The Last Express
First posted on 15 August 2008. Last updated on 01 March 2013.
- Game Designer/Director
- Jordan Mechner
- Written By
- Jordan Mechner, Tomi Pierce
- Technical Director/Director of Software Development
- Robert Cook
- Art Director
- Nicole Tostevin
- 3D Art Director
- Patrick Ladislav
- Mark Netter
- Programming and Technical Design (Lead)
- Mark Moran
- Programming and Technical Design
- Justin Gardner, Noel Marrero
- Executive Producers
- Jordan Mechner, John Eaton, Tomi Pierce, Jon Hamren
- Assistant Art Director
- Juliana Wade
Today we ride trains as a part of our everyday life. Yet, there was a time when riding a train was more than an optional means to arrive at a certain destination: it was a unique experience. The Orient Express was arguably one of the most famous train routes near the turn of the century, where a passenger could get from Paris to Istanbul in just a matter of days. To endure the long-distance travel, these trains had to be extremely comfortable, far from the early trains of the industrial revolution that carried goods and working force. Beyond being just functional, these trains were decorated much like the interior of a luxurious house. Consequently, these ostensive wagons were the moving pleasure that only the monarchs and bourgeois could board.
Jordan Mechner's The Last Express takes place in a fictional recreation of the Orient Express, only days before the start of World War I. You control Robert Cath as he boards the train already on the move, running away from the French authorities. Accused of murder, he contacts his old friend Tyler Whitney who advises him to board the Orient Express in order to evade the police. On this train, you must evade danger, make allies, and fight enemies to stay alive, all the while interacting with a cast of eccentric and mysterious characters on board. The story weaves through a complex web of conspiracies, lies, romance, and murder that spreads more than 800 pages of text and dialog.
According to Mechner, the choice to use a train was not arbitrary. The train had often been used in literature and theatre as a stage for scheme and murder. As Mechner explained in an interview in "Game Design: Theory & Practice", he had tried to create a consistent playing space for the game. Because computer hardware could not yet allow the creation of a larger space (in the size of a town, for example) at the time, he decided to recreate a smaller space, where characters would still be varied and abundant, but without sacrificing the degree of interaction and detail he sought in his production.
Aesthetically, the game is indisputably flawless. There is little or nothing to improve visually with the rotoscoping graphics. In fact, Mechner is the first game designer to introduce this singular technique in the videogame production with his earlier game Prince of Persia. In rotoscoping, the actors are filmed in heavy makeup and their shapes are then drawn over the film reel, so as to emphasize the lines and colors in an impressionist fashion. Though a technical tour-de-force, this technique is by no means incompatible with the art deco style which prevails during this period of history. On the contrary, it is meant to resemble the work of famous artists like Henry Tolouse-Lautrec who clearly has been the greatest source of inspiration for the developer. Details are abundant, and the animation of the characters, who look or greet your character as he passes by, can only be described as jaw dropping. The game also utilizes 3D modelling and pre-rendered scenarios which, along with the rotoscoping animations of the characters, merge into one of the most stunning visual works in a videogame that is still capable to astonish gamers even today.
The gameplay is deliberately based on the structure of classic adventure games but also retains some of the elements from the early HyperCard styled graphic adventure games. Interaction with items and mechanisms is limited, so that the player can focus the attention on the characters and the story. For this reason, abstract puzzles such as those featured in most other adventure games are not abundant. The fighting scenes, which are more action packed, are also a welcome addition and require the player to either attack or evade the enemy's assaults with correct timing.
Being a train populated with different people from different countries, it may not be surprising to find several characters speaking in different languages or defending different values. What is surprising, though, is that the developer has actually taken the time to provide such an engrossing ambience in the game. The vocal talents are also above any criticism. Subtle as it may be, the orchestral soundtrack fits like a glove in the seemingly real-time action of the game, sometimes a useful foreshadower of events to come. Time is of the essence in this game; Mechner's concern for the passage of time, chronology of events, and correlation of actions is exceptional.
The clocks tick, ceaselessly, marking every minute, every hour of the trip and also registering the player's every move, hence the controversial lack of a saving feature. Each new situation is heavily derivative from the consequences of the player's previous acts, mainly the choices the player makes in key moments of the game. Some may allow the game's main protagonist to remain free or to survive. Others may lead him to an inescapable dead-end, returning the player back to the beautifully adorned, Faberge styled game menu in order to turn back the clock hands and return to the nearest safe point. No dagger required.
Sadly, the game was haunted by financial troubles that prevented it from having a decent marketing push and, therefore, reasonable sales. By the time Smoking Car Productions was already running its final tests to the game, Brøderbund Software's marketing division was shutdown due to financial strains. The company was later bought by The Learning Company which promptly ignored its acquired game title and made no further agreements to publicize or license the game to another publisher. Amidst all this chaos, the nearly completed Sony PlayStation console port of the game was also canceled. In the end, the game sold no more than 100,000 copies and left the developer in financial ruins. The company eventually closed its doors in 1997, after merely 4 years in operation.
However, the amount of time and effort spent by the developer on creating the game has ultimately earned the game a cult status among adventure game fans. Every little detail in the game reflects the developer's aptitude and passion for the medium. Mechner and his distinct team have managed to create one of the most important games of the last decade and an influence to future games to come. Not only has he done it effectively, he has done it with a sharp sense of aesthetic and an expansive storyline, and he has redefined the concept of immersion at a time when the majority of gamers believes that such immersion can only be attained in first-person-shooters. Undoubtedly, The Last Express is one of the greatest triumphs in game history, only tainted by its weak public reception.
Rouse III, R. (2001). Game Design: Theory & Practice. 2nd Edition. Plano, TX: Wordware Publishing.