Tag Archives: the last express

Games as Art – Part 4 (David Cage GDC 2011)

3 Mar

At this year’s Game Developers Conference, David Cage, creator of Heavy Rain, questioned the creation of games which are ostensibly for teenagers. (Source: CVG) The focus on killing as sole objective is an aspect of gaming that he disagrees with, in that it fails to engage and tell a story in an interactive manner. Cage makes some very interesting points, looking at the fact that adults are the biggest audience for games now, and that games can use their interactivity to tell a story. Unfortunately for Cage there are a few problems with what he said. Firstly, adults enjoy killing things as much as teens apparently, and in the same way that the most popular movies are simplistic, games are not looked to for their artistic merit by the majority.

For those of us who do look for more from our entertainment, secondly, Heavy Rain, which Cage points to as a more story focused interactive experience, is not all that well plotted in terms of interactivity. Cage deserves an awful lot of credit for attempting to create something so different, but ultimately Heavy Rain has too many flaws to be what he envisioned. The plot is its biggest downfall, more reminiscent of the throwaway thrill of ‘Criminal Minds’ or ‘CSI’ than an intelligent piece of entertainment. It doesn’t answer the question ‘How far would you go for someone you love?’ It is different, it was an exciting few hours and it’s certainly worth playing, but as an example of what gaming could be intellectually and artistically, it falls short.

Cage's Fahrenheit was a far superior game to Heavy Rain

There are, however, some examples of how interactivity and the game format can tell a story in a way a movie, book or any other form of media never could. While Heavy Rain fell back on movie clichés in its storytelling, games like ‘The Last Express’ and’ Facade’ follow a more unique path. These games are far more interesting for the would-be developer than Cage’s creation, and should be held in higher regard amongst gamers. Both games would fail to reach any level of mainstream popularity for different reasons, but one can only hope they become the ‘Velvet Underground’ of gaming. Not many people played them, but everyone who did went on to make a game themselves, to paraphrase.

The Last Express appeared as the adventure game fell from popularity. Created by Prince of Persia developer Jordan Mechner and Smoking Car Productions, it was a perfectly realised period piece. The setting is the Orient Express, the legendary train which travelled from Paris to Constantinople. With characters discussing revolution, and conflict on the lips of most passengers, the pre-Great War setting is stunningly evoked. What makes the game special though, aside from the richly detailed train, is the use of time. The player must travel around the four carriages of the Express, engaging in conversation, looking for clues and trying to piece together exactly why main character Robert Cath is a wanted man attempting to fulfil the revolutionary goals of his murdered friend, Tyler Whitney. The mystery takes a back seat to the characterisation rather quickly, as eavesdropping on conversations reveals more and more about each individual on the train.

The Last Express was an artistic triumph

In using the interactivity of being able to move about the train, Mechner realised a form of storytelling which creates a different experience for each player. In real time it is impossible to hear and see everything, and snippets of overheard discussions of politics shape the way the story pans out. While there is a linear thread holding everything together, there are so many incidental details that the game has far more mysteries than those which affect Cath. The ladies who may be in a relationship, though this is never explicitly stated, the young girl with her sick aristocratic grandfather who meets her childhood friend, now a callous revolutionary, aboard the train, these are the characters which remain with the player long after the game has reached one of its many conclusions. In a book or movie there would either be no time to explore such intricacy, or it would be explicitly available, rather than a wonderful discovery on the player’s part. It is entirely possible to miss all these elements and that is why The Last Express stands above most other games in terms of storytelling nuance, subtlety and interactivity. The reward is not in killing, nor reaching the ending, but discovering the wealth of detail Mechner and his team created.

Facade is similar to Last Express in that it plays out in real time, but this time there is only one room and two characters. The player is faceless and essentially voiceless, simply watching Trip and Grace, a couple the player character is friends with, as their evening descends into soul searching and genuinely affecting relationship breakdown. It’s more like a play than a game, but the player can interject with responses to questions and prodding to influence the flow of their conversation. Multiple endings exist, to the point that after more than ten plays later I have yet to see two the same. Trip and Grace have all the human complexity that is so rare in any form of entertainment, let alone games, slowly revealing truths to each other as they weave through their broken dreams and shattered lives. They can be pushed apart or pulled together, though the player’s input never quite influences things in an obvious manner – Telling them to make up causes them to argue more for example. This is a far cry from the simplicity of most conversation based games, such as Mass Effect.

Grace and Trip have remarkable emotional depth

In telling its story in a manner which allows the player to assume a role, yet in many ways not that which they intend, Facade offers perhaps the most human experience ever seen in an interactive medium. Trip and Grace are far too complex to fully understand after playing through the ten minute experience, and attempting to comprehend their motivations and personalities is compelling. They have more to say in a sigh than most videogame characters manage to grunt out over twenty-plus hours, and that is a tremendous achievement. Without the interactivity this would be a mere stage play, a fleeting glimpse into one part of their relationship, one facade. Giving the player an odd form of control over events allows that facade to be lifted and far more to be revealed than would be were this any other form of media.

Both of these games do something which developers desperately try to and fail in the attempt. All the graphical heft in the world can’t create an immersive world if the player doesn’t feel a part of it. Action games make the player the centre of the universe, a universe where enemies wait for them to arrive only to die in seconds. The problem with this approach is that it’s too formulaic. There is no element of unpredictability to most games. Any surprise is so obviously scripted that an ambush is exactly the same as every other enemy encounter. Immersion requires the player to play a role in the game, yet feel they are part of something bigger. They may be a major player, but there must be that element of a larger world, otherwise the game is just a series of linear levels with the occasional thing that goes ‘boo’. Bungie, for all their faults, knew this when creating Halo: Combat Evolved. It’s disappointing they seem to have forgotten along the way, but Halo was brilliant because Master Chief, overpowered as he was, merely acted as a cog in a greater machine.

Heavy Rain was occasionally rather immature

Last Express and Facade both made use of this element, that the player could influence the story yet it would play on without them, perfectly. Adding real time to this only made the premise more convincing. Gamers often discuss what is and is not ‘art’ in a game. For gaming to truly be considered art, the medium must create a method of storytelling truly distinct from others, and in Facade and Last Express it has. Through offering the player the chance to prod the story along, change its course or merely watch it play out, gaming can carve out a creative niche that cannot be filled by any other type of entertainment. The problem with this is, since adults seem to enjoy ‘teenage’ games, Cage stating that you can create games for adults is just a whisper in the ocean of noise that is the games industry, and money will always shout loudest.

It’s not that these games don’t exist, but Last Express bankrupted the developers and Facade saw more praise from the art community than from gamers. Cage may have done something somewhat different, but it ended up being a heavily marketed, dumbed down thriller which failed to truly innovate, falling into the same routines he criticised other games for. It was not the meaningful game he claims, truth be told and I can only imagine he had to compromise heavily to gain the kind of push Sony gave Heavy Rain. Any developer with a true artistic vision will be hampered by the same problems, the need to create a game with broader appeal. Those who want to break that mould only have to look at the failure of The Last Express to see where creativity, intelligence and vision lead. Even Cage’s own Fahrenheit, which was far superior to Heavy Rain, saw far less success. I agree with Cage completely, games need to be more mature, but they also need to draw the player into the world, rather than making them a casual spectator, as Heavy Rain ultimately did.


Top 100 Games – 98 – The Last Express

15 Feb

The Last Express
Year: 1997
Genre: Adventure

The Last Express is almost as well known for its lack of success as its quality, and that is a pity. Developed by Jordan Mechner, the man behind Prince of Persia, The Last Express is an absolutely unique and incredibly clever adventure game. Taking the pre-rendered backgrounds popular in the mid to late nineties and adding an animation style called ‘rotoscope’ which creates an impressive visual style. It’s reminiscent of the art popular during the era of the game’s setting, a visual style that has never really been used elsewhere. Only Bioshock comes to mind, but it’s still a far cry from the level of accuracy shown here. Taking place over three days prior to World War 1, on the famed Orient Express, the game is a little Agatha Christie and a little Hitchcock, possibly evem some F. Scott Fitzgerald. Our hero, Robert Cath, is more Indiana Jones than Hercule Poirot or Jay Gatsby, but it’s the setting and large cast that make it stand out.

The art design is incredibly unique

The train itself is a monument to excess and adorned in a gorgeous art-deco style. It’s all accurate, down to the weather outside, the stories in the newspaper and some of the political groups and events mentioned by characters. This exhaustive research combined with the period visuals make an immersive experience that has rarely been matched. The real-world period setting may have put off many gamers, but this is a remarkable achievement. The characters are the most important element of the game however. There are no stereotypes here, each minor character is brilliantly acted and memorable. The characters also speak in their native tongue and subtitles only appear if Cath understands their language. From a Russian revolutionary to the naughty aristocrat’s son, they are all evocative of the era. Even more stunning are the conversations which occur as the game plays out in real time. There is the palpable sense of the end of an era, the shift in power from aristocracy to bourgeoisie. Travellers on the Express speak of revolution in far-off nations and your character is embroiled in a plot to arm the Serbian resistance. Communists reading Nietzsche cross paths with society ladies looking for adventure. It’s a truly incredible atmosphere.

The gameplay is a little different to the standard adventure game. There are multiple endings, and minor alterations in the players actions can lead to death, premature ending or, if you’re lucky, reaching Constantinople. The ability to ‘rewind’ time allows these outcomes to be changed, and actions understood. It’s a huge encouragement to play again, and the story is mysterious and exciting, yet slow-paced. The game plays out like a novel, the action is not always on-screen and there is more subtle conversation pushing events forward than outright confrontation. Diplomacy and intelligence win the day, though the threat of violence looms heavy in the air. Getting to the bottom of what’s going on is compelling, with even Cath himself being of questionable moral standing. The Last Express is an absolute one-of-a-kind in the gaming world – slow, thoughtful and highly intelligent. If most games want to be movies, this one sets itself apart by wanting to be a book.