Take August Schmidt, for example, the German arms dealer that the player must stall and then deceive during the voyage. He starts out as a caricature of the gauche German "nouveau riche," as one of the conductors pointedly refers to him. His English is stilted and accented, and he lacks basic social graces. Early on, he betrays the bland anti-Semitism that reigned in pre-Nazi Europe. He flirts with the young women on the train and is susceptible to flattery that plays on his own mixture of vanity and attendant insecurity. Short, portly, balding and sporting a rusty and weak mustache and beard, he initially seems the worm imagining himself a butterfly.
However, the game is never cruel to any of its characters, and even the ridiculous Schmidt eventually becomes sympathetic. Watching how other characters manipulate him, and how contemptuous they are behind his back, it's impossible not to feel sorry for him. His flirtation and awkward bonhomie gradually reveal a desperately lonely man who takes refuge in romantic daydreams. Scouring through his compartment, the player discovers that he is being used by the German government to which he is so lap-doggishly loyal. He has written a letter explaining his failure to his superiors full of strike-outs and restarts - a detail that conveys volumes about the author.
What's remarkable is not just that Schmidt is such a fully developed character, but that every single person you meet aboard The Last Express is similarly fleshed-out through body language, tone of voice, dialog and personal effects.
The Last Express is the gold standard for videogame writing and performance, and few among its contemporaries can match it. Even so, more typical point-and-click adventures like Gabriel Knight II: The Beast Within and the Tex Murphy games also feature moments of brilliance and some truly unforgettable characters and settings (although they're diluted by the occasional unconvincing performance and clunky bit of dialog). The use of film and actors produced a qualitatively different sort of relationship between player and game, a relationship that has rarely been reproduced by other means. As gaming moved on from the "interactive movie" phase, it left behind a number of effective ways to emotionally invest players in the game world.
It's a commonplace to lament the lack of good videogame characters, and on those rare occasions we meet them, we instantly treasure them. It's telling that what seems to be the most lasting complaint against Grand Theft Auto IV is the fact that the plot and gameplay failed to rise to the level of Michael Hollick's Niko Bellic, turning a character that gamers thought they knew and cared for into a mindless kill-bot. For a medium that is so often dismissed as infertile soil for narrative and character, gaming audiences seem eager to connect with real characters rather than blank-slate avatars.
My suspicion is that in a medium that's too often dominated by über-beings whose emotional range only goes from pistol to laser cannon, audiences still look for characters that live close to Earth and who have problems similar to the rest us. Maybe that's why interactive movies briefly succeeded in igniting the imagination of the gaming public. They dealt with a subject that videogames have always been the least comfortable with: human beings.
Rob Zacny is a freelance writer. When not focused on gaming, he pursues his interests in Classics, the World Wars, cooking and film. He can be reached at zacnyr[at]gmail[dot]com.