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March 11, 2009 2:37 PM   Subscribe

Jordan Mechner's way-ahead-of-its-time PC game "The Last Express," revered for its animation and innovative storytelling, has been recut into a single 75-minute animated narrative playthrough. Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.

It's available on GameTap, by the way, if you'd rather experience the story first-hand.
posted by jbickers (21 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
The Last Express is a unique game in that it takes place in almost complete real-time, albeit accelerated by a factor of six.

Of course! Sure!

[backs away nervously...]
posted by Joe Beese at 2:45 PM on March 11, 2009

I'm really glad you put this here. underappreciated old games are, perhaps, my favorite things in the world that are not attached to me.
posted by shmegegge at 2:53 PM on March 11, 2009

Oh, 90's multimedia games. You're so quaint and empty of 3D explosions and side-scrolling. And your absurdly high production costs seem so low compared to the latest PS3 flavour of the month. Oh 90's multimedia games, I can't quit you.

Game over! Would you like to play another game?

Oh, ok, I guess I can quit you.
posted by GuyZero at 2:57 PM on March 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've never played this one.
Thanks for the pointout!
posted by Lemurrhea at 3:07 PM on March 11, 2009

I wish more games came with a "Cinematic" mode, that let you passively watch an idealized playthrough. There are lots of games, like BioShock, that look very impressive, but just aren't my cup-o-tea as a game player, but totally seem like a movie I would check out.
posted by nomisxid at 3:12 PM on March 11, 2009

Orient Express is based on famous travelers who actually boarded the train in historic Istanbul and features almost complete real-time pipe/monocle/cane/hat switching. Now here is a Giant Enemy Eunuch, you can attack his weak point for... no, wait, that won't work.
posted by Krrrlson at 3:13 PM on March 11, 2009

This is fantastic, and I can't wait until I have time to watch.

Plus, it gives me another chance to point out Grim Fandango: The Movie as having already done something like this.
posted by graventy at 3:13 PM on March 11, 2009 [7 favorites]

This is a wonderful game. You're an American secret agent, who has been inserted onto the final run of the Orient Express. You find your contact unexpectedly murdered. Your first task is to avoid being arrested for his killing; your second, that of figuring out what's actually going on.

Somewhat like the Infocom game Witness, the other characters are autonomous and move about independently. They have many detailed conversations, some of which are critically important, some of which are moderately important, and most of which are irrelevant. You have to play through many times in order to understand the larger picture, and to learn where you need to be at what time to collect the evidence you need. IIRC, there are a number of possible endings, based on how much you managed to accumulate.

The voice acting is first rate, the graphics are beautiful, and the puzzles are excellent. Movement, sadly, is quite choppy; it's a 2D game in a 3D world, so you have to move in discrete steps between locations. I'm almost sure that the choppy, somewhat slow movement drove people away. It does looks kind of amateurish at first, but computers of the time would have had a very hard time doing a true 3D model of the Orient Express, in all its luxury. Even now, all these years later, doing this game in true 3D would be very difficult and expensive.

The game is also quite slow-paced and cerebral, so the depth of the story and the care that was taken in the game's construction aren't immediately obvious.

Like most really groundbreaking games, it flopped miserably. Don't let that stop you from experiencing it. If you don't have the patience to solve the puzzles yourself, the links here probably wouldn't be a bad alternative. Flash video compression doesn't mix as well as I'd like with the style of step-frame animation that they used, but it's better than nothing.

Great post, jbickers.
posted by Malor at 3:13 PM on March 11, 2009 [5 favorites]

Quite looking forward to watching this - I borrowed a friend's copy a couple of years ago, and spent a few hours playing it, but I found it intensely frustrating. Like Malor says, it's absolutely groundbreaking and I think there are some incredible ideas in there, from the replayable realtime aspect of it; the issue is that, personally, I found it very difficult and not very fun. Even with a walkthrough, I found it difficult, because it's not your typical point-and-click where you can move at your own pace - you need to time things very carefully.

As someone who makes story/game hybrids, I find games like the Last Express to be very inspiring and instructive - there are ideas that deserve to be given a second look. However, it's also a reminder that the best ideas are worthless unless they're executed well and are actually fun to play for a decent number of people. The Last Express wasn't just before it's time - it was also far too challenging.
posted by adrianhon at 3:29 PM on March 11, 2009

A decade ago I was reviewing games like this (for my site AllAbout Games) and had a few conversations with game designers for things like Fable, Broken Sword and Last Express and asked each of them if they would consider putting a cinematic mode in the game as a "win" reward, so you could just watch the thing all the way through. And to a person, each one said NO WAY, that would ruin the experience and story.

Glad to see I wasn't the only one with the idea!
posted by seanmpuckett at 3:50 PM on March 11, 2009

Honestly, based on the popularity of Gamefaqs and walkthroughs in general, I still *cannot believe* that more games don't have in-built hint systems at the very least. Perhaps due to my games suckitude, I have always had to use hints at some point during every adventure game (with the notable exception of Portal) - and so I see it as a case of monumental arrogance not to even consider offering the option of hints or cinematic modes within games. Don't designers want their players to get to the end and see all the content?
posted by adrianhon at 3:54 PM on March 11, 2009

Courtesy of the Internet Archive, "The Making of the Last Express."
posted by zippy at 4:06 PM on March 11, 2009 [2 favorites]

adrianhon is correct that the game was extremely difficult, likely too hard. I was looking back with nostalgia-colored glasses. It was hard enough that I ended up using a walkthrough to see the whole game. Didn't regret the purchase at all, but I definitely didn't solve it on my own.

Grim Fandango was the same way -- the puzzle at the end of Year 2 was fiendishly hard. But even armed with a walkthrough, the experience in both cases was entirely worth the price of admission.
posted by Malor at 4:56 PM on March 11, 2009

Oh, absolutely. I see using walkthroughs as par for the course when playing adventure games - I think I had one open pretty much all the time during The Longest Journey. Like Malor, it didn't bother me at all, but it would've been nice to not have to alt-tab away to read it!
posted by adrianhon at 5:27 PM on March 11, 2009

graventy's comment cannot be favorited enough. Grim Fandango the Movie is FPP-worthy.

So why haven't I FPP'd it??
posted by JHarris at 8:54 PM on March 11, 2009

I just recently played this game, partly due to my admiration and respect for Jordan Mechner as a game designer, partly to discover what this game was like after seeing it on various lists of unappreciated PC games, and partly because its premise sounded so interesting.

It took some getting used to, at first. The interface is VERY 90's multimedia game, meaning clunky. It was also a bit difficult to get used to the animation. For someone I associate with being both groundbreaking (if you ever played the original Prince of Persia) and consistently excellent (if you ever played the Sands of Time) when it comes to animation, The Last Express was actually a bit of a letdown. I understood it was due to technology limitations, but moving down a corridor is like clicking on a slideshow, and a lot of the character animations were just single frames repeated over and over. There is some beautiful animation in there, such as when people pass you in the hallways, or some of the fight scenes, where the frames of animation are restored to a full 24 frames, but they just serve to make you wish the rest of the game was fully animated.

For the first 20 minutes or so, I kept thinking of how much more immersive the game would be if someone remade it in a modern 3-D engine. After that I grew accustomed to the game and it didn't bother me as much. However, I still think it would be amazing if someone did make a Source engine remake, mixing it with Google Earth somehow to fill in the ever-passing landscape.

The game is definitely clunky. It's hard to go back to the old adventure game interface which was clunky to begin with. At first I was quite lost. I had no idea who I was, or what I was supposed to do. The game also has a very abrupt way of ending if you mess up, which happened quite a lot at first, but there is a rewind feature that is probably the most elegant way of dealing with this in the context of a 90's adventure game, although it is still jarring. The game is unsuccessful in that there will be times where there really is nothing to do, and when you've been conditioned by other adventure games and all games in general that there is always something to do, this takes some getting used to (there is a newspaper to read, but I always felt like I was missing something else if I stopped to read it). The puzzles can also be difficult, as has been said. They are not random, and they will make sense in hindsight, but I would still recommend a walkthrough if you do decide to play it.

The Last Express is also unsuccessful in that due to the open-ended nature of the game, the triggers for certain events can be set off without having seen or set off previous events that explained or led into the ones you are seeing, which can leave you more than a bit confused at times. The time-based nature of the game also means you might miss certain events completely, none crucial to the story, but I would argue crucial to the experience and still very largely important to understanding the story and characters. This may be where watching a playthrough is actually better, in that you will see things in the proper order, and not miss anything accidentally, either.

The game is a slow burner. I started playing just out of curiosity, was a bit put off by its awkwardness, but kept playing just because I was so impressed with what it was trying to do. It takes a while, but if you give it the chance, the game becomes both intriguing and haunting. If you have the patience and means to give this game a chance, please do so. I know I have just spent the last three paragraphs critiquing the game, but that's more so whoever is thinking about trying it will know what they're getting into. I really believe The Last Express is worth playing, and that the good things about it outweigh its clunkier aspects.

There were two things I thought of when I finished the game. The first: "I want to know more, about this game, about its production, about the time period." This led me to track down the long out-of-print strategy guide, just so I could read more about the game itself, and the (fascinating) interview with Jordan and Tomi (co-creator of the game) about the making of the game. If there's enough interest, I could transcribe it and post it here for anyone else interested in reading it.

The second: "Why hasn't anyone tried to do anything like this since?" I know the answer to that is because the game sold horribly and the adventure genre was basically dead at that point, but I don't mean something exactly like The Last Express, just something in the same vein, heck, even something in the same general bloody direction. There has been nothing like it, or even attempting to be like it, since.

This game has people speaking in five different languages with no apologies, on top of that they hired native speakers for the voicework and even made sure regional accents were paid attention to. They went on a quest to find the original traincars from the Express just so they could be modeled properly. There is an original score by a talented composer. There is an actual 30 minute violin concert. The amount of work that went into the game is staggering.

Just reading about the game is fascinating. Anyone even remotely interested should at the very least read the wikipedia article, just to know more about how much work went in, and to know more about the reasons it failed commercially. The Gamasutra article, which is linked in the FPP, is also worth reading.

It's really a shame that aside from the original Prince of Persia and its sequel, the rest of Jordan Mechner's games have sold very poorly (both due to marketing and release issues). If any of you have not played Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, I would highly recommend doing so. It's a game with a fairy-tale atmosphere, interesting characters, beautiful environments, the most mature portrayal of sex I've seen in a game thus far (read: relevant to the story, relevant to the characters, not done for the sake of titillation), and a plot that could only be done in a game. It's great.

Jordan Mechner is one of the few developers that I think really gets games as a medium. I think this is partly due to his multi-disciplined background, but also because he recognizes how games differ in comparison to other mediums and how to best make use of its strengths, rather than just merely transposing methods from other mediums. (Also, the Prince of Persia graphic novel is well worth reading, drawing from a lot of mythology and cultural history. There's a conversation about the book with Mechner and AB Sina here, and the excellent afterword from the book here, which also touches upon recognizing differences in mediums)

This is what games are supposed to do. Take you places you cannot go. Let you do things you otherwise could not. Sometimes they can even manage to impart history in a way you could never get from a book. Sometimes they can manage to give you emotional experiences and characters that stay with you. Few games do. The Last Express does.

I initially thought that some devoted fan put together the movie, as is usually the case, but was surprised to find out the devoted fan was Jordan Mechner himself. I'm glad you still think about the game, Mr. Mechner. I'm also glad that you put this together, so more people have a chance, in some way, to see what this game was all about.

I don't know if you're reading this thread, Mr. Mechner, and I will send you an e-mail in case you aren't, but there's something I wanted to say. Thank You, Jordan Mechner. For the Prince of Persia, one of the first non-educational computer games I played as a child on my family's Apple IIGS. That game amazed me with its animation, the first game where I realized how realistic something could be portrayed in a video game. Thank you for the Sands of Time, one of my favorite games of all time. Thank you for the Last Express, a game that in some ways has not aged well, and in other ways is still unsurpassed. It's a game I love for what it is, and for what it tried to be. Thank you for being an artist where so many others were content with being businessmen.

I know you're busy with the Prince of Persia movie right now, but please don't forget about games. You are honestly my favorite game designer, and I would hate to think that you might never make another one.
posted by wander at 10:42 PM on March 11, 2009 [15 favorites]

I always wanted to play this.

And now I want to play Grim Fandango again, the best overall game narrative I've ever encountered.

"Mass gazpacho poisoning." Hehe.
posted by bardic at 3:45 AM on March 12, 2009

What an awesome comment, wander. I'd favorite it twice if I could.

You can add my signature to your note; I loved Sands of Time, and hadn't realized Mr. Mechner was that closely involved with it. Despised the sequel, though, so hopefully that wasn't his. :) Mr. Mechner, if you do more games, I will faithfully buy them.

bardic: if you haven't played it yet, The Longest Journey is in the same ballpark as Grim Fandango. I actually like TLJ just the slightest bit better. You can get it quite cheaply on Steam, something like $10.

Bring a walkthrough. You'll need it. :)
posted by Malor at 4:02 AM on March 12, 2009

TLE is impossible to get in the UK now - you'd be lucky if you can find it on eBay, disc only, for £25. I was supposed to have a copy on the way from Amsterdam but it seems to have got lost in the post. There was an article in PC Gamer magazine on it recently that made me want to give it a shot.
posted by mippy at 7:30 AM on March 12, 2009

I love this game. I'm really glad it finally seems to be getting some of the recognition it deserves. We need more games like this, not more Final Fantasy XXXVII Gaidan Stories or Halo 7s or Resident Evil: Skirting Around the Edges of Racist 5s.

And although it's already referenced in the wikipedia article, I am seizing this opportunity for a legit self link.
posted by permafrost at 7:34 AM on March 12, 2009

I doubt anyone is going to come back in here to read this, but a few things I should add: When I said Jordan Mechner is one of the few game designers that really gets it, I meant narrative and character development in games, in addition to gameplay. There are plenty of other talented designers out there that understand gameplay, but I think that narrative is where designers are currently having the most trouble.

Malor: Thanks for the kind words. The Sands of Time was the game that made me start paying attention to Jordan Mechner as a game designer. Until then he had just been a name that I associated with faint nostalgia and respect due to the original Prince of Persia. As for the sequels to Sands of Time, Jordan Mechner had nothing to do with those. By then was busy writing the screenplay for the Prince of Persia movie.

In my recommendation for the Sands of Time, I forgot to add the standard disclaimer about the sequels. If you liked the characters, environments, story, and tone of the first game, then AVOID THE SEQUELS at all costs. The shift from the first game to the second game is like going to sleep in the Arabian Nights and waking up in Oedipus. I did not play the second game (I hadn't actually even played the first when it came out), but I was aware of the controversy surrounding it when it came out, and I had the chance to watch my cousin play the first 20 minutes or so. I did play the third game in the series after hearing that Ubisoft had tried to bring it back closer in tone to the first game, but I found it to be a soulless retread of the first game in a lot of ways.

If you're in it just for the gameplay, then go ahead and play the sequels. That was the only thing that survived intact. While the gameplay itself was really quite good, it's wanting a complete experience like the first game that made the sequels so disappointing.
posted by wander at 3:22 PM on March 14, 2009

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