STORY GAMES: "The Last Express"
In "The Last Express," you play Dr. Robert Cath, a suave, ironic American who is traveling from Paris to Constantinople on the Orient Express in order to flee British Justice for his role in the murder of a police officer in Ireland.

It is the eve of World War One, and you are not the only person escaping Europe. Accompanying you on the last express train to the East are a gang of cross-dressing Serbian rebels, a stony Austrian violinist, a German arms dealer, a Russian anarchist, a pair of Russian nobles, a plummy British intelligence agent, a Persian harem, a British divorcee, a French seductress, a middle-class French family, an Egyptian art collector, a wolfhound, and a magic toy firebird.

Basically, you are traveling across Europe carrying the game "Diplomacy" under one arm and a dapper umbrella under the other.

When you arrive on the train, you discover that your contact has been murdered and his compartment has been robbed. You assume his identity in order to uncover the killer, setting in motion a chain of circumstances that will either lead to death, dishonor, or freedom.

"The Last Express" was written and designed by Jordan Mechner, the same fellow who designed the "Prince of Persia" series, including the recent "Sands of Time." Mechner's lifelong obsession with time and fixing mistakes is apparent even in this early game, and "The Last Express" is built around the fun insight that before the World Wars and before Einstein, we saw time as a train, barreling along in one direction toward one unchangeable future with only one possible set of circumstances coupled together like train cars to take us to the end of the tracks.

Famously, Mechner's "The Last Express" takes place in real time, and is built like a time machine. If you do nothing, you will be caught and arrested. If you are caught and arrested, it is because the chain of events you either set in motion or allowed to happen led directly to your doom. If you are caught and arrested (or killed), you can rewind the game to a point where you still have freedom of action and you can still change your future.

You must scurry from car to car, staying one step ahead of the conductor and the law, determining the relationships between your fellow passengers and trying to prevent war while simultaneously solving the mystery of your friend's murder. At any point in the game, you can back up along the tracks (and back through time) in order to fix something, observe something else happening in a different part of the train, or try something new. You can keep two games going at once so that if your experiment yields no new insights you can go BACK TO THE FUTURE.

This is necessary, considering that the "game" is all about being in the right place at the right time, breaking into the right car when people are away, and overhearing the right conversation that will give you a clue about what to do next.

If you get everything right, you will pass on like Bill Murray in "Groundhog Day." If not, you have to do it all over again, trying to figure out what went wrong and what your objectives should have been.

Though groundbreaking and mechanically important, "The Last Express" is not much as fun to play as you'd think, on account of very tedious repetition and few options for genuine interaction with your environment. You can collect maybe five items in the game, and you will deploy them in ways that are either obvious or ridiculous (you use a matchbox to collect a beetle; you use a match to burn away insulation from a ticking timebomb). Conversations are handled by catching people at correct moments, in which case you can click the "word balloon" icon on them and enjoy a little movie (the best one is when you and the roly-poly German arms dealer do some ballroom dancing to celebrate the phenomenon of love).

True, the game is beautiful to watch. "The Last Express" is illustrated in a jerky, rotoscoped art nouveau style that reminds me of those European cartoons where only every 10th frame is animated in order to save money.

Here's the beginning:

I have to admit, the game is superficially very intelligent and urbane. To get the most from "The Last Express," you need to speak a little German, Russian, and French. Have you ever heard characters discuss "Madame Bovary" and the Dreyfus Affair in a video game?

The answer is "no."

However, watching somebody play this game is much more fun than actually playing it yourself.

It is hard to enjoy the conversations and intrigue while you are hurtling through the cars, furiously pointing and clicking, trying to find something you can do that won't trigger your demise. Ever waste quarters on that arcade game "Dragon's Lair" when you were a kid?

A good story game doesn't reward your reflexes or sheer persistence. A good story game rewards you for telling the best story, for anticipating the narrative choices of the game's author and for then helping the story proceed along the path carved out by the game's subtle logic. Out of an infinitude of possible game actions, you must determine the next interesting thing to do, and your reward is that your solution opens up more choices and more possibilities. Correct choices breed choice diversity, like getting an education.

By playing story games, your mind is trained to see the world as a waiting narrative puzzle. All lies in stasis while you break down and reconfigure your world, putting it together in new ways that advance your life along the right path. There is no death. There is only frustration. If you are not achieving progress, it is because you are not thinking hard enough.

"The Last Express" has some of these qualities, and is worth playing if you are bored or a completist, but it is not as much of a forgotten classic as I was led to believe, and lacks the fundamental quality that makes a story game an escape from reality instead of a burden: freedom of time. To be restrained to a ticking clock (even a reversible one) while the tale unfolds is too much like real life.

And anyway, all those mechanistic philosophers were wrong about time in the first place. It's not like a railroad. It's more like bumper cars.

Posted by miracle on Thu, 11 Jun 2009 09:47:44 -0400 -- permanent link

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