The Answer to Everything

The Answer to Everything
Gaming on the Orient Express

Nick Bousfield | 25 Apr 2006 08:02
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But no matter how interesting a character appears, it's what they say and do that counts, and The Last Express doesn't disappoint here, either. Mechner's game was populated by individuals plucked from every corner of Europe, and almost all of them had something to hide. There's Herr Schmidt, the German industrialist and arms-dealer, growing fat selling weapons to anyone prepared to pay the price. Could the Serbian nationalists sharing the berth just down the carriage, discussing ways to free their country from oppression, have anything to do with him? Then there's Alexei, the high-born anarchist and romantic, sharing the train with his childhood friend Tatiana and her grandfather, Count Vassili, a Russian Aristocrat and Alexei's natural enemy. And most interesting to Cath is Anna Wolff, a beautiful Austrian violinist, traveling alone except for her faithful dog and a concealed revolver.

Additionally, the voice acting is uniformly excellent; quite a feat considering the number of accents and languages used. Characters speak constantly, in English, French, German, Russian and Serbian. It's even possible, during the stop in Vienna, to discern the differences between native and Austrian German speakers. Subtitles are used for the languages Cath understands, which is several. The player is freely encouraged to keep their ears open, as much of the games clues are in snatches of overheard conversation.

The Last Express is more than just an entertaining yarn. Each of the characters stands for a different faction in Europe, and watching them interact with each other and with the player offers a fascinating perspective on this period of world history. The game ticks all the boxes required by the arthouse games movement: innovative gameplay with a fresh slant on an old genre, an original graphical approach and a sophisticated, adult story and theme. So why isn't The Last Express better known?

The answer is fairly simple: The game sold only 100,000 copies. It finished somewhere around a million units shy of breaking even. Just as Smoking Car Productions was putting the finishing touches on The Last Express, the cracks were appearing in publisher Broderbund, whose share price had been steadily falling since 1995. In 1997, just before the game's release, Broderbund dissolved its marketing department. As a result, The Last Express was released with almost zero publicity and advertising. Despite this, it still garnered excellent reviews across the board.

But worse was to come. Broderbund was in partnership with Softbank and its subsidiary, GameBank; a publishing deal formed in a bidding war for the rights to Mechner's game. Abruptly, Softbank decided to pull out of the games market, cancelling the almost complete Playstation port of The Last Express and dropping the game completely.

The next year, Broderbund was bought out by educational software publisher, The Learning Company, who promptly ditched Broderbund's gaming division. Left without any publishing deal at all, Smoking Car Productions watched the game it spent five years making quietly drift away, unsold and un-played.

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