like today we have with the Schengen Area. This was the case for the first time in 1914, you could travel freely across Europe, do business. And so the question is why; why from this time of peace and prosperity – obviously flawed, you still had nations and all the things that divide people – but within that, Europe was more united and more at peace than it had been, ever. So why did the great nations, the leaders of Europe make the choice from that to plunge into mass slaughter, basically to destroy their own countries? All of the governments fell in the aftermath, a good portion of the population of Europe was wiped out. And this led to pretty soon thereafter another World War, and genocide and all of the horrors of the 20th century that we’re still living with the aftermath. Why did people choose to take a pretty good world and just burn it to the ground?
Of course there are plenty of historical answers; Barbara Tuchman’s great books “The Guns of August”, “The Proud Tower”, the particular decision that led to World War I. But from a point of view of a story like this, the answer to that question could really only be metaphysical.
I guess an obvious inspiration was Raiders of the Lost Ark. The ark of the covenant is the MacGuffin, it’s the thing that Indiana Jones and everybody else are chasing. But it represents more than that, and at the end when the ark is opened, and you see that it really has this supernatural power in it, that puts the movie into a different genre. My reaction the first time I saw it – I was a teenager, I was in high school and I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark in a packed cinema in London –, that was a formative experience for me. It was so thrilling. And in a different, more literal way it inspired Prince of Persia as well, the running and jumping spikes and so forth.
But that epic feeling, that as we’re living and struggling in this material world there’s another dimension in which our actions have significance – that’s just a fascinating concept that always resonated and appealed to me throughout my childhood. There’s so much great fiction that uses that in one way or the other. Yeah, maybe we want a bridge too far with Last Express, but that was part of the concept from the beginning, that the answer would take the story to another level, beyond the literal, material plane on which it had been taking place until then. Certainly animes, films of Miyazaki, some French graphic novels had done similar things with different degrees of success. All of that was the inspiration to dare to take it to that metaphysical level.
Stay Forever: The Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark that you mentioned, that’s a bit of a Pandora’s Box. Nothing good comes to the person who opens it, and in this case it’s the nazis who open it, and they’re punished for it. They’re punished for their hybris. We wondered whether the mechanical bird was also a motive in that direction, also a Pandora’s Box, it gets opened and that unleashes the ghost of the machine, because World War I was the first mechanical or heavily mechanized war. But what doesn’t fit for us – if this is a sensible explanation at all – is that it’s actually Cath who unleashes it, an American. This entire symbolism doesn’t seem to fit at all.
Jordan Mechner: That’s interesting. It’s what you said, but it’s also that the firebird is kind of the heart of darkness. It’s the thing within us that drives us to violence. For me, the key thing about Cath in that moment is not whether he’s American or what his nationality is, it’s that he’s a doctor. But he’s also a man of action. He’s taken a Hippocratic oath, but he’s angry because his friend was killed. At a certain point he takes a weapon, he climbs up on top of the train and he fights back. Like Indiana Jones, he takes the lives of people who are getting in his way. And yeah, it’s a mission to save lives, to stop the train. But at what point does being an action hero tip over into becoming a man of violence himself?
I can understand if you question that, if you feel it wasn’t completely successful or didn’t work for you. It’s kind of personal. It’s difficult to explain. It either works on the level of imagery and poetry or it doesn’t. So I can’t really defend it, which is to say that those were the kinds of concepts that we had in mind.
Stay Forever: You don’t need to defend it at all, I’m happy to hear this explanation and it does make sense to me. We already mentioned that originally, the motive of Robert Cath when he enters the Orient Express and finds Tyler Whitney murdered is basically to find out who or what killed him. And one of the slightly vexing things about The Last Express is that the game actually doesn’t provide a clear answer to that, it’s never resolved at the end. Cath seems to have other things on his mind at that point, I mean a lot happened in the meantime. So I’m going to ask you now as the author of the story: Who killed Tyler Whitney?
Jordan Mechner: The firebird.
Stay Forever: The firebird did, okay. How, why? Why did he open the egg?
Jordan Mechner: Ah, why did he open Pandora’s Box? You know, I see the firebird in the lineage of cursed objects. They exert their own fascination. The firebird wants to be opened, it wants to be let out. And of course, it will attack and kill whoever opens it. So I think from the moment that Tyler possesses the firebird he’s drawn to figure out how to open it. It harkens back to a certain kind of Victorian Gothic literature, The Moonstone, The Mummy’s Curse, some of the Sherlock Holmes stories have this thing, the idea of an object that a literal, rational, material explanation for how it works, but you still feel that it’s cursed, that there’s something inherently dark about it.
Stay Forever: I have two or three more questions which are a bit more difficult to categorize, but I would be very curious about your answer. Now, the first one is that we’ve already spoken about the authentic recreation of the train cars and the meticulous attention to detail. However, one detail that seems to be missing from the train cars is mirrors. It’s hard to conceive that there wouldn’t have been any mirrors in the original Orient Express, and there’s even a photo in the manual of the game which shows a compartment with the bathroom and there seems to me a mirror in that bathroom. So you must have made the decision to not include mirrors. Why is that?
Jordan Mechner: Ah well, this was a practical compromise. A moving sprite that’s reflected in a mirror … it would have been another moving part, it would have meant creating a whole other system and a technical challenge for the team. It certainly was possible, but given that we had already bitten off more than we could chew, and we were always over-ambitious in terms of budget and schedule, and I’d stuck to my guns on the bends at the end of the corridor; I went to the mat to win that battle and paid a heavy price for it. To insist on mirrors … I could see that that was not the right battle to fight and that ultimately, we would have paid for it in other ways, it would have meant that other, more important things in the game we wouldn’t have had the time to do.
There is one cinematic where you see a character, Milos, reflected in the mirror in his compartment. But it’s in a cinematic. We had a mirror when we filmed that scene, and so his face was reflected at the correct angle, and so that all worked beautifully and looked great.
But to have a mirror in the interactive parts of the game where you might see Cath, the player’s character reflected in the mirror also posed questions like “What expression should be on the player’s face at that moment?” Would it actually help or would it undermine the sense of identification that the player was feeling with the character? Ultimately, to have mirrors would have been a super-expensive experiment that might have added to the game, but it also might not have worked, and anyway we couldn’t afford it.
Stay Forever: A pragmatic decision.
Jordan Mechner: Yeah.
Stay Forever: The second question is about the German version of the game. Because there’s something odd about the German version and I wonder if you know about that. I have to say that the German version is actually very good, the translation and the voice acting are phenomenal, it’s one of the best-localized games I’ve seen to this date. However, the German translation eliminates any references to Jews. In the original version, Anna Wolf is a Jew, and August Schmidt has some lines which betray his casual antisemitism. And all of that is gone in the German version, and that must have been a purposeful decision. Do you know anything about that?
Jordan Mechner: I did not know about that. It was never mentioned or discussed. I assume it was made by the European publishers who handled the localization.
Stay Forever: Hm. It didn’t make any sense to us at all. We just don’t understand it.
Jordan Mechner: Interesting.
Stay Forever: The last question is also along that line. I don’t know whether you were involved in that decision, but this one is about nudity. Because The Last Express contains explicit nudity; there’s the painting by Franz von Stuck called The Sin of a woman who has one breast exposed, and that painting is hanging at the entrance of Kronos’ car, so it’s really hard to miss, and then there’s the collection of photographs in August Schmidt’s compartment which show nude women. Both instances are fine, I’m happy that they’re in the game. But we were surprised to see that The Last Express has a “Teen” rating from the ESRB. We were under the assumption that if there’s nudity in the game, it’s automatically going to get a “Mature” rating.
Jordan Mechner: Well, maybe if it’s a classic work of art it doesn’t count! I don’t know. I don’t remember being challenged on that.
Stay Forever: Okay. Nevermind. Finally, allegedly at one point you were in discussion with the director Paul Verhoeven about a movie adaptation of The Last Express. At least Verhoeven himself confirmed this in an interview. How did this come about?
Jordan Mechner: Ah yes, well this was about eight years ago. Paul and I met in Los Angeles, and of course I’m a huge fan and admirer of his work. I loved all of his films since his early Dutch films, Soldier of Orange, and then of course some of the definitive Hollywood films of the 80s, Robocop, Total Recall – I grew up on his films. And to me, his last film at that time, Black Book, was amazing. I thought that it was as good as anything he’d done, that it really combined everything that he’d learned in Hollywood with some of the power of his earlier European films. I thought he was on the top of his game, and it was a dream to write a script for Paul Verhoeven to direct. So I showed him The Last Express, or rather I showed him a little trailer that I cut together, I showed it to him on an iPhone. And he said “I’ll do it”.
So we met regularly for about a year. I wrote the script and he was very involved. We would alternate between his favorite French café and his favorite Italian restaurant in L.A., we would go over the story and the characters in detail and he would question the logic. Adapting a game like The Last Express into a 90 minute or 110 minute feature film, it’s a different thing. So many of the things that work as a game where you can spend many hours and digressions and you have a multi-layered plot with many different characters all having their own agendas doesn’t lend itself well to a feature film. A movie, especially a movie that’s in part an action movie, a thriller, has to move at a rhythm. So we reinvented the story pretty ruthlessly.
Actually, I am very proud of the script, it think it turned out well. It’s a very different thing from the game, but I think it worked as a movie and it preserved a lot of the tone. I think people who enjoyed the game will get it. And I also think that it’s a movie that would work for a mass audience.
Unfortunately, we didn’t get to make it. I know that Paul would have made a beautiful film, and we had a script that we were happy with, but at the time we didn’t find the backer that we needed. The film would have cost about 20 million euros to shoot. But it was a great experience writing that script and getting feedback from Paul Verhoeven. It was for me a masterclass in screenwriting. He’s one of the great directors of our time and I really learned a lot from him.
Stay Forever: Too bad! I would have loved to see that movie.
Jordan Mechner: Me too.
Stay Forever: You then worked on the Price of Persia movie instead, right?
Jordan Mechner: Yes, actually at this point I had already written the first script for Prince of Persia. So this was about the time the Prince of Persia movie was finished. Other screenwriters worked on it after me.
Stay Forever: Jordan, if you look back at The Last Express now, as kind of closing thoughts, what’s your judgment of the game?
Jordan Mechner: I love the game and I’m so glad that we did it. And the more time goes by, I think the more, looking back on it, we see the permanent value that was created. The friendships that were forged between the people that worked on the game, the strong memories we have of moments in the production, and then just the fact that it exists and that it’s still out there, and that even now, 25 years later, a new generation of gamers can discover it, can play it on a mobile device or on PC. That’s a bonus. We didn’t really have any right to think that that would be possible when we made it. So all of that makes me happy. And the things that were frustrating at the time, the business challenges, what happened to the marketing, how well it sold, those things fade away. They get less important as time goes by whereas the other things become more important. It was really a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I feel privileged to have been able to work with that team at that time to create it.
Stay Forever: I’m also very happy that the game exists, not just because it is a fascinating experience to play, but also that in a sense it demonstrates what games can strive to be, what they can accomplish, in terms of finding unique solutions to narrative, and in terms of the style, in terms of explorative aspect, in the glimpse of a historical period that it provides; it is unique in almost every sense and that is a tremendous achievement. So thank you so much, Jordan, for creating the game and also thank you a lot for taking the time to talk to us and answering all my questions.
Jordan Mechner: Oh thank you, it’s been my pleasure.
Stay Forever: Your journals from the time when you created Prince of Persia will be turned into a book, and I highly recommend them, I’ve read the version that you published on your website. I assume the book will have additional content?
Jordan Mechner: Yes, Stripe Press suggested doing a Deluxe Edition, which would contain visuals as well as the text of the journal entries. Actually, The Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, New York has my archives. A few years ago I gave them all of the old working materials from my first games Karateka, Prince of Persia and also of The Last Express. They have it all.
It’s funny the timing of this call because one thing I’m doing this week is I’ve been going through these old archives and looking at the scans of my sketchbooks and correspondence and things, to pull out the visuals that will be good to add to this Prince of Persia “making of” book of the old journals. But there’s a lot of stuff in there about Smoking Car and The Last Express too.
Obviously, that’s another project, but if anyone listening is up for it, there’s a treasure trove of archival materials about The Last Express at The Strong Museum in Rochester, just waiting for someone to dig into it. You know, like the ark of the covenant in that crate at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, and like the old archives that we found at the Gare de l’Est in Paris about the Orient Express 25 years ago. It’s there if anyone wants to do “The Making of The Last Express”. That’ll be an interesting story for someone to tell, for another day.
Stay Forever: When is your book going to be out?
Jordan Mechner: In the spring. I’ll post on my website at jordanmechner.com when we have exact dates. Stripe is working on it now and the book should be ready in the spring of 2020, pretty much 30 years to the day after the PC version of Prince of Persia shipped.
Stay Forever: Perfect. We’ll keep an eye on that and we’ll also inform our listeners when the book is out. I’m already preemptively recommending it, everybody should buy the book. Again, thank you so much, Jordan, for taking the time. This was a fascinating insight in the creative process behind The Last Express – thank you so much for joining us!
Jordan Mechner: You’re very welcome. Thank you!
Name: The Last Express
Published: 30. März 1997
Platform: DOS, Windows, MacOS, später iOS, Android
Develope: Smoking Car Productions
Designers: Jordan Mechner, Tomi Pierce
Music: Elia Cmiral
Speakers: Jordan Mechner, Christian Schmidt
Audio production: Christian Schmidt
Podcast art: Paul Schmidt
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