The First Express: Mechner’s Last Express Prequel

By Kieron Gillen on August 17th, 2009 at 1:13 pm.

What do you mean I didn't actually use my Oyster card?

I picked up this snippet from Richard Cobbett’s twitter last week. Oddly, as one of his touchstone games, Cobbett’s got nothing extended written about it I can find, so let’s go with his twitter barrage to explain it: “In case you never played it – and you didn’t – TLE was a really cool real-time adventure set on the Orient Express just before WW1. It had about six actual puzzles, but phenomenal attention to detail, and some really nice bits of design. For instance, if you had to avoid someone, you could just lock yourself in your room and wait for them to leave. It sold about four copies.” He’s right. I’ve never played it. However, as one of the more interesting lost-works from a major designer (Mechner=Prince of Persia), it lingers. And lingers with Mechner too, as he made an attempt at a screenplay for a prequel in 2002.

As he says…

Entitled Red Serpent, and set in 1904 Paris, ten years before the events of The Last Express, it would have been an early adventure of Robert Cath (still in medical school) and his best/worst friend Tyler Whitney (upgraded in this version to Cath’s half-brother — a change I don’t think I’d make today).

The plot bears a more-than-slight resemblance to The Da Vinci Code, which would be published the following year. No plagiarism was involved. I’d guess that Dan Brown and I had been reading the same pseudo-historical “research,” including Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Baigent and Leigh (who did, in fact, sue Brown for plagiarism, and lost). Whereas Brown treated their theory seriously, my approach was more tongue-in-cheek.

More here, including notes why he abandoned the project. And, of course, the script itself.

Dracko’s been harrying me into posting this, and he reminds me of the other thing which may be of interest to people intrigued by the Last Express. Mechner captured a mass of footage of the game and edited into a single 75minute linear narrative. It’s not playing the game, but I suspect it may be as close as many of us will ever get. Here’s the first part…

The Last Express – Part 1 from jordan mechner on Vimeo.

And you can find the rest here.

, .

41 Comments »

  1. Alex Hopkinson says:

    Didn’t John do a Long Play on this for Gamer earlier in the year? Or maybe that was Cobbett… It was good, whoever wrote it.

  2. Smee says:

    Hopkinson, I’m not sure if this is the one you were talking about, but The Escapist did a lovely bit on it:

    http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/issues/issue_42/254-Gaming-on-the-Orient-Express

  3. Dracko says:

    You should play it. It was a stunning adventure game because of its ability to create a living space wherein things happened even if you weren’t around and you could affect conversations merely by being present. Sure, the only way this managed to be pulled off was because it was set entirely within three or four train carriages, but the environment was lush and convincing.

    As Mechner points out though, as heavily informed as it is by other visual mediums, it doesn’t work entirely all that well as a film. Nor should it. It demands to be played and is in dire need of some form of rerelease.

  4. Helm says:

    Indeed, play it, don’t watch it. The game is very ‘difficult’ not as in there’s harsh puzzles or anything but because since things happen in real time and you can not be there when they do, there’s this constant feeling of ‘missing out’ involved with it, I can’t really say there’s any other adventure game that has made me feel that tense.

    Also I kinda like the rotoscoped art style. Not so hot on the prerendered 3d but eh.

  5. yaster says:

    Such a shame, this game has some really splendid design behind it. Too bad Broderbound went bankrupt just before the release so there was no advertisement for this. I really think It could shape the way adventure are made if not whole gaming.

    It doesn’t have actual puzzles because the mechanic is based around the time – being at the right time and right place. The whole train lives it’s own life – passengers don’t wait for the player but goes with their own action plan. It really add to tension. Time is of the essence. The only game that made me so nervous about every passing second was pathologic. Such a unique experience. Too bad.

  6. Dracko says:

    I’d say that the puzzles simply arise naturally from the characters and plot, which can’t be said about all too many adventure games, really.

  7. Sartoris says:

    Love this game, wish it was on GOG.

  8. David says:

    Last Express was one of those genuine classics that too few people played. In a parallel universe, the Last Express was spun-off into all sorts of awesome directions. Unfortunately, we live in the universe of Prince of Persia sequels.

  9. Joe Martin says:

    Picked it up a while ago and gave it a play. It’s a brilliant insight into a forgotten path of adventure gaming, but also one of the most directionless adventures ever. Because it’s real-time in flow, but not fully populated with content (and structured like an FMV-game) you spent a large portion of time not knowing what you’re supposed to be doing and repeating the same conversations with people.

    If updated and refined now it would be a classic. As it is, it was just a bit ahead of it’s time and is awkward and frustrating as a result.

  10. Stense says:

    I remember seeing adverts for it in magazines, and thinking how good the art work looked for the time. Unfortunately though I never actually played it. What a shame.

  11. Rob Zacny says:

    The Last Express belongs in the gaming canon. When I hear the, “Where’s gaming’s Citizen Kane?” question, The Last Express is usually the first game I think of. It does leave the player adrift quite a bit, and there is repetition, but a lot of great games suffer from the same problems. I think it more than compensates with the brilliant writing and atmosphere.

  12. GJLARP says:

    Last Express. Great game, sad irony to the name :(

    Mechner was a man with great visions, and great ambitions. POP, Last Express…all great games. Same with Broderbund, they made some awesome games. Shame to see JM not being actively involved anymore.

  13. rnx says:

    great game.
    really liked it for it’s unique style even though i’m not much into adventure games anymore.
    it’s available on gametap.
    I hope it makes it’s way into the “free” section some time so more people can play it.

  14. The_B says:

    Alex: that was Cobbett, who wrote that Long Play, yes. Don’t think it’s on the internet anywhere, but I’ll have a check.

  15. Small Ivory Knight says:

    I remember watching the demo video that came with my copy of Myst, back when I was seven.

    I always looked for this, but never found it.

  16. Tang says:

    I was sorting out my games collection a few months ago and found my copy of this, played it again all the way through. It’s still really really good after all this time, great atmosphere to it. I really wish someone would do something similar nowadays.

  17. Ragnar says:

    The game is brilliant. I was very lucky to be able to get a copy a few years back.

  18. Buemba says:

    I played it for a bit in a friend’s house when I was a kid, but since back then I didn’t understand a word of english I didn’t really like it.

    Now I’d really like the opportunity to give it another go. Hopefully it’ll be put on GOG or some other download service soon.

  19. Blather Bob says:

    I was excited to try this out on GameTap (subscribers only) after reading an interview with Mechner where he mentioned it, but the interface’s clunkyness, and lack of direction given the player, all require more patience from a 2008/2009 player than I was willing to give at the time, especially since it was clearly going to require a lot of hours to play.

    All this praise will probably make me try it again, but I think this is maybe one of those games that hasn’t aged so well and is best for those who experienced it in its time, or maybe it just requires more devotion to the adventure game genre than I have these days.

    Also, did anyone else here read Jordan Mechner’s development diary for the first Prince of Persia (linked in a Sunday Papers, maybe)? He’s been interested in screenwriting ever since back then, delaying his Prince of Persia work to move to Hollywood to persue a sale of a script. I imagine if he didn’t have screenwriting available as a competing interest, we would have seen many more games from him, even after the disaster of Last Express’ sales. And many of them would have probably also been considered classics. Reading his diaries from his work on PoP, he is clearly very intelligent and clearly put a lot of thought into the game design (as opposed to only the programming, remember he did both) of PoP, making reading his diaries at times a bit like reading a modern book on game design, mentioning several now-common theories, but all as things he’s realized by himself, just as a result of working on the one game. It’s also pretty ironic reading his diary with all its worries about whether the work on Prince of Persia was wasting important years of his life that he should be devoting to screenwriting, when the present-day reader knows that nearly 20 years later his first major film is coming out: Prince of Persia: Sands of Time.

  20. bob arctor says:

    It sounds like a Blade Runner that pulled off its ideas more, but shared some of the flaws. Never played it.

  21. Dracko says:

    GJLARP: He is working on a new Karateka project.

    Incidentally, the Prince of Persia comic is golden.

  22. Clovus says:

    Whenever I hear about TLE it reminds me of this weird game I ended up owning: The Scoop (1988). You moved around and interacted like in a Sierra/LucasArts adventure game. You played as a newspaper reporter trying to figure out how some murders occurred. There were quite a few characters who moved around the map on a set schedule. You only had a few days to finish the game, so on any playthrough you could only see a few characters. You had to play it over and over and over again to figure out the correct order to do things. The “puzzles” all revolved around interviewing people and trying to solve the mystery. I think you could use some items too. I remember it having some very complex dialogue trees.

    My brother and I found it very interesting. We would get excited every time we found another minor clue. Unfortunately, the game was very difficult. I think to actually solve it you have to get almost every dialogue tree correct. No one had ever heard of it, there were no hint guides available, and no internet. We eventually just got bored and gave up. It would be interesting if someone made a modern AG like that though. Maybe without the crippling difficulty.

  23. Pemptus says:

    The “stuff happening in real time without the need for your interference” reminds me of Darkseed, a creepy adventure game which was almost impossible without a walkthrough. Good old Amiga days, though.

  24. Hermes says:

    Reminds me of Way of the Samurai 1 and 2 for the PS2. Excellent game. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Way_of_the_Samurai

  25. suibhne says:

    One of the best games I’ve played, of any genre – TLE did some stuff with its design that would still be described as “groundbreaking” if accomplished today. There’s not much like it, and that’s a bloody shame.

  26. Howl says:

    Loved this game. Wonderfully unique art style. I wish more developers would go out on a limb to make something fresh and interesting like this. I got to the last CD but endlessly stabbed and thrown off the train and never did manage to finish it.

  27. Igor Hardy says:

    Contrary to what people seem to remember The Last Express had plenty of puzzles – some traditional, some about figuring out how to manipulate the real time flow of events to the player’s advantage.

    One of the most interesting adventure games ever. It was rather short though.

  28. A-Scale says:

    I can’t get it to run on Vista or Windows 7. That makes me sad.

  29. David says:

    the interface’s clunkyness, and lack of direction given the player, all require more patience from a 2008/2009 player than I was willing to give at the time, especially since it was clearly going to require a lot of hours to play.

    This is such an interesting peculiarity with games. Books, films, and music can all be enjoyed for a hundred years, but games max out in a decade.

  30. Dracko says:

    Not the good ones.

  31. Logo says:

    I can proudly say I owned one of those 4 copies!

    I can also rather say, rather anticlimactically, that I never beat the game and I was far too young/stupid to work through the nuanced gameplay.

  32. Nox says:

    This label tends to be overused, but The Last Express is truly one of the most overlooked and under-appreciated titles released. If I thought I had any hope of running it in Vista x64, I’d dig my copy out and force my girlfriend to play it. Twenty times. Consecutively. I am absolutely certain she’d love it as much as I did.

    The multiple solutions to nearly every situation, coupled with the real-time nature of the game which literally ensured you’d never experience every combination, created an incredibly absorbing and believable atmosphere. The last time I felt the same sensation that ‘what I do matters‘ in a game was playing Witness by Infocom. I unwittingly managed to finish the game in six moves (or so) by hiding behind the sofa at the beginning in the room where the murder takes place, thereby changing the entire story. Why solve a mystery after the fact when you can be an eye-witness instead? And they took this into account!

    Aside from a particularly awkward bit of dialogue near the end–those who have played it will likely know to what I am referring–The Last Express was a masterpiece. And I doubt we’ll ever see its like again.

  33. PAK says:

    Blather Bob – It really doesn’t take a huge time commitment at all, even compared to a modern-day shooter. It’s fairly compact for an adventure game and far more forgiving. Although unlike a LucasArts title you can “lose,” it’s never actually a big deal. It’s main detraction is that the realtime treatment involves in some “hurry up and wait” situations, but the puzzles themselves are ORDERS OF MAGNITUDE more intuitive than anything LA or Sierra ever produced.

  34. PAK says:

    Oh, sorry, wish I could edit the existing post, but A-Scale, I can run it in Vista if I put it in Win95 compatibility mode. Worth a try.

  35. Kakksakkamaddafakka says:

    I still have my box somewhere back home. Even the box art and the box itself was beautiful (full-size A4 with a “page” you could turn in the front).

    One of the most underplayed games ever.

  36. John says:

    TLE is amazing. Amazingly hard. But amazing.

    It was as much a time-management game as it was an adventure game. If I recall, you could basically sit in your seat the whole time and the game would progress without you.

    Reminded me at the time of Sierra’s Colonial’s Bequest, which gave the illusion of time passing independently but didn’t have the balls to really do it. TLE had balls.

    Actually, when RPS posted on Masq a few weeks ago I was trying to think of similar games and both TLE and The Scoop had escaped me. Masq is remarkably similar (and easier) (and nakeder).

    And Clovus, thanks for The Scoop mention. I had totally forgotten that little gem.

  37. Valentin Galea says:

    I really want to love this game, but it’s too buried into the technical limitation of the era i.e too few animation frames – it’s more like a interactive slideshow…

    What the hell is Mechner doing all this time? He should be releasing a HD version of this!

  38. jarvoll says:

    I *cough* “acquired” this game a few months ago and played it… and LOVED it (so there goes the theory that you had to have enjoyed it years ago, or at least, I’m an exception to the rule).

    On thing no-one seems to have mentioned is that all the dialogue is recorded in the characters’ native languages: those two French girls (hawt!) speak French, the Russian grandfather/granddaughter speak Russian, &c… As a language fanatic, I simply can’t describe the feeling I get from turning off the subtitles (or ignoring them, can’t remember if turning them off was an option) and playing as though I were really there. I didn’t get any of the Serbian, unfortunately, but my Russian and French were good enough to get me through, and it was absolutely exhilarating! I wish more games would do character-localization like this instead of the cheesy I’m-a-Usanian-doing-a-Russian-accent junk that generally passes muster. (Seriously HL2, how did *everyone* in eastern-European City 17 come to speak flawless north-American English?)

  39. TinyPirate says:

    I want a follow-on article telling me where I can buy this game (and it running on XP+) and showing me a few good tips and tricks websites! :)

  40. Broklynite says:

    Good god, you know what’s the funniest thing is that I was just trying to find this the other day. I owned it for my old Power PC way back in the day. I couldn’t remember the name- I thought it was Murder on the Orient Express. I remember going nuts with this game tyring to figure it out. I gave up. Lots of very in depth story and characters. But to the teenager I was eventually this was too frustrating. Unclear goals, and no clues (I thought at the time anyway) for how to solve the puzzles. The goals was the big thing because I wasted most of my time getting killed off and such. Long load times between train cars- long enough that it was notable even back then. I’d be curious to play it again, but I don’t weep too much at its loss.