Gaming on the Orient Express

The Last Express opens in Paris, June 1914, the eve of the First World War. Boarding the famous Orient Express is a diverse crowd of anarchists, aristocrats, musicians, dissidents and businessmen. Amongst them is an American, Robert Cath, a doctor and a fugitive, wanted for his part in a nasty episode in Ireland that left two men dead. Boarding the train at the very last moment, Cath makes an unpleasant discovery: His contact, Tyler Whitney, has been murdered by one of his fellow passengers. Stuck in a berth with a fresh corpse and with the police already after him, Cath needs to think fast.

In retrospect, it’s tempting to compare Jordan Mechner’s 1997 opus, The Last Express, with Yu Suzuki’s Shenmue, released some four years later. Both were hugely ambitious and expensive, with Mechner’s game costing $6 million to Suzuki’s rumored $20 million. Both comprised a large cast of speaking characters and, though linear and story driven, offered a large degree of freedom in how the player progressed. And, of course, both began with a murder.

After producing two award-winning platform titles – Prince of Persia and its sequel, The Shadow and the Flame – it must have been tempting for Mechner to sit back and watch his franchise reel in the money. Instead, he formed a game studio, Smoking Car Productions, and set to work on an ambitious cinematic adventure set aboard the last Orient Express train to traverse Europe before the outbreak of the war.

The game was to be a point and click adventure title, but one which featured some unusual and innovative game mechanics. Unlike previous adventure games, which organized themselves solely by location, The Last Express worked to a timetable of events occurring in the half dozen or so carriages of the Orient Express train. Like Shenmue, the game used an accelerated real-time system and directed its cast around the player, rather than having the player’s interactions dictate the flow of events.

Playing The Last Express felt uncannily like being on the train and mingling with the other passengers. Events occur around the player, who is free to roam the train at will. As conversations are overheard and fellow passengers are encountered over dinner or in the smoking compartment, the illusion of being within a microcosm of pre-war society becomes total. In a final touch of verisimilitude, the designers went back to the records of Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, the company that runs the Orient Express, to ensure that details such as departure times, weather details and the number of carriages present were correct. When the friendly English gentleman who seems to know too much about Cath remarks on the rain, you can be sure his small talk is historically accurate.

Second to The Last Express‘ gameplay innovations were its distinctive looks. The interior of the train had been modelled with a high degree of accuracy – Smoking Car even went to the length of acquiring an actual Orient Express carriage to verify their digital reproduction. But the most striking graphical feature is the way Mechner’s team chose to depict the passengers. All the characters were played by live actors, who were filmed in a month-long blue screen shoot, and then painstaking rotoscoped. Rotoscoping is a technique by which filmed images are projected onto a surface, then turned into animated sequences. It was used most notably in Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings adaptation, and more recently in Richard Linklater’s Waking Life. Although full motion animation was occasionally used, most characters use a slide system, consisting of about one frame per second. While using the actual filmed images in this way would have been awkward and jerky and would have required a huge amount of storage space, the rotoscoped images seem quite natural and have a beautiful, painterly, art-deco appeal to them.

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But no matter how interesting a character appears, it’s what they say and do that counts, and The Last Express doesn’t disappoint here, either. Mechner’s game was populated by individuals plucked from every corner of Europe, and almost all of them had something to hide. There’s Herr Schmidt, the German industrialist and arms-dealer, growing fat selling weapons to anyone prepared to pay the price. Could the Serbian nationalists sharing the berth just down the carriage, discussing ways to free their country from oppression, have anything to do with him? Then there’s Alexei, the high-born anarchist and romantic, sharing the train with his childhood friend Tatiana and her grandfather, Count Vassili, a Russian Aristocrat and Alexei’s natural enemy. And most interesting to Cath is Anna Wolff, a beautiful Austrian violinist, traveling alone except for her faithful dog and a concealed revolver.

Additionally, the voice acting is uniformly excellent; quite a feat considering the number of accents and languages used. Characters speak constantly, in English, French, German, Russian and Serbian. It’s even possible, during the stop in Vienna, to discern the differences between native and Austrian German speakers. Subtitles are used for the languages Cath understands, which is several. The player is freely encouraged to keep their ears open, as much of the games clues are in snatches of overheard conversation.

The Last Express is more than just an entertaining yarn. Each of the characters stands for a different faction in Europe, and watching them interact with each other and with the player offers a fascinating perspective on this period of world history. The game ticks all the boxes required by the arthouse games movement: innovative gameplay with a fresh slant on an old genre, an original graphical approach and a sophisticated, adult story and theme. So why isn’t The Last Express better known?

The answer is fairly simple: The game sold only 100,000 copies. It finished somewhere around a million units shy of breaking even. Just as Smoking Car Productions was putting the finishing touches on The Last Express, the cracks were appearing in publisher Broderbund, whose share price had been steadily falling since 1995. In 1997, just before the game’s release, Broderbund dissolved its marketing department. As a result, The Last Express was released with almost zero publicity and advertising. Despite this, it still garnered excellent reviews across the board.

But worse was to come. Broderbund was in partnership with Softbank and its subsidiary, GameBank; a publishing deal formed in a bidding war for the rights to Mechner’s game. Abruptly, Softbank decided to pull out of the games market, cancelling the almost complete Playstation port of The Last Express and dropping the game completely.

The next year, Broderbund was bought out by educational software publisher, The Learning Company, who promptly ditched Broderbund’s gaming division. Left without any publishing deal at all, Smoking Car Productions watched the game it spent five years making quietly drift away, unsold and un-played.

Smoking Car Productions shut down, shelving their plans for further titles. Jordan Mechner wouldn’t return to game design for another five years, when he agreed to work on Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time for Ubisoft. Ironically, while receiving mass critical appeal, that game was also set to suffer from low sales and poor marketing, though thankfully not to the same degree. Since then, he has turned to filmmaking, producing the award-winning documentary Chavez Ravine: A Los Angeles Story, filmed while he worked for Ubisoft, and has not made public any future plans regarding gaming. The Last Express is currently out of print, though copies can be acquired via eBay and similar channels. For the curious, the official site has been mirrored by one of the Smoking Car design team.

And that’s where the journey ends. The Last Express could have been another Myst, a game capable of attracting gamers and non-gamers alike. Perhaps it could have joined Sam and Max or Broken Sword and become a classic of the genre. Either way, it did not deserve to become a footnote in gaming history. Even today, almost ten years after the game’s completion, The Last Express still looks, sounds and plays as well as it did in 1997, offering the exact same level of immersion. There are relatively few titles one can say that about. Start up the game, and it’s June 1914 all over again; at Paris, Gare de l’Est the journey is about to begin anew.

All aboard.

Nick Bousfield is a freelance writer who loves games, books, films, music and comics. He also loves being paid to write about them and harbors the crazy dream that one day he’ll do it for a living.

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