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The Making of The Last Express (Journals 1993-2000) by Jordan Mechner

Posted: Mon Dec 14, 2020 4:40 pm
by Flack
Jordan Mechner's third set of journals, covering the development of his third game, The Last Express, do not exist. I mean, maybe Mechner has them, but to date they have never been published. What follows is a book review of a book that was never written.

While not developed within a bubble, Karateka was essentially a one man project. Mechner came up with the concept, designed the graphics, and wrote all the code (at least for the Apple II version). Mechner's goal was to write the best selling game for the Apple II, and at one point, he had. His desire to create great games sent him back to the keyboard to develop Prince of Persia. While most of Prince of Persia was Mechner's doing, he got assistance with some of the graphics and a lot of the music. The best selling version of Prince of Persia, the MS-DOS port, was not programmed by Mechner. By the time Broderbund was clamoring to release a sequel, Mechner had all but excused himself from the technical process. All of the coding, sound, graphics and level design for Prince of Persia 2 was done in house at Broderbund, with Mechner checking in every other month to monitor the game's progress. Royalties from the original POP made Mechner a millionaire, and no-doubt the sequel, combined with dozens of ports to other platforms, made him very, very rich.

Mechner's imaginary third set of journals begin with him enjoying the good life. Nobody with a penchant for travel and nice things can remain unchanged after becoming a kazillionaire. I suspect these journals would open with several jet-setting stories. In his first two sets of journals, he was still rubbing elbows with other videogame developers. With a net worth of 8 figures, it's doubtful Mechner was still spending his evenings with his old Broderbund pals, talking about Choplifter and Lode Runner.

Mechner's dream was always to combine the look, feel, and music from movies into his games. By the mid-90s, thanks to the progression of computer technology (including CD-ROMs and soundcards), Mechner probably got the itch to try his hand again at pushing the envelope and creating another story-based game. Drawing on his travel experience, he would set this third game on a train -- the Orient Express -- and create an interactive cinematic experience to home computers.

Based on the game's release date (1997), it's fair to assume that Mechner probably saw, and was influenced by, Myst. In Myst, players can navigate and interact with a virtual world. Mechner would have loved this technology, but been frustrated by it's lack of a plot. I can imagine an entry where he would say if only he could use the engine from Myst with one of his own stories, he could make the ultimate adventure game.

Based on the success of Karateka and Prince or Persia, I'll bet Mechner felt invincible. In his second set of journals he mentioned that he was already being revered by the new, young programmers at Broderbund, and by attaching his name to a project, I'm sure he could have got anything he wanted, including loans and an impressive royalty rate. We know that Broderbund wasn't doing well in the mid-90s, and Mechner was probably forced to put up a lot of his own money for the game's development. Again, by this point Mechner had developed two games, both of which had won awards and been the #1 selling game for their respective systems for months at a time. Making great games came easy to Mechner. I'm sure he believed in the project and had no worries about whether or not it would succeed.

The Last Train used an advanced version of Mechner's rotoscoping technique, and I'll bet there would be a lot of information about that. The entire game was shot like a film, with actors against a green screen. The pictures were converted to line drawings and then colored by hand. He probably would have talked about how far technology had some compared to the early days of poking in graphics one pixel at a time.

According to Wikipedia, Smoking Car Productions, Mechner's company he formed specifically to develop this game, had 60 full-time employees. From the same entry, we know the development costs of The Last Train were $5-$6 million. Compare that to Karateka, which was written on a $3,000 advance.

In 1993 Doom was released, followed by Doom II in 1994 and a wave of first person shooters after that. The PlayStation was released in 1995; the Nintendo 64 in 1996. All of these things happened after development began on The Last Train, but before it was released. Mechner had to have been worried to see the market changing while he was already millions deep into his project.

The Last Train, Mechner's masterpiece, was released in 1997 to a largely disinterested market. Some of the best selling games of 1997 include Diablo, Mario Kart 64, Tekken 3, X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter, Golden Eye 64, Ultima Online, Mortal Kombat 4, Fallout, The Curse of Monkey Island, Quake II, Gran Turismo, and a brand new franchise called Grand Theft Auto. The Last Express, point-and-click adventure that creates the illusion of animation by cross-fading still pictures every few seconds, must have appeared absolutely archaic on shelves compared to those titles.

At the same time The Last Train was released, Broderbund imploded. There was no press for the game, the marketing team quit, the PlayStation version was cancelled, Broderbund was bought by The Learning Company (who was not interested in the game), and the game disappeared from shelves a month after it was released. Critics and industry insiders loved the game, but few others saw it. Wikipedia states that the game "was one million sales short of breaking even."

This would have been Mechner's fall from grace. He had essentially stepped up to the plate twice in his life and managed to hit home runs both times. This time, things did not go the same way.

I suspect this journal would have ended with Mechner saying goodbye to the video game world, although we know that a few years later, Prince of Persia was rebooted on modern consoles. Although it's unlikely he had any part in the coding (or any say, really) in those games, Disney eventually purchased the rights to the game to make their movie, and all of this probably made Mechner rich once again at a time when he thought he was done with the characters he had created forever.

Re: The Making of The Last Express (Journals 1993-2000) by Jordan Mechner

Posted: Tue Dec 15, 2020 12:59 am
by Jizaboz
Very interesting history here, Flack!

I own (owned?) a digital copy of The Last Express. While it has excellent presentation and is pretty interesting.. I just failed over and over again much like playing timed Infocom detective games. Didn't want to spoil it with a guide.

Re: The Making of The Last Express (Journals 1993-2000) by Jordan Mechner

Posted: Tue Dec 15, 2020 8:37 am
by Flack
Yeah, everything in the game happens in real time, which means you have to be in specific places at specific times to see specific events. From what I read there's a "roll back time" feature that allows you to go back and move locations to see more of the game, but... yeah. Also, yes, this game was remade/updated and was available on Steam and GOG, although I don't know if they still are.