The Answer to Everything

The Answer to Everything
Gaming on the Orient Express

Nick Bousfield | 25 Apr 2006 08:02
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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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