The only complaint one could have about Jordan Mechner s work in computer games is that he has not made more of them. Each of the games he has designed and spearheaded ” Karateka , Prince of Persia , and The Last Express ” has had a unique elegance and sophistication that one seldom finds in the world of computer games. But the game industry has had to do without Mechner for several periods of time while he pursued his other great love, filmmaking . Indeed, it is Mechner s knowledge of film that has helped to contribute to the quality of his games. But this quality does not come through the epic cut-scenes and barely interactive game mechanics that so often come about when developers attempt to merge film and gaming. Instead, Mechner has blended film and game techniques in unique and innovative ways, helping his titles to tell stories visually while still retaining the qualities that make them great games. This is the most apparent in his most recent work, the amazing Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time . This interview was originally conducted around the release of The Last Express for Inside Mac Games magazine. For inclusion in this book, Mechner was kind enough to fill out the interview a bit, expanding it to cover the full breadth of his twenty years in computer game development.
What initially attracted you to computer games?
Well, it was 1979, and I was a sophomore in high school. The first computer that I ever got a chance to play with was the PDP-11 that we had in our high school. But it was very hard to get any time on it, and the teacher who was in charge wouldn t let the students read the manuals, for fear that would give us the ability to go in and change grades and stuff like that. So it was this guessing game of trying to learn how to get the computer to do anything. So when a friend of mine showed me his new Apple II, it was just like a dream come true ” to have a computer in your own house that you could use whenever you wanted. And it was completely open; you could pop open the top and see how it was made and you could read all the manuals that came with it. And of course, the irony was that at that time I didn t know of any manuals that explained assembly language. So I was just kind of looking through the assembly code of the computer s operating system to try to figure out what the different commands meant . Over the years I picked that up, and more books came out. It was just this great toy.
Did you always want to make games with the computer?
Well, I guess games were the only kind of software that I knew. They were the only kind that I enjoyed. At that time, I didn t really see any use for a word processor or a spreadsheet. I played all the games that I could find, and in my spare time I tried to write games of my own. That was just the first use that occurred to me.
So that was the origin of Karateka ?
It took a few years to get there. The first really ambitious project I did was a game called Asteroids . That was my attempt to do for Asteroids what a game called Apple Invaders had done for the other most popular coin-op game of the time. I figured that if Apple Invaders was a big hit because it was exactly like the coin-op game, then I could do the same thing for Asteroids . But my timing was a little off. I actually finished an assembly language, high-resolution version of Asteroids and signed a deal with a publisher. But just about then Atari woke up to the fact that these computer games were ripping off its hugely profitable arcade franchises, so their lawyers scared everybody off and that Asteroids game was never published.
So then you did Karateka ?
No, then I did a game that bore a strong resemblance to Asteroids except that instead of rocks you had brightly colored bouncing balls, and instead of wrapping around the edge of the screen they bounced off, hence its name : Deathbounce . I sent it to Broderbund (this was 1982, I was a freshman in college) and got a call back from Doug Carlston, who was at the time handling submissions as well as running the company. I was very excited to get a call from someone in the computer games industry. He said, It looks like it s well programmed, we re impressed with the smoothness of the animation and so on. But it feels kind of old-fashioned. Take a look at our new game, Choplifter . Doug was kind enough to send me a copy of Dan Gorlin s Choplifter , which was the number one selling game at the time, along with a joystick to play it with. That was the game that really woke me up to the idea that I didn t have to copy someone else s arcade games, I was allowed to design my own!
Karateka came out of a lot of ideas all kind of converging at the same time. Choplifter showed me what was possible in terms of smooth scrolling and an original game design. Meanwhile, I was getting megadoses of exposure to cinema; Yale had about a dozen film societies and I was trying to see in four years every film ever made. Seven Samurai was my new favorite film of all time. My mom at that time was heavily into karate, and I had taken a few lessons during the summer down at the local dojo. Finally, I was taking film studies classes (always dangerous) and starting to get delusions of grandeur that computer games were in the infancy of a new art form, like cartoon animation in the 20s or film in the 1900s. So all those sources of inspiration got rolled into Karateka. What made the big difference was using a Super 8 camera to film my karate teacher going through the moves, and tracing them frame by frame on a Moviola. It was rotoscoping , the same trick that Disney had used for Snow White back in the 30s. That made the animation look a lot better than I could have done by hand and better than the other games that were out there. I worked on Karateka for a couple of years between classes, and sent it to Broderbund at about the end of my sophomore year. They were pleased and published it.
So one of your goals was to merge cinematic techniques with an action game to create a unique hybrid?
Very definitely. The accelerating cross-cutting to create suspense had been used by D.W. Griffith in 1915; I figured it should be tried in a computer game. The horizontal wipe for transition between scenes I lifted from Seven Samurai . The scrolling text prologue at the beginning. And silly things, like saying THE END instead ofGAMEOVER. I used the few techniques that I could figure out how to pull off in hi-res graphics on an Apple II.
Karateka s actually quite short. Was that a deliberate decision, to keep the game focused?
Well, it didn t seem short tome at the time. Actually, when I submitted it to Broderbund it only had one level: you d enter the palace and have the fight. One of the first things they suggested to me was to have three different levels: you re outside, you re in the palace, then you re down below. I wasn t thinking in terms of hours of play, I just wanted to make it cool.
The ending is a pretty devious trick, where if the player approaches the princess in the attack stance she ll kick him. How did you come up with that?
It seemed like a fun little trick. You only have one life in that game: you get as far as you can, and if you re killed , it s The End and you have to start the movie from the beginning again. So I figured that most players, when they finally got to the end, would just run right into her arms. But it s not a total cheat, there s a little clue there, where she puts her arms out to you, and then if you run toward her she lowers her arms. So that s a sign that something s not right.
But I don t know that anybody ever played that game and did it right the first time.
Yeah, in retrospect that was pretty nasty. I don t know if we could get away with that today. The other thing that we got away with on Karateka was that if you played the flip side of the disk, if you put the disk in upside down, the game plays upside down. I was hoping at least a few people would call Broderbund tech support and say, The screen is upside down, I think something s wrong with my monitor or my computer. That way the tech support person could have the sublime joy of saying, Oh, you probably put the disk in upside down. And the customer would happily hang up thinking this was true of all computer software. I thought it was extremely brave of the publisher to increase the cost of goods by twenty-five cents just for a gag.
So did Prince of Persia grow out of your experiences on Karateka ?
Well, there was a big gap between Karateka and Prince of Persia in terms of my own life. I finished school and I took a year off. I wasn t sure that I wanted to do another computer game. The most direct inspiration there was a game by Ed Hobbs called The Castles of Doctor Creep , which didn t get too big a circulation, probably because it was only available on the Commodore 64. My college dorm mates and I spent a lot of hours playing that game. It had these ingenious puzzles of the Rube Goldberg sort , where you hit one switch and that opens a gate but closes another gate, and so forth. So the one- sentence idea for Prince of Persia was to do a game that combined the ingenuity of The Castles of Doctor Creep with the smooth animation of Karateka . So when you ran and jumped you weren t just a little sprite flying through the air, your character actually felt like it had weight and mass, and when you fell on the spikes it felt like it really hurt.
Another inspiration was the first eight minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark . I wanted to make a game with that kind of action feeling to it. And then there was the Arabian Nights setting. I was looking for a setting that hadn t been done to death in computer games, and a couple of animators at Broderbund, Gene Portwood and Lauren Elliot, suggested this one. I went back and reread the Arabian Nights and it seemed to offer a lot of promise. It had all those great story possibilities which have been absorbed into our collective unconscious ” genies, the voyages of Sinbad, Aladdin s cave. It was just crying out to be made as a computer game.
You said you had taken some time off before making Prince of Persia . What finally made you want to come back and do another game?
That was the year I wrote my first film screenplay. It was optioned by Larry Turman, a very nice man who had produced about fifty films including The Graduate . We had a year of meetings with directors and studios and came close to getting it made, but in the end it didn t come together. Later I found out that for a first-time screenwriter, that s not considered a bad start at all. But I d been spoiled by computer games, and I thought, My God, I ve just spent six months here in Los Angeles waiting for something to happen, and the film isn t even getting made. In comparison, I knew that if I finished Prince of Persia, it would get published. So I figured I d better stick with that. At the point when all this good stuff had started to happen with the screenplay, I was about six months into Prince of Persia , and I d put it aside for almost a year to focus on screenwriting . It was pretty scary going back to programming after so much time off; I was afraid I wouldn t be able to remember my own source code. But I went back, picked it up again, and finished it.
One thing about Prince of Persia is that it takes this finite amount of game elements and stretches them out over all of these levels. Yet it never gets dull or repetitive. How did you manage that?
That was really the challenge of the design. It was modular in that there were a finite number of elements that could be recombined in different ways. It s the same thing you try to do in a movie. You plant a line of dialog or a significant object, and fifteen or thirty minutes later you pay it off in an unexpected way. An example in Prince of Persia would be the loose floors. The first time you encounter one it s a trap: you have to step over it so you don t fall. Then later on, it reappears, not as a trap but as an escape route: you have to jump and hit the ceiling to discover there s a loose ceiling piece that you can knock down from below. Later on, you can use one to kill a guard by dropping it on his head, to jam open a pressure plate, or ” a new kind of trap ” to accidentally break a pressure plate so that you can never open it again.
It was necessary to make Prince of Persia modular because the memory of the computer was so limited. The smooth animation of the character, with so many intermediate frames and so many moves, was taking up a huge percentage of that 64K computer. When efficiency is not an issue, you can always add production value to a game by throwing in a completely new environment or special effect or enemy, but when you re literally out of RAM and out of disk space, you have to think creatively. Which in turn forces the player to think creatively. There s a certain elegance to taking an element the player already thinks he s familiar with, and challenging him to think about it in a different way.
Prince of Persia is really a simple game to control, especially compared to modern action games. Was that a design goal of yours?
Absolutely . That was a very strong consideration in both Karateka and Prince of Persia , and I spent hours trying to figure out how to integrate certain moves. Should it be up with the joystick or up with the button? Personally , I have a strong prejudice against games that require me to use more than one or two buttons. That s a problem, actually, that I have with modern action games. By the time I figure out whether I m using A, B, X, O, or one of those little buttons down at the bottom of the controller pad that you never use except for one special emergency move, I ve lost the illusion that it s me that s controlling the character.
Ideally, you want to get the player so used to handling the joystick and the buttons that the action starts feeling like an extension of him or herself. The trick there, obviously, is that when you bring in a new movement that you haven t used before, you want the player to somehow already know what button or what combination of actions is going to bring off that move. In Prince of Persia there were moves where I thought, This would be great, but I don t have a button for it, so let it go. It would be cool, but it doesn t help the game overall. A major constraint was keeping the controls simple and consistent.
As far as game design, it seems that Prince of Persia was a logical extension of what you did in Karateka , and Prince of Persia 2 was in turn an extension of that. But The Last Express seems to be off in a completely new direction. What provoked you to do something as different as Last Express ?
I guess I don t think of Last Express as being off in a new direction. I was still trying to tackle the same problem of how to tell a story and create a sense of drama and involvement for the player. There are a number of proven action game formulas that have evolved since the days of Prince of Persia . Part of what interested me about doing an adventure game was that it seemed to be a wide open field, in that there hadn t been many games that had found a workable paradigm for how to do an adventure game.
So it wasn t the inspiration of other adventure games?
No, on the contrary in fact. If you look at the old Scott Adams text adventures from the 80s, it s surprising how little adventure games have progressed in terms of the experience that the player has: the feeling of immersion, and the feeling of life that you get from the characters and the story. So I guess it was the challenge of trying to revitalize or reinvent a moribund genre that attracted me.
What inspired you to set the game on the Orient Express in 1914?
In computer game design you re always looking for a setting that will give you the thrills and adventure that you seek, while at the same time it needs to be a constrained space in order to design a good game around it. For example, things like cities are very difficult to do. A train struck me as the perfect setting for a game. You ve got a confined space and a limited cast of characters, and yet you don t have that static feeling that you would get in, say, a haunted house, because the train itself is actually moving. From the moment the game starts, you re in an enclosed capsule that is moving, not only toward its destination ” Paris to Constantinople ” but it s also moving in time, from July 24th to July 27th, from a world at peace to a world at war. The ticking clock gives a forward movement and drive to the narrative, which I think works very well for a computer game.
The Orient Express, of course, is the perfect train for a story that deals with the onset of World War I. The Orient Express in 1914 was the new thing ; it was an innovation like the European Economic Community is today, a symbol of the unity of Europe. At the time it was possible to travel from one end of Europe to the other, a journey that used to take weeks, in just a few days, without trouble at the borders and so on. On that train you had a cross-section of people from different countries , different social classes, different occupations ” a microcosm of Europe in one confined environment. All these people who had been traveling together and doing business together, found themselves suddenly separated along nationalist lines for a war that would last four years and which would destroy not only the social fabric but also the very train tracks that made the Orient Express possible. To me the Orient Express is a very dramatic and poignant symbol of what that war was all about. And a great setting for a story.
So would you say your starting point for Last Express was: I want to make an adventure game; what sort of story can I tell in that form? Or was it: Here s a story I want to tell; what type of game will allow me to effectively tell it?
Definitely the latter. Tomi Pierce [co-writer of The Last Express ] and I wanted to tell a story on the Orient Express in 1914 right before war breaks out: how do we do that? I didn t really focus on the fact that it was a switch of genre from Prince of Persia or what that would mean for the marketing. It just became apparent as we worked out the story that given the number of characters, the emphasis on their motivations and personalities, the importance of dialog and different languages, that what we were designing was an adventure game. I consciously wanted to get away from the adventure game feel. I don t personally like most adventure games. I wanted to have a sense of immediacy as you re moving through the train, and have people and life surging around you, as opposed to the usual adventure game feeling where you walk into an empty space which is just waiting there for you to do something.
Was this your reason for adding the real-time aspect to Last Express , something we re not used to seeing in adventure games?
Of course, it s not technically real-time, any more than a film is. The clock is always ticking, but we play quite a bit with the rate at which time elapses. We slow it down at certain points for dramatic emphasis, we speed it up at certain points to keep things moving. And we ve got ellipses where you cut away from the train, then you cut back and it s an hour later.
But still, it s more real-time than people are used to in traditional adventure games.
Or even in action games. I m amazed at the number of so-called action games where, if you put the joystick down and sit back and watch, you re just staring at a blank screen. Once you clear out that room of enemies, you can sit there for hours.
You mentioned filmmaking back there, and I know in 1993 you made your own documentary film, Waiting for Dark . Did your experience with filmmaking help you in the making of Last Express ?
It s been extremely helpful, but I think it can also be a pitfall. Film has an incredibly rich vocabulary of tricks, conventions, and styles which have evolved over the last hundred years of filmmaking. Some have been used in computer games and really work well, others are still waiting for someone to figure out how to use them, and others don t work very well at all and tend to kill the games they get imported into. The classic example is the so-called interactive movie, which is a series of cut-scenes strung together by choice trees: do this and get cut-scene A and continue, do that and get cut-scene B and lose. For Last Express , I wanted the player to feel that they were moving freely on board a train, with life swirling all around them and the other characters all doing their own thing. If someone passes you in the corridor, you should be able to turn around, see them walk down the corridor the other way, and follow them and see where they go. If you re not interested, you can just keep walking. I think of it as a non-linear experience in the most linear possible setting, that is, an express train.
All of your games have featured cut-scenes in one way or another, and in Karateka , Prince of Persia , and Last Express they ve all been integrated into the game so as to be visually indistinguishable from the gameplay. Was this a conscious decision on your part?
Absolutely. Part of the aesthetic of all three of those games is that if you sit back and watch it, you should have a smooth visual experience as if you were watching a film. Whereas if you re playing it, you should have a smooth experience controlling it. It should work both for the player and for someone who s standing over the player s shoulder watching. Cut-scenes and the gameplay should look as much as possible as if they belong to the same world. Karateka used cross-cutting in real-time to generate suspense: when you re running toward the guard, and then cut to the guard running toward you, then cut back to you, then back to the shot where the guard enters the frame. That s a primitive example, but one that worked quite well.
Same idea in Last Express : you re in first-person point-of-view, you see August Schmidt walking toward you down the corridor, then you cut to a reaction shot of Cath, the player s character, seeing him coming. Then you hear August s voice, and you cut back to August, and almost without realizing it you ve shifted into a third-person dialog cut-scene. The scene ends with a shot of August walking away down the corridor, and now you re back in point-of-view and you re controlling it again. We understand the meaning of that sequence of shots intuitively because we ve seen it so much in film.
A classic example is Alfred Hitchcock s Rear Window. The whole film is built around the triptych of shot, point-of-view shot, reaction shot, where about half the movie is seen through James Stewart s eyes. That s the basic unit of construction of Last Express in terms of montage.
On the other hand, in Prince of Persia 2 , the cut-scenes were actually painted pictures that looked quite a bit different from the actual gameplay. I seem to recall not enjoying those quite so much . . .
I agree with you about that. There s a distancing effect to those cut-scenes, they make you feel like you re watching a storybook. But it was the effect we were going for at the time.
Right now there seems to be a trend away from full-motion video cut-scenes in computer games . . .
And rightly so, because the full-motion cut-scenes sometimes cost as much as the whole game and it s debatable whether they really improved the gameplay. Also, there s the problem that the quality of the cut-scenes in most cases was pretty low, if you compare it to good TV or good movies.
So you made a conscious attempt to do something different in merging a filmmaking style with a game-making style?
My hope is that Last Express offers something that hasn t really been offered by any other adventure game, or actually a game of any genre, which is to really find yourself in a world that s populated by people. Interesting, well-rounded characters, that are not just physically distinguishable , but have their own personality, their own purpose in the story, their own plans of action. And through the fairly conventional point-and-click mechanism, you re actually interacting with a world that s not just visually rich but richly populated .
So how did you go about designing the player s method of interacting with the game?
Our goal was to keep it as simple as possible. Point-and-click appealed to me because I always saw Last Express as a game that would appeal to a more mainstream audience of adults. People who don t usually play computer games and aren t particularly handy with a joystick aren t going to sit still to learn a large number of keys and what they all do. Pointing and clicking is something that adults in our society know how to do, so the challenge was to construct a game where you wouldn t have to know how to do anything beyond how to pick up a mouse and move it over the screen. The cursor changes as you pass over different regions to show you what you can do: you can turn left, you can talk to a different character. The specifics of how that works evolved as we tested it. During the development we worked out problems like: Do ˜up and ˜forward need to be different-shaped cursors ? We decided yes they do. Do ˜look up and ˜stand up need to be different? We decided no, they can both be the up arrow. But the basic idea that it would be hot-spot based, point-and-click was very much a part of the original design.
So how much film did you shoot for Last Express ? It seems like there is a monstrous amount of footage in there.
The whole project, because of its size , was a huge logistical challenge. The film shoot was actually only three weeks long. Which is not very much, when you consider that an ordinary feature film shoot takes at least four weeks, shooting an average of three screenplay pages a day. Whereas for three weeks, we shot about fifteen screenplay pages a day. We had a few tricks that allowed us to move that fast: the fact that it was all blue-screen, the fact that we were shooting silent and had recorded the sound previously, and the fact that we were under-cranking, shooting seven and a half frames per second in some scenes, five frames per second in others. With the goal being to select key-frames and then reanimate them, as you see in the finished game. All that let us shoot a lot of material.
But in terms of keeping track of it . . . Just to give an example, the first phase of the shoot was in the train corridor. We laid out a fifty- foot track representing the corridor, with yellow lines on the blue-painted floor with a blue-painted cyc-wall behind it. And for three days we marched all thirty characters on the train up and down that corridor. The key moment, when a character walks toward the camera, is the moment of eye contact ” friendly or unfriendly ” the nuance of that glance being one of the things that brings you into the game as Cath, makes you feel that you re not just a phantom presence on the train but that people are reacting to you, even as they pass you in the corridor. For the first three days we just filmed corridor walks, and we had it basically down to a science. The camera was locked down for three days; it didn t move. If the camera moved, then we would have footage that didn t line up.
After three days in the corridor we moved to the restaurant, and again we had to do that in a very unusual way. Instead of shooting one scene at a time and covering each scene with a variety of camera setups, as we would in a film, instead we shot one camera setup at a time. From each camera setup we would shoot all the different scenes or actions that could possibly be seen from that angle in the course of the entire story. We would lock down the camera in each position, say, the seated at the table looking straight ahead view. We d set up the other tables, and film every piece of action that could be seen from that view ” August Schmidt walks in, sits down, orders dinner, the waiter brings him the food, he eats it, puts down his napkin, gets up, and walks away. Then with the camera set up from a different dining room angle, we d have the same actors repeat the same actions. To make the shoot as efficient as possible was a bit of a jigsaw puzzle, figuring out which actors to bring in on which days and when to let them go, and is it more economical to move the camera one extra time so that we can send a bunch of actors home early, or should we leave the camera where it is and pay the actors for the whole day. That times nineteen days was a logistically very complicated film shoot. With a lot of the action being filmed from multiple angles, since in the game, you never know what angle the player s going to see it from.
And once it was all shot, it must have been a tremendous challenge to keep it all straight.
We did the editing on an Avid; without that I don t know what we would have done. We dumped it all onto huge hard drives on this Macintosh-based non-linear editing system, and selected the frames we wanted. We pushed that Avid system to its limits. At one point our film editor had to call tech support because the system was slowing down so much. When he told them how many effects he had, they were startled, and couldn t believe it was still functioning. We had more frame dissolves in just one of our scenes than they had anticipated anyone would ever have in a normal feature film. We were picking still frames and dissolving from one to another, so that every frame in the game was a special effect.
The official number is that we had forty thousand frames of animation in the game. In comparison to an animated feature film, however, that number is misleadingly low. In a typical dialog scene we re dissolving between still frames on the average of once every second or once every two seconds, whereas a conventional film runs twenty-four frames per second. So to get the equivalent in terms of how much action we really covered, you need to multiply forty thousand by twenty-four. Also, a lot of frames are reusable. You ve got one hundred fifty frames of the character walking up the corridor toward camera, then one hundred fifty frames walking away from camera. Using just those three hundred frames, the train conductor character, say, might spend ten hours walking over the course of the game. When you walk into the dining room, you see six tables, and each table can have its own action going on independently. If you play the game from start to finish five times, the sixth time you might see two characters in the room together, whereas before they were always in the room separately. Just because the action unfolds a little differently. So the number of combinations of that footage is pretty much unlimited.
So what made you come up with the effect of dissolving between frames every one or two seconds used in Last Express ? Why didn t you use the more traditional, full-motion style throughout the game?
From our point of view, full motion is basically an expensive special effect. It looks great, as in the corridors, as in the fights. But if we had decided to use that for the entire game, I think we would have ended up with something that was visually very flashy but not very deep. We re limited both by the amount of frames that can be kept in RAM and by the number of CDs. But ultimately, you re limited by the processor s ability. When you walk into the restaurant and it s full of people, with a number of different animations happening on the screen at the same time, as well as multiple tracks of audio streaming from the CD, that s possible only because each character is only animating every few seconds.
But there s also an aesthetic disadvantage to full motion. Say the technological limitations could be overcome , and we had a thirty-second loop of a character eating dinner. Sooner or later you realize the character is repeating. So you say, Why is it that when he takes a sip from his wine glass and then takes a bite of steak, the steak keeps getting replenished every time he eats it? That s not helpful to the game, to have the player s attention distracted by following those little full-motion bits. When it gets down to it, we decided that what s important for the game is that the player believe the character is there, having dinner for an hour and fifteen minutes. And any time during that hour you can talk to him. The fact is that dissolving between still frames gives just as good an impressionistic sense of dining as the full motion would, and in some ways better, because you don t have that glitch when the film loops . So, with this convention, once the player accepts it, it opens up the world and gives you the ability to tell this huge story that goes on for three days and three nights with thirty characters doing all kinds of things. It would have been a drastically smaller story had we stuck to full motion.
I noticed in the credits that for almost all the characters you have one actor doing the physical acting ” what the player sees on the screen ” and another doing the voice. Why did you decide to use different actors for the visual and audio aspects of the game?
Casting was a tremendous challenge with a cast where you ve only got two Americans, and everybody else is French, Russian, Austrian, Serbian, Arabic . . . The Orient Express was a truly multilingual train. We made the decision to have the characters not just speak English with a foreign accent, as when they re talking to the American hero, but to also speak their native language, subtitled, whenever they would normally do so. When the two French conductors are chatting with one another off-duty, they d naturally be speaking French. So casting American actors who can do a fake German or French accent just wasn t acceptable to us. We needed native speakers for each language. I think we were very lucky to get such a good cast both for the faces and for the voices. But to ask for the perfect face, the perfect voice, and the perfect nationality to be united in one person for each role would have been too much to ask ” especially in San Francisco, on our budget! There again, the fact that we weren t doing full-motion lip-synching gave us the flexibility we needed in casting.
Tatiana is a case in point. We used three casting agencies and auditioned hundreds of actors in both L.A. and San Francisco, looking for the face and voice of a sixteen-year-old Russian princess. The actress who ended up doing the voice is Russian and lives in L.A., the one we filmed is American and lives in San Francisco. To find one actor who was that good for both, we would have certainly needed to go out of state, if not to Russia!
By the way, we recorded the voices first and then created animated visuals to match, so the voice actors were free to create their own performance, as they would with a radio play or doing a Disney cartoon. It gives you a more natural voice performance than overdubbing . I think when you force actors to lip-synch to previously filmed action, you lose something in the performance.
Reality seems to have been a dominant goal in your design of the game, whether it s the native speakers for the voice acting or it s the authentically modeled train cars . Why did you go to such great lengths to make the game as real as possible?
It s a matter of respect for the player. Whether it s a history world or a fantasy world, I think that players respond to the amount of detail and consistency that the creators of the game put into it. And even if the player doesn t pay enough attention to the conductors to figure out that one of them is close to retirement and the other one is a young married guy, or that they have opposite political views, even so, whenever you pass them in the corridor and overhear a little bit of one of their conversations, you get the subliminal feeling that you re hearing a real conversation between two real people. If we hadn t bothered, then whenever you walked by, you d hear something artificial and think, You know, that sounds like something they just staged for my benefit. The fact that what you see in the game is just the tip of the iceberg, and that all the characters have their own history, and their own reality under the surface, you feel the mass of that, and the weight of it, though you don t actually see anything more than the tip.
Do you think computer games in general should strive for greater realism ?
Well, realism is a bit of a loaded term . I don t mean to imply that games should be more realistic in terms of representing our world. Even something like Super Mario Bros. , which is completely a fantasy setting, has its own consistency. If a character can jump off a ledge and float to the bottom in one situation, you shouldn t have another situation where he jumps off and he gets crushed. As long as the creators actually took the time to think, What are the rules for gravity in this world, and under what circumstances can you get hurt? As long as the game plays by its own rules, players will accept it. In Last Express , we chose a real historical moment, and we were very conscious about trying to represent faithfully what was going on in the world at that time, and to respect that reality when drawing the constraints of our fictional world.
You use a very unique technique in Last Express where, though the actors were filmed, in the end they look like very well-crafted cartoons. Why did you decide to do it that way?
To begin with, I like the cartoon look aesthetically. I think the look of cartoon people against a 3D rendered background is very attractive. Films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had technical reasons why they had to be flat ” they were painted on cels ” but they bring out the character nicely , and I think it s a look that has good connotations for those of us who as kids wanted to step inside the cartoon and become one of the characters.
I think for computer games there s another advantage to having the characters be cartoons, as opposed to live, filmed people. The experience of the computer game player depends on being able to put yourself into a fantasy world, suspend disbelief, and believe that what you re doing actually has an effect on these fictional characters. If you re watching a filmed live actor, intellectually you know that this is someone who was filmed on a sound stage, in a costume, with lights and cameras , and whatever he s saying and doing on the screen is what he did on the set. You know you re watching a cut-scene. Whereas with a cartoon, they re not real to begin with, so if you can believe that a cartoon character can walk and talk, why shouldn t he also be able to change his behavior in response to your actions as the player ” for instance, run away when he sees you coming?
So it adds to the suspension of disbelief?
Or, at least, it doesn t break it, whereas filmed action would. And I think that s part of the reason why video cut-scenes haven t been successful in computer games at large. It s just not a good fit.
Finally, of course, there s one last reason why the cartoon style works in Last Express , which is a historical one. Most of the images we have, culturally, from 1914 come to us through drawings of the time: newspaper drawings, magazine advertisements, poster art by artists like Alphonse Mucha and Toulouse-Lautrec, which were in an Art Nouveau style which was really the forerunner of the modern comic book. So I think when we see someone in 1914 dressed as a cartoon, it feels right in a certain way, whereas if we saw a 1914 person as a 3D polygonal model, it wouldn t have that same resonance .
So do you think a game with a more modern setting could use the same cartoon-character approach to the visuals?
Well, I like the look a lot, and it could work in a lot of different situations. I don t think it needs to be a historical setting. But it was just one more reason why, for Last Express , it was too perfect to resist.
So since the characters ended up looking like cartoons, why didn t you just draw them from the very start, instead of filming actors and then making them look like drawings?
One reason was that, to get the high quality of animation and cel-type expression that you have in a Disney film, you need to spend as much money as Disney spends. As expensive as this game was by computer game standards, it s a tiny fraction of the budget you would spend on an animated feature. We wanted to assure consistency that the same character would look like the same character, whether they were seen from up close or far away, angry or happy, and from different, very difficult-to-draw angles. And to achieve that for forty thousand animated frames, there s just no way you re going to be able to do that on the budget we had.
The goal of our automated rotoscope was to take a black-and-white filmed frame and to turn that into something resembling a pen-and-ink line drawing, where an artist could pull up that frame and colorize it in less than two minutes. We got to the point where we had it set up like an assembly line. And not only that, but you could have two different artists working on the same character, and because the digitization and the rotoscoping were done automatically, it would yield very similar results. Anna looks like Anna, regardless of who colored her for that sequence.
We didn t want it to look like a processed film image, and we didn t want it to look exactly like a cartoon. If you see a character walking toward you down the corridor and you re not quite sure whether you re looking at a drawing or a processed filmed image, then we pretty much achieved our goal. And I think we did. Occasionally we have someone ask, Did you draw all this by hand? If they can t tell it was filmed, then it worked.
I thought one of the most innovative design elements in the game is the save-game system you used. Players never actually save their game, but Last Express automatically remembers everything they do, and they can rewind to any point in their game they want, if they want to try something a different way. How did you come up with this system?
I m glad you asked. I m very proud of the save-game system. The funny thing is that some people, including some reviewers, just didn t get it. We still occasionally get a review where they say, It s too bad you can t save your game. Our goal, of course, was an extension of the design philosophy that went into the point-and-click system; we wanted it to be very simple, very transparent, and intuitive. To have to think about the fact that you re on a computer, and you have to save a file, and what are you going to name the file, and how does this compare to your previous saved game file ” tome that breaks the experience. The idea was that you d just sit down and play, and when you stopped playing, you could just quit and go to dinner, or use the computer for something else, or whatever. And when you go back to playing, it should automatically put you back to where you left off. And if you make a mistake, you should be able to rewind, like rewinding a videotape, go back to the point where you think you went wrong, and begin playing from there. And I think it works. The six different colored eggs were inspired by, I guess, Monopoly where you can choose which piece you want: the hat, or the car. . . The idea was that if you have a family of six, everybody will have their own egg, and when someone wants to play they can just switch to their own egg and pick it up where they left it off. People who complain that you can only have six saved games, or that you have to use colors instead of filenames, are fixated on the conventional save-game file system; they ve missed the point. An egg file isn t a saved game; it s essentially a videotape containing not just your latest save point, but also all the points along the way that you didn t stop and save. You can usually rewind to within three to five real-time minutes of the desired point.
Music also seems to have been effectively used in Last Express . It shifts depending on what s going on in the game, as opposed to music in most adventure games that just plays in the background, never changing. How did you approach the game s musical aspect?
We knew that music would be very important to the texture of the game, and finding the right composer was very important. And we found him: Elia Cmiral, a very talented film composer from Czechoslovakia, who, by the way, is not a computer game player, had never scored a computer game, and I think even to this day has never played a computer game. We approached it as a story, as situations, and once he understood that there were mutually contradictory situations possible in the same story ” that in one outcome Cath gets stabbed and killed and in another outcome he gets past that and goes on with the story ” he had no problem scoring the different variations. (Elia has since achieved success as a Hollywood composer with scores for Ronin, Stigmata , and other films.)
Actually, although the clich is that the composer always wants to add more music and turn down the sound effects so the music can be louder, Elia is very disciplined about the role of music. For scenes where I thought he would put a big dramatic chord or at least a little bit of underlining, he d say, No, that s corny, it plays better without it. So he was really reducing the number of situations, saving the music for places where it could really add something. We don t have any wallpaper music in Last Express; there s no point at which music is just repeating in the background, waiting for you to do something. The real music of Last Express is the noise of the train. You become very attuned to subtle shifts in the ambience: a door opens, the train noise gets louder, or you hear a door close somewhere, or you hear a rumble of thunder in the distance, or the train slows down as it arrives at a station. All of that almost comes to the foreground in the sound track, so that when the music does appear it s really noticeable. And in the dramatic scenes, the cut-scenes, we scored those as you would in a film, using music, I hope subtly, to bring out the different characters and situations. The fact that Anna, the leading lady, is a violinist, gave Elia a major instrumental motif for the score. There s a few hours of gameplay on the second day where Anna is practicing in her compartment , and if you walk through the train you hear her playing Bach partitas, tuning up, playing scales , and so forth. Her character s main theme is a violin theme as well, and appears in different guises in different situations as the story develops.
It s a game you really wouldn t want to play with the sound off.
Certainly it would lose a lot without the sound. In Last Express the sound is more than just the dialog. Without the shift in ambient noise, the music, the sound effects operating as clues, the feeling of hearing a conversation so far away you can t quite make out the words and then getting closer to it, and then the effect of hearing conversations in foreign languages that you can t understand no matter how close you get, all of that s really integral to the experience of The Last Express . It s funny because people tend to focus on the graphics. But one of the more technically innovative things we did was on the sound track. Most people aren t aware of it, but we actually have six tracks of sound being simultaneously streamed off the CD and mixed on the fly. For example, you can have the train ambient noise, the sound effect of a door opening, two people talking, thunder rolling in the distance, and a bit of music trailing off from the last cut-scene, and all of that going at the same time. It really creates a very rich sonic tapestry .
Again differing from many other adventure games, Last Express offers a fairly non-linear experience for the player, where there seem to be multiple ways to get through to the end. Do you think non- linearity in adventure games is important?
It s crucial; otherwise it s not a game. There are a couple of game models which I wanted to steer away from, one of which is where you have to do a certain thing to get to the next cut-scene or the story doesn t progress. Another is the kind of branching-tree, Choose Your Own Adventure style, where there s ten ways the story can end, and if you try all ten options you get to all ten of them. One of the puzzle sequences that I think worked best in Last Express is one of the first ones, where you encounter Tyler s body and you have to figure out what to do to get rid of it. There are several equally valid solutions, and each one has its own drawbacks, ripple effects down the line. For example, if you hide the body in the bed, you risk that when the conductor comes to make the bed he will discover the body there, so you have to deal with that somehow. You can avoid that problem by throwing the body out the window, but if you do that, then the body is discovered by the police. And they board the train at the next stop and you have to figure out how to hide from the police when they re going compartment to compartment checking passports. Either way, your actions have consequences on the people around you. As another example, if you throw the body out the window, you may overhear Fran §ois, the little boy, saying to his mom, Hey, I saw a man being thrown out the window. And she ll say to him, Shut up, you little brat, don t tell lies!
I hadn t even noticed that.
The game is full of little things like that.
So is that why you don t tend to like other adventure games, because they re too set in primrose path style?
Some adventure games have great moments, but in terms of the overall experience it s rare that a game consistently keeps that high a level. In Last Express too, there are parts of the game that don t quite live up to the expectations set up by that first disposingof-the-body puzzle. Defusing the bomb is one I wasn t so happy with. You just have to grit your teeth and follow the steps; there s no way around it. It s not a particularly clever puzzle. But again, the main concern was that the story would work overall, and that the overall experience would be satisfying .
I ve heard many adventure game designers say that to effectively tell a story, you really need to limit the player s options and force them on a specific path. Do you agree with this notion?
It s true, of course; it s just a matter of how you limit what the player does. The too-obvious-to-mention limit in Last Express is that you can t get off the train. Any time you get off the train, the game ends. The only way to win is to stay on the train all the way to Constantinople. So in that sense, yeah, it s the ultimate linear story. You re on a train, you can t get off. But given that, within the train you should be able to move around as freely as possible. There are some doors that we just had to close because they would have changed the story too much and they wouldn t have let us get to the ending we wanted to get to. What if you take the gun and go through the train and kill everyone? We decided you just can t do that. So there s definitely a trade-off. The more wacky, off-the-wall options you give the player, the more that limits the complexity and the power of the story you ve set out to tell. Whereas if you want to keep a very ambitious, central narrative that s itself large in scope, then you have to start closing doors around that, to make sure the player stays in the game.
Every game approaches this challenge in a different way. With Last Express , the train motif gave us the metaphor that we needed to keep it on track. I think once people get the idea that they re on the train, time is ticking, and they have to do certain things before certain stops, and they have to get to Constantinople or else they haven t really made it to the end of the line; once they get that, the story works. It s a matter of finding a balance for what works for each particular story. What s right for one game might not be right for another. I wouldn t even begin to know how to use the Last Express engine to do a game that wasn t set on a train.
Last Express seems to have not sold well because of the lack of an adventure game market. Yet adventure games used to be very popular. I m wondering if you had any idea what happened to all of the adventure game players.
That s a good question, and I have to say that I was caught by surprise when I woke up to find the adventure game market was dead, because I d never really thought that much in terms of genres. Even doing Last Express , the fact that Prince of Persia was an action game while Last Express was an adventure game, I just wasn t thinking about it that way, right or wrong. As a game player, I m not a big adventure game player myself , for a lot of reasons. Usually the graphics weren t very good, the story lines were kind of arbitrary and contrived, the characters and the plot just didn t stand up in terms of the kind of story that I would want to see in a movie or a novel .
So with Last Express I wanted to do a game that would have what I saw as the qualities-that were missing from most of the adventure games that were out there. So as a player, I guess I have to assume my share of the guilt for not supporting the adventure game market. I think I underestimated the degree to which the games market had been stratified by the different genres. You had people out there who saw themselves as action game players, as strategy game players, as role-playing game players, or as adventure game players. I never shopped for games that way, but I guess over a period of a few years there in the early 90s, even computer game publications started to stratify games according to genre. So did publishers, so did shops , and I guess I didn t see that coming.
So you don t have any ideas about why the adventure game market dried up?
Well, I can only look at my own experience as a player. I enjoyed playing adventure games back in the Scott Adams days, and then I kind of got bored with them. I think adventure game makers need to stop asking, Where did the market go? I think the question is, Why do people no longer find these games fun to play? Maybe it s something about the games themselves.
Your first two games, Karateka and Prince of Persia , were both solo efforts, where you did all of the designing, writing, programming, and even drew the art. How do you compare working with a large team on Last Express to working by yourself?
It s a lot more exciting and rewarding than working alone, because you have the chance to work collaboratively with a large team of talented people who are really dedicated and who excel in their own specialties. It was one of the most thrilling experiences of my professional life. The downside, of course, is that you spend all your time worrying about where the next payroll is going to come from. One thing that was really nice about the old days was that the cost of developing a game was negligible. Once you d paid the two thousand dollars for the computer and you ve got five blank floppy disks, it was basically paid for. Whereas with a large project there s a lot of pressure to meet budgets and schedules.
Computer games seem to be one of the only art forms that have shifted from being predominantly solo endeavors to being more collaborative efforts, at least for commercial titles. How do you think that affects the final games?
It s interesting. What I m doing right now, writing film screenplays, reminds me more of programming than any other activity I ve done in a long time. Like programming, writing screenplays is basically a matter of closing the door behind yourself in a room with a computer and nothing else. You re trying to create something from scratch. If you write a screenplay that gets made into a movie, at that point, like a modern computer game, you ve got the whole circus, with highly specialized, skilled people, and it s a creative collaboration between hundreds or more, all of whom bring their own area of expertise. A big-budget movie, for all the daily chaos of production, lives or dies on the strength of the script that was written, often, years before. A modern game is a collaborative effort in the same way, on a very tight budget, with money being spent daily, usually with a publisher who s banking on being able to ship it by a certain date. There again, what makes it work or not is the strength of the concept, the initial vision, which usually predates the whole production. There s just no time to change your mind on the fly during production about what the game should be.
But that tends to limit what kind of game designer can be successful, doesn t it? One who needs to make radical changes throughout the project to find the ideal gameplay would have been more successful in 1982 than now. Now he wouldn t be working at all.
He just wouldn t be working on a big-budget, multimillion-dollar production. A game like Tetris I think is well within the means of anyone to dream up and program, and if it takes them a year to find just the perfect combination of rules that s going to make it endlessly addictive , that s fine, it s not that expensive. But you can t take on a project with the latest 3D engine and forty artists at your beck and call and think that halfway through you re going to get to say, Oh, now I realize what this game really needs, I wish I d thought of it a year ago.
We re at a pretty tough time in the industry. I m not sure it makes much sense economically to be a developer. I think it kind of makes sense to be a publisher, but even then there s only room for a few. This is a scary time because the number of hits is small, but the size of those hits is bigger than ever. If you re a publisher with a Myst or a Tomb Raider that sells two or three million units, that s great; your other ten titles can be flops and you still survive. But if you re a small developer with only one title in production, as Smoking Car was, you absolutely need to hit the jackpot . Only a handful of titles each year sell upward of half a million units, and that s the category you need to aspire to in order to justify the kind of budgets we re talking about.
And to make a game with Last Express s production values you really need a large budget?
I think on Last Express we stretched the budget quite far for what we actually got up there on the screen. We saved a lot of money; we got people to work for less than their usual salaries or to defer salaries, we didn t spend a lot of money on the film shoot, we used a non-union cast and a non-union crew, and we didn t have any big names . So we pretty much saved money everywhere we could think of. And yet, just because of the nature of the project, the scale of the game, the number of people that were involved, and how long it took, it ended up costing a lot.
If you don t mind telling, just how much did the game cost?
About five million.
And the development took four years; was that your original intention ?
It took two years longer than planned.
What made it take so much longer than you thought?
Tool development was one. To develop our own rotoscoping technology, we had to do a lot of tests ” different types of costumes, makeup , processing ” to get it looking the way we wanted. That was one. And the 3D modeling; that model was huge, the train interior and exterior, and the number of rendered images was tremendous. 3D modeling and rendering, animation, and tool development were the areas that burst their boundaries. The film shoot itself actually came in on schedule and on budget; that was the easy part.
So, looking back, do you wish you had managed to get the project done in a shorter amount of time, on a smaller budget? Or are you satisfied that that s just how long was necessary?
Well, personally I took a bit of a bath on Last Express , financially . So in that sense, it probably wasn t a smart move. And I feel bad about our investors who also hoped the game would sell half a million units, and were disappointed. It s kind of like having purchased an extremely expensive lottery ticket.
On the other hand, I m proud of the game, I m glad we did it, and I don t think we could have done it much cheaper than we did. I m happy with the finished game. Of course, the ideal would have been to design a smaller game. If at the beginning, we d looked at things and said, OK, this is going to take four years and cost five million dollars, there wouldn t have been a publisher in the world that would have touched it. I wouldn t have touched it myself! For better or worse , there s a certain amount of willful self-delusion that most of us in the software industry indulge in just to get ourselves out of bed in the morning. Even games that take two years to develop often start out with the producer and the marketing department telling each other that it can be done in a year and be out by Christmas. The more technically ambitious the project, the less you know what you re getting into.
The film industry, by contrast, is relatively good at budgeting and scheduling shoots and doing them in just as long as they re supposed to take. The trade-off there is that they re not often trying things that are really new. When they do, like using a new technology for the first time, or filming on location in a war-torn country, or filming out at sea, they often experience the same kind of budget and schedule overages that are common in computer games. On Last Express , the whole production hinged on our development of this new rotoscoping process, so to a certain extent, at the beginning when we said, Yeah, we ll develop it and it will take x months and cost this much, we were basically operating on blind faith, going forward assuming that we could resolve whatever problems there were and that it would work ” which it did, eventually. It s very hard to make accurate time and cost projections when you are doing something for the first time. On Last Express we were doing maybe ten things that had never been done before, all at the same time. That was probably unwise.
Overall, unrealistic planning is not a good thing for developers; it doesn t really help us. One of my regrets about this project was that we were under so much financial strain from day to day that I was spending half my time worrying about the game and half my time worrying about raising money. That s the situation I put us in by undertaking such an ambitious project.
Last Express is the first of your personal projects where you didn t do any of the programming. Do you miss it at all?
One great thing about programming is that, when you re really on a roll, you can lock yourself in a room and have the satisfaction of making progress every day; it s just you and the machine. The times when I would miss that the most was usually when I d just spent two days in back-to-back meetings. Why did these meetings have to happen and why did I have to be in them? On Last Express , we had four programmers working on the project, and although I often envied their lot, I had my hands more than full with the game design, script, artists and animators, casting and directing the actors on the voice recording and film shoot, working with the composer, sound designer, and editor, to list a few things that I actually enjoyed doing. At various points I did offer my services to the programmers, but since my last area of code expertise was in 6502 Assembly Language [on the Apple II] they decided they didn t really need me.
Last Express is an extremely unique game in both setting and design. In contrast, most of the rest of the new games coming out seem to be set in either fantasy or science fiction settings, and are all based on last year s big hit. How do you feel about the industry s trend toward me too games?
With the occasional magnificent exception, I think you re right about the majority of games. I don t know if the me too problem is primarily in terms of setting. I guess I feel it more in terms of genres. You can take Doom , and change the textures so that it s an express train in 1914, but I don t think that s really what the industry needs. What s more interesting to me is experimenting with game design itself, how the game is constructed , what the player is actually doing, trying to create a new form that works. That kind of experimentation was a lot easier to do when the publisher s stock price wasn t riding on the success or failure of the experiment. It s definitely easier to get backing for something that s a sequel or variation on a proven formula. The harder it is to describe or explain something new, the fewer people or companies you ll find who are willing to risk money on it. I think it s unfortunate, but I don t know what to do about it. It s pretty much an inevitable result of the cycle; when we go to the computer store as a shopper and look for the next game, let s be honest, what are we looking for? We re more inclined to look at things that are heavily promoted, that we ve read about in magazines. So titles that come out with little fanfare are going to have a harder time reaching the bigger market. So in a sense, as a public, we re getting what we asked for. But as a game designer, yeah, I do miss it.
My friends who make films for a living always used to say: Oh boy, I really envy you making computer games. There you ve got the chance to do something really original. While down here in Hollywood all they want are retreads of last year s sequel. It s kind of interesting how the game industry now has the same set of problems that filmmakers have been complaining about for years. Maybe even worse. Along with bigger production values, bigger markets, and more glitzy award ceremonies, we ve achieved a kind of genre paralysis, and it s become more difficult to break new ground.
So you just feel frustrated more than anything.
I guess resigned. I think every new art form goes through stages of its evolution. With computer games we ve lived through the exciting early years, and now we re in the growing pains years. This definitely doesn t mean that innovation stops. Even in filmmaking, which is a hundred years old, every couple of years a film does come out that, whether because of societal changes or technological changes, could not have been made a few years earlier, and is a valuable step forward. It s just that you have to weed out hundreds of clones and mediocre films to find those few gems. I think we re in the same place with computer games. Every year, out of hundreds of new games, there s a couple that push the envelope in a new and interesting way. The best we can do is just keep trying to do that, and quit griping about the glorious bygone early years, cause they re over!
So how involved were you with the Prince of Persia 3D project?
My involvement was limited to giving them the go-ahead at the beginning and offering occasional advice and creative consultation along the way. It was a Broderbund project. Andrew Pedersen, the producer, initiated it. It was his baby. He brought the team together and worked hard on it for two years. So I can t take credit for that one.
It s very difficult to take a 2D game and make it work in 3D instead, with full freedom of movement for the player.
That s the problem, really. When you convert Prince of Persia to 3D over-the-shoulder, one problem is how do you keep the controls simple. And the other is how does the player know what kind of environment he s in. Because you only see what s right in front of you. A crude example is you re running toward the edge of a chasm . With a side view you can look at it and see if it s a three-space jump or a four-space jump and are you going to clear it or not. If it s too far, you know there s not even any point in trying. Whereas in a 3D over-the-shoulder game, you don t quite know how far it is until you try. And even then, when you fall you wonder , Was I not quite at the edge? Or did I not jump in quite the right direction? So it makes it a different kind of game. You gain in terms of visceral immediacy and, of course, the richness of the environment, but I think you lose something in terms of a clean strategy.
So you don t think that making every game 3D is necessarily the correct approach?
Well, you have to distinguish the real-time 3D graphics technology from a particular interface. I think there s a lot that can be done with real-time 3D graphics engines. Doom , the first-person shooter, was obviously the first prototype and that was the trend for a couple of years. And then Tomb Raider and Super Mario did the following camera. Prince 3D falls into that category. So I think the challenge is in finding new ways to present the action cinematically that will be as much fun as the old games but still have all the visual excitement of the new 3D games. I think there s plenty of ground yet to cover. Prince 3D had a few intriguing moments in it that I d like to see pushed much further to invent the next big thing in 3D action games.
I read that you enjoyed Tomb Raider quite a bit. That seemed to be an attempt to put Prince of Persia into a 3D environment in order to produce something new and exciting.
I think the key word there is new. Yes, I was really excited by Tomb Raider as a player, because it was something that hadn t been seen before. But I think now that that s been done, we can more clearly see the pros and the cons of that type of game. If you want to do Tomb Raider today, you need to find a way to go beyond what they did in 96. You can t just do the same thing over and over.
So did you come up with any good solutions to 3D-space navigation in Prince of Persia 3D ?
For me, Prince of Persia 3D is a bit on the complex side, in terms of the number of weapons and the number of moves. It s not the kind of game that I would design for myself. But they were aiming at a particular audience. I think the core audience as they saw it were people who were a lot more hard- core gamers than I was with the first Prince of Persia .
How did Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time come about and how did you get involved with the project?
In 2001 Ubisoft approached me with the idea of bringing back Prince of Persia and doing a new game for consoles. I went up to Montreal to meet Yannis Mallat who was the producer of the project and the small team that he d assembled .
Had they already started development?
It was actually kind of interesting the way they started. They showed me some AVIs that they had done in the couple of weeks before. These were really quick AVIs. They didn t focus on the look of the world or any graphic kind of bells and whistles. They were very crude, and had an animated character running up a wall, jumping onto a ladder. Just very quick little demos of the kind of gameplay they had in mind. The great innovation that was already apparent was here was a guy who could run on walls. So they d really taken the dynamic of Prince of Persia 1 , which was a 2D side- scroller , and brought it vertically into a third dimension. Which was something I hadn t seen done in any Tomb Raider style action-adventure game. It was just a brilliant idea that opened up a whole world of possibilities as to how this game could capture the excitement of the old-time side-scrollers in a modern real-time 3D game. So based on that we made the deal for Ubisoft to go ahead and start this project. My involvement increased. I had originally thought I would just be a consultant on the project, but I came on board to write the story and the screenplay, and once I d done that I ended up directing the actors in the voice recording, and finally joined the project full time as a game designer. I was commuting between L.A. and Montreal and my trips kept getting longer and more frequent until for the final stage of the project I moved up to Montreal with my wife and kids. That was the last four months, the summer of 2003.
So you were sucked back into game development against your will?
That s a good choice of words. [ laughter ] The other word I would use is seduced. It was just such a fun project and the team was so talented and working so hard and the potential was so clearly there from the beginning. They wanted to do something really extraordinary. Ubisoft Montreal was not yet on the map then the way they are now, following Splinter Cell and Sands of Time . At the time this team had not yet done those types of high-profile games but they were certainly capable of it. They just had to prove it to the world. It was a very refreshing atmosphere; working with them was a real pleasure .
It s interesting that Sands of Time is so radically different from the prior 3D incarnation of the game, Prince of Persia 3D .
That was one of the first things that I talked about with Ubisoft when they proposed doing a new Prince of Persia game. Neither of us wanted to do another Prince of Persia 3D . So we kind of mutually reassured each other that that wasn t what we had in mind. The problem with Prince of Persia 3D from the moment it was proposed and on through the early stages, the obvious question to ask was, Isn t this just Tomb Raider with baggy pants and a turban? And ultimately I think in the end it really was Tomb Raider with baggy pants and a turban. That wasn t enough. So for Sands of Time , Ubisoft and I basically said let s not even look at Prince of Persia 3D . Let s look at the original titles ” why were they fun, what aspects of that make us think that a remake now is worth doing? What are the aspects that we want to try to capture from the original? In what ways is this going to be a totally new and different game? Sands of Time , in many ways, was like doing an original title. It had been so long since Prince 1 and 2 , ten years, the expectations of what a video game should be are so different now. There was no possibility of literally sticking to the rules of gameplay or the character or the story or anything like that. We needed a new character, new story, new gameplay, new rules.
Prince of Persia ultimately represented a style of game, a kind of feeling that you get playing it. One of the main inspirations for Prince 1, back in 1986 when I started to program it on the Apple II, had been the first ten minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark . The idea of doing a game that would have that kind of running, jumping, seat-of-your-pants improvising these acrobatic responses to a dangerous environment. And then of course the story being a swashbuckling adventure movie in the spirit of Raiders, and before that the films of Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks in the 30s. So all of that was also an inspiration for Sands of Time . But when you get down to the details of what can the game character do and how do you control it, we didn t feel compelled to follow the rules that had been set up in the ten-year-old 2D side-scroller. And I think that was all to the good.
To take one example, potions: you find a potion, you drink it, it restores your strength. That was fine in Prince 1 , but wouldn t work in the new game. Because why would you have useful magic elixirs sitting around in a dungeon , waiting for someone to find them and drink them? Why wouldn t they have been drunk already by a thirsty guard or prisoner ? In a 1989 2D side-scroller, you can assume a certain suspension of disbelief. But when you have a realistic environment that s lavishly rendered with all the painterly beauty and lighting effects and so on that the PS2 or Xbox are capable of, it just doesn t make sense. Ultimately we went with the concept that water itself is the substance that revives you. Water is a natural feature of Islamic and Persian palaces and gardens. You ve got fountains and waterfalls. That was a way to take a feature of the environment and make it useful and important for the gameplay. So any place you find water in the game, even if you re standing in a pool, if you drink, it restores your strength. That s one example. If you ve played Prince 1 and Sands of Time , you can see that when you get right down to it, nearly every game feature is different. It s just the overall feeling, the spirit, that has been preserved.
The dagger is a really nice element in the game, because it is really important both to the gameplay and the story. Did that start out as a gameplay mechanic or a story device?
Rewinding actually started out as a gameplay wish from creative director Patrice Desilets. When you die and have to restart, you kind of break the spell of the player s involvement in the game. Patrice thought rewinding would be a nice, organic way to allow the player to continue to play uninterrupted, without dying so often. That then gave rise to an engineering challenge, which was Can this be done on the PS2, on a console system that doesn t have a hard drive? The engineers worked on that for a while and ended up proving that it could be done. So it was a gameplay idea that gave rise to an engineering innovation that then led to the story question of How do we justify the player having this ability? and to the concept of the dagger and the Sands of Time.
The Sands of Time serve a number of functions in the story. First of all, they re the substance that enables you to turn back time. As the player, you have to find ways to collect the sand, and then as you turn back time you use it up. Second, the way that you collect the sand is by killing these sand creatures that are possessed by the sand. They re like undead monsters in the sense that you can hit them as many times as you want with your sword, but the only way to get rid of them for good is to use the dagger to retrieve the sands that possess them, then they disintegrate. So the sand gives you an incentive and a reason to want to fight these enemies. All the other powers of time ” being able to freeze your enemies, move at hyper-speed, the sand vortex that when you enter it gives you a glimpse of what s to come ” came out of trying to take the central idea and weave it through as many aspects of the game as possible, while keeping the story as clean and simple as possible.
The storytelling in Sands of Time is very elegant, but the plot is actually quite simple. Do you think that more games should strive for streamlined plots? Or was that just something that Prince of Persia specifically called for?
It s a good thing for a game to be as simple as it can be. But depending on the type of game, it calls for a different kind of simplicity. The complexity in Sands of Time should come out of the acrobatics, the nuts and bolts of how do you get through this room. Do you grab on to the pillar and then jump on to the platform, or do you run on the wall and swing on the bar? Those are the kinds of issues that should absorb the player. So the story shouldn t be distracting them with things that have nothing to do with the gameplay. The cut-scenes in Sands of Time are relatively brief and tend to contain the same kind of action that s in the game. In the game you re doing acrobatic action and fighting monsters. So that s mostly what you re doing in the cut-scenes as well, with the occasional brief shouted line of dialog. The conversations that you have with the female sidekick character, Farah, are very much in the midst of this action, this relationship that s being developed very quickly under fire and under pressure. We re not cutting away to another place to have big dialog scenes between characters that we ve never met before. The two biggest cut-scenes in the game are the one that launches the story, when the prince actually uses the dagger to open the hourglass to release the Sands of Time, effectively opening Pandora s box, and then one at the end that resolves it. The premise of the story has a dark element, in that the hero himself causes the catastrophe that makes it necessary to play the game. So all of that dovetails very nicely.
Though you kept the story in Sands of Time fairly simple for a modern action-adventure, in terms of the previous Prince of Persias or Karateka it is quite a bit more complex. For example, the prince never spoke before, and the cut-scenes were much shorter and more infrequent.
Prince 1 and Karateka were like silent movies. Silent movies didn t have dialog; they had title cards. Nowadays, with the level of sound and graphics that we re accustomed to, we expect that characters will talk, unless there s a story reason why they can t talk, as in a game like Ico where they don t share a common language. But here you ve got a king, a prince, and a princess; you re not going to get away without defining their characters and their personalities to a certain extent. So it s really more a matter of creating a story and dialog, both in the cut-scenes and in the game action itself, that will develop the relationships among the characters and advance the story while entertaining the player.
Also in contrast to the previous Prince of Persia games, which as you mentioned earlier prided themselves on having fairly simple controls, this new one is really quite complex, with all of the different moves the prince can pull off with his multiple weapons, and so forth. Was this done to bring the gameplay up to modern expectations?
That s de rigueur for the genre. It s not a handheld game that you play on your cell phone, it s not a point-and-click game like Last Express; this is a console action game, and your audience is going to be people who like to pick up a controller and play.
However, within that, I think we did a pretty good job of keeping the controls simple and consistent. We didn t have the kind of semi-arbitrary memorized combinations where you have to hit X-X-Triangle-Circle.
Each of the four action buttons does a fairly simple, understandable thing, and from that is generated quite a lot of richness as to what the player can actually do. And that comes from having the controls be context-sensitive. So that, for example, pressing X if you re clinging to a pillar will cause you to eject from that pillar, whereas if you press X when you re standing on the ground, it will make you roll or it will make you jump, depending on the situation. In Sands of Time , it s the same principle as in Prince 1 : our goal was to get the player to the point where he doesn t have to think about what button is he going to press, but just develop that instinct of reaching for a certain button in certain types of situations and have the richness flow out of that.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time seems to be pushing forward and innovating the storytelling/gameplay blend that s very popular these days. How do you see that evolving in the coming years?
Certainly story is becoming more appreciated as an element of games. But games are not about story. A movie is about the story, a game is about the gameplay. A good story can enrich a game, it can add to the pleasure, in much the same way that a good musical score can add to the enjoyment of a movie. But game designers can sometimes fall into the trap of developing a really complex story and thinking that somehow makes the game more complex or more interesting. Most action/adventure games with complex stories suffer from a clunky alternation between gameplay and cut-scenes. My personal preference to enhance the story aspect of action games is to bring the story into the gameplay. If an interaction can happen while you re playing rather than while you re sitting back and watching a cut-scene, then that s the best place for it. Sands of Time does that to a degree in the relationship between the prince and Farah. As they re fighting off monsters they shout to each other, they call warnings to each other, and occasionally if the prince is hurt after a fight, Farah will express concern. There s a lot of natural opportunities for humor, whereas humor in a cut-scene can seem kind of forced. The times that we do stop the game for a cut-scene between the prince and Farah are actually pretty few and brief, and those scenes focus on significant plot twists that flow out of the gameplay and then right back into it with changed stakes.
Do you hope to one day get rid of the cut-scenes entirely?
Oh absolutely. The more we can create a seamless experience where the story unfolds through the gameplay, the more convincing that world becomes. When you bring the story out of the cut-scenes and into the gameplay, the gameplay then becomes more cinematic. In Sands of Time , the camera is not just glued behind the prince s head, following him around. Sometimes you enter a room and the camera takes a cinematic approach, showing you the environment, emphasizing certain features, directing your attention to certain clues. During gameplay, the camera will cut from one angle to another for a dramatic introduction of enemies, to show the prince unsheathe his sword to fight, to show what Farah s doing. As the game camera becomes smarter and freer, that allows you to do things in the game that previously you could only have done in cut-scenes.
Do you think you will ever manage to work on another game other than a new Prince of Persia ?
Much as I enjoyed working on Sands of Time , I don t foresee repeating that level of personal involvement in a Prince of Persia game. This was a special situation because it was really essential both for Ubisoft and myself to get the series off to the strongest start possible. It was such a long gap between Prince 2 and Sands of Time ” ten years ” that it didn t feel like doing a sequel, it felt like an original title. Now that Sands is done, there s a lot of great talent at Ubisoft Montreal and they are very good at building on their franchises and taking them in new directions. I m excited to see what Ubisoft will do with Prince but for my next game, I m most interested in exploring original ideas and new directions.
That s not to say I m done with Prince of Persia because my current project is writingthe screenplay for the Prince of Persia movie, which Jerry Bruckheimer is producing for Disney. John August and I are executive producers on the project.
Do you find that your game designs change much over the course of a project?
With Karateka and Prince of Persia I had the luxury of letting the game evolve over time, since it was just me in a room with a computer, with no budget and no corporate bottom line. I thought Prince of Persia would take a year and it ended up taking three, and that was OK ” that was what it was. Last Express was different because it was such a large project. With the machine that we constructed with hundreds of people and networked computers, every day was expensive, so changing the design in midstream was not an option. There I spent a lot more time at the beginning trying to work out the game in detail. You just have to pray that the original design is solid and doesn t have severe flaws that will reveal themselves down the line.
But your earlier games did change significantly over the course of their development?
Oh yeah. One example: Prince of Persia was originally not supposed to have combat. One of my bright ideas there was an answer to what I saw as the clich d violence of computer games. I wanted the player to be an unarmed innocent in a hostile world full of spikes and traps. There would be lots of gory violence directed against the player, which it would be your job to avoid, but you would never actually dish it out. That was also a way of dealing with the fact that I didn t think there was enough computer memory to have another character running around on the screen at the same time. Luckily, I had stalwart friends who kept pushing me to add combat. When your friends tell you your game is boring, you d better listen.
Shadow Man, the character, was a serendipitous accident because I thought, There s no way to add another character in there, we don t have the memory for it. Only if the character looked exactly like the Prince, if he used the same animation frames. I can t remember who suggested it, but by shifting the character over by one bit and then exclusive ORing with himself you got a black shape with a shimmery white outline. So I tried that, and when I saw Shadow Man running around the screen I said, Cool, there s a new character. So that suggested the whole plot device of the mirror and jumping through the mirror and having an evil alter ego who would follow you around and try to thwart you by closing a gate that you wanted to be open or by dropping things on your head. And then there was the resolution, where you fight Shadow Man at the end, but you can t kill him, since he s yourself, and if you kill him you die. So you have to find a way to solve that. Call it Jungian or what you will, it was a way to take advantage of the fact that we didn t have that much memory.
So later on you must have found some more memory so you could put in the other characters.
A lot of the time that goes into programming a game like Prince of Persia on a computer like the Apple II is taking what you ve done already and redoing it to make it smaller and faster. Eventually the stuff that was in there just got more efficient and left enough room to come up with a limited set of character shapes for the guards. If you notice, there s a lot that the guards can t do. They can t run and jump and chase you. All they can do is fight.
Your games have all been very visually appealing. How did you balance the games visual appearance with the requirements of the gameplay?
I think along with what we already talked about with the simplicity of the controls and consistency of the interface, visuals are another component where it s often tempting to compromise. You think, Well, we could put a menu bar across here, we could put a number in the upper right-hand corner of the screen representing how many potions you ve drunk, or something. The easy solution is always to do something that as a side effect is going to make the game look ugly. So I took as one of the ground rules going in that the overall screen layout had to be pleasing, had to be strong and simple. So that somebody who was not playing the game but who walked into the room and saw someone else playing it would be struck by a pleasing composition and could stop to watch for a minute, thinking, This looks good, this looks as if I m watching a movie. It really forces you as a designer to struggle to find the best solution for things like inventory. You can t take the first solution that suggests itself, you have to try to solve it within the constraint that you set yourself.
So what made you decide to stop working in games and pursue screenwriting full time?
I ve always sort of alternated games and film projects. I think there s a lot of value to recharging your creative batteries in a different medium. Karateka took a lot of inspiration from my film studies at Yale, especially silent films. Prince of Persia would not have been as rich if I hadn t spent those couple of years after Karateka thinking and breathing film, writing a screenplay. The same with Last Express . That project came on the heels of doing a short documentary film in Cuba called Waiting for Dark . And Sands of Time came after my longest break from games, several years during which I wrote screenplays and directed another documentary, Chavez Ravine. Right now, the challenge of writing the Prince of Persia movie and getting a good film made is my top priority. After that, I don t know whether my immediate next project will be a film, a video game, or something else. To me a compelling project is one that I have to talk myself out of pursuing, rather than talk myself into it.
Technology is evolving pretty fast. A video game now is so different from what a video game was ten years ago, who s to say what we ll be doing in ten years?
So it s not that you prefer working in a more linear form. It s more of an alternate pursuit for you.
It s a different form, but a lot of the challenges are surprisingly similar. With a computer game, although it s a non-linear means of telling a story, you still have the fascinating mystery of what is it about a particular world or a particular set of characters that makes that game thrilling and gripping. What makes people say, I want to play this game, I want to be Mario, and then look at another game that might be technically just as good and say, I have no interest in being this character in this world. Same with a film. There s some mysterious chemistry between an audience and a storyteller that causes the audience to decide, even based just on the trailer, whether or not they want to live this particular story.
The two art forms are not all that dissimilar when it comes to sitting down and wrestling with a set of elements and trying to get them into some kind of finite shape. The challenges of taking an established genre and breaking new ground with it somehow, of making it surprising and suspenseful, of economically using the elements at your disposal, are very similar whether it s a game or a film. The hardest thing with Karateka and Prince of Persia on the Apple II was coming back to it day after day, looking at something that had taken me a week to program and saying, You know what? I got it working, but now I have to throw it out and find something different. Same with screenwriting. You have to be willing to throw away your own work repeatedly over the course of a long project in order to arrive at that finite set of elements that works just right.
I ve heard a lot of people say that film was the dominant art form of the 20th century, and now games are going to dominate the 21st century. As someone who s worked in both games and film, I wondered if you wanted to comment on what you think of the future of the two mediums.
I don t know. I sort of scratch my head about that type of statement. Is film more dominant an art form than music? What does that really mean? I think film and video games are very different art forms. We re going through an interesting period right now where video games are more like movies, and movies, or at least a certain type of summer blockbuster movie, are more like video games than they have been at any time in the past. There s a great interest in Hollywood and the video game industry of creating these kind of cross-marketed properties so that you can have the hit movie and the hit video game and the hit theme park ride all come out at the same time. But that doesn t mean that every single film that s made has to be a summer popcorn movie. It also doesn t mean that every video game that s made has to be this sort of spectacular, story-driven, film-friendly thing. The extreme example of a game that has no movie potential is something like Tetris . It succeeds purely as a game. The gap between Tetris and Krzysztof Kieslowski s Blue is pretty huge. [laughter] So there s plenty of healthy room for innovation in both fields, and that s not going to change any time soon.
Jordan Mechner Gameography
Karateka , 1984
Prince of Persia , 1989
Prince of Persia 2 , 1993
The Last Express , 1997
Prince of Persia 3D , 1999 (Consultant)
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time , 2003
This interview originally appeared in a different form in Inside Mac Games magazine, www.imgmagazine.com. Used with permission.