The Last Express – “A Journey through Space and Time in the Orient Express”
The stage is the Orient Express in 1914 (just before the 1st World War outbreak), a clear reference to the iconic background made famous worldwide by Agatha Christie’s crime novel masterpiece, “Murder on the Orient Express”. This unapologetic homage takes center stage as one of the game’s driving forces, a classic whodunit play where the player takes on the role of the investigator. And though this is one of the most common themes in adventure games, leading into predictable alleys of narrative development and linear gameplay, “Last Express” manages to avoid most cliches with a superbly written plot, penned by Jordan Mechner himself (who also directs the game). Like its contemporary, “Broken Sword”, the initial events are but a fuse that sets into motion larger events. However, unlike “Broken Sword”, “Last Express” avoids a fictional background, and uses historical events as a backdrop for the action. By intertwining factual occurrences with fictional characters, the game manages to come out as more realistic set piece, and it feeds on it to propose pertinent moral, political and existential dilemmas that enrich the game’s narrative.
But the way in which the action unfolds also presents a unique approach to interaction and exploration. The idea here, was to replace a mostly event driven time flow (present in most videogames) and replace it for a real-time dynamic. Imagine, if you will, you’re on a train, people swerving around, talking to each other, going about their routines, living their lives, whether you care or not to observe – your presence closer to that of a spectator than that of a “player”. You can interact by choosing which conversations to listen in, what cabins to explore, which characters you try and engage conversation with, etc. This notion that events do occur, whether or not you’re present as they unfold is not only immersive, as it boasts a real life quality mostly alien to videogames. In this regard, “Last Express” behaves more like a post-modern play, where the spectator is on stage with the actors, voyeuristically observing the dramatic unfolding, but able to intervene, to some extent, by addressing actors/characters, triggering dialogues and slightly affecting narrative.
Perhaps the only letdown in “Last Express”, is that it sometimes behaves like a normal game, more so, a classic adventure game. In specific plot points you’re obliged to meet some criteria in order to move the action forward, and if you fail to comply, you’ll get a premature ending. This becomes unnerving because certain puzzle like activities aren’t always obvious, and some border the nonsensical. Visually cluttered screens sometimes have near invisible clues (with no visual cues to help you find it), scenarios have areas which are magically opened during some events (with more or less logic), some unpredictable events happen only at certain times, forcing you to explore the train constantly in order to observe them, and some puzzles are the object of strange reasoning (or lack thereof). The game is much more enjoyable and interesting when it allows the free exploration of the train throughout time, than when it wants you to do task A or complete puzzle B, just for the sake of the plot moving along.
There are also action sequences coupled with quick time events, where you’re pushed into pressing the mouse with specific timing and placement in order to survive. Though these do spice up the exploration bits of the game, creating rising moments of tension, their simple design (press this or die) is flawed and doesn’t always result in an enjoyable experience. Thankfully, when you end the game prematurely, you can still rewind the action to a suitable place in time that allows you to alter your destiny (in similar fashion to the later “Sands of Time”). This technique is ingenious and works well, and also allowed the designers to block any possibility of a save feature. This means the end of the save/load routine, which considerably improves player’s immersion, without compromising enjoyment when he fails.
To further enhance the sense of a breathing, living world, the game presents beautiful art nouveau decoration in the interiors of the train and some stunning character animation (this is no doubt, in great part thanks to the use of rotoscoping, a technique that helps design 2d images out of live action pictures). The way characters are modeled is simply astounding, with small details like eye-movement, clothes and hair fluttering as characters walk, all portrayed with unprecedented accuracy. The art style used for the coloration of characters, gives it a nice finish, effectively transforming the wonderful 2D animations into minimalist moving paintings. nfortunately, these techniques involved a lot work and money (as it was needed to shoot live action first and then color everything up), which made it impossible to produce crisp twenty three frame animations. As a consequence, the animations resemble a slide shows, running at about one or two frames per second. Even so, the game was still budgeted at around 6 million dollars, which is really, really high for a 1997 game. It’s not that it needed more frames, but the high-quality of the imagery almost begs a fully fledged animation – it just wasn’t possible at the time.
The soundtrack is as carefully wrought as the visuals are. The train produces exactly the sounds you expect it to as it travels: the blowing of the locomotives horn’s, the rhythmic sound of steel hitting the tracks, the wind fiercely blowing outside, all recorded and reproduced with meticulous care. Voice recordings are also downright perfect, as each character’s lines are spoken with the acting quality you’ve come to expect from a feature film. The score by Elia Cmiral, composed out of synthesizer melodies, enhances some of the emotional moods in the game, providing an eerie accompaniment to the mystery unfolding and enticing action in the game’s quick time events, as well as providing some well placed auditive cues that inform the player of a specific clue or object that is needed to inspect. The climax of the soundtrack comes in the form of a marvelous piano/violin concerto – “Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Major” by César Franck, which is fully enacted in the game.
“The Last Express” is an artistic gem to behold and a narrative experience like no other in videogames. Jordan Mechner (the seminal creator of “Prince of Persia”) not only produced a convincing piece of art and story, as he did so by harvesting some of the most interesting qualities of videogames: the exploration and immersion in realistic virtual environments. Sadly, at times it becomes hard to distinguish “The Last Express” from classic adventure games, but the revolutionary nature of the game’s concepts clearly compensate the fact. It is also a shame that the game wasn’t appreciated by audiences when it came out, selling few copies despite its critical acclaim, thus becoming one of the greatest commercial failures of gaming history. Because of that sad fact, Jordan Mechner would only get to work again 6 years later in “Prince of Persia, The Sands of Time”. Still, despite of the failure, it remains as one of those rare videogames where cumbersome ludic dogmas are backstaged by a heartfelt desire to translate narrative through the use of interactive space, image, sound, and above all… time. And that is exactly what “The Last Express” is, an absolute masterpiece that will be remembered throughout time.