Ben Kuchera / Dabe Alan

Gaming legend Jordan Mechner talks Prince of Persia, Last Express, and why you must leave to shine

Gaming legend Jordan Mechner talks Prince of Persia, Last Express, and why you must leave to shine

Jordan Mechner began developing games in a different world. Yale in the early 1980’s had just begun to see Apple systems on campus, and Mechner was one of the few students who had his own personal system. After Karateka was released he followed its progress by reading Billboard magazine, which at that time had charts for software sales. Then he received a call from the game’s publisher telling him it had made it to number one. He followed that success with Prince of Persia, one of the most influential games ever created. 

I asked how one juggles game creation with being a student at Yale. “Not very well,” Mechner admitted. “I had a normal course load, and I had a real problem making it to class and doing the course work I was supposed to.” At a time when people were just transitioning from writing papers on typewriters to using computers, Mechner was skipping classes to code on his Apple II. “I definitely felt like I wasn’t in the mainstream of college life.”

Both Karateka and Prince of Persia feature wonderfully animated characters; the character of the Prince was animated based on footage of Mechner’s brother running and jumping. “I always loved animated movies from the time I was a little kid,” he said. “As soon as I was old enough to use a Super 8 camera I would make little animated movies, trying to draw my own cells. If the Apple II hadn’t been invented when it was, I might have wanted to become a Disney animator.”

This is one of the reasons Mechner appreciated the level of care that went into Sands of Time, Ubisoft’s re-launching of the Prince of Persia franchise. “Animation is an art,” he said. The game’s animator worked by hand, crafting movement that honored the smooth animation of Mechner’s original. “It was so fluid, and gave such a sense of you and the controller and the character were one… there have been plenty of games that have been done since with more advanced technology that don’t have that fluidity,” Mechner said, describing the Sands of Time. “Animation is not a technical problem to be solved; it’s really the individual expression of the animator.” Mechner worked on the title as a game designer, writer, and creative consultant; this wasn’t a case of another company taking his concepts and running with them.

That’s been an interesting situation in the past, as Mechner didn’t have anything to do with the many ports of the game, but at least one copy of each version has made its way onto his shelf. “I never met any of the teams that created the game for things like the 8- and 16-bit Nintendo; many of these versions were from other countries to run on machines I had never seen or used,” he said.

He did have a chance to play the Super Nintendo version of the game, and he realized that the designer of that port had expanded the game and added different levels. “I liked to play the first few levels to see how well the animation came across, and some were, of course, better than others,” he explained. In this case, the game had been expanded from the original, and he was faced with levels that differed from his original design. “They had taken the 12 levels and made them 20. I didn’t know where the traps would be, so for the first time I was able to play Prince of Persia as everyone else must have experienced it, not knowing what each level contained until I found out the hard way.” How was it? It turns out Mechner found Prince of Persia to be a very enjoyable game.

The Last Express

Jordan Mechner’s next project was the ambitious adventure game The Last Express, a murder-mystery that takes place on the fabled Orient Express. The game took years, and a sizable budget, to bring to life. It was a learning experience for everyone involved: The trains were modeled to exacting standards, and they had a film shoot with actors in full costume, which were then rotoscoped and animated. The process took years.

This was a major departure from the solitary act of making games that had originally attracted him to the art form “[Creating games] was a very peaceful, solitary activity,” he explained. “I didn’t play sports in high school, and being alone in my room with my Apple II was kind of a comfort zone. I could work alone all night in my room and no one would bother me. I didn’t have to explain to anyone what I was doing,” he said. This changed when he was working with the 30-person team to make The Last Express, and you get the sense Mechner may not have been comfortable in that situation.

“On the Last Express, I was the creative director on a project where money was being spent and days were ticking away. Dealing with that dynamic environment was new to me. That was my education,” he continued. The game received wonderful reviews, but the sales were mediocre.

Looking back on the game, he doesn’t think about the reviews or the sales. “I remember the responses from people who played the game, whether it’s letters or e-mails or running into fans who tell me what the game meant to them. I’ve gotten so many amazing comments on Facebook talking about their experiences playing the game. That’s what stays.” The game is about to be re-released on the iOS, and he’s excited about the game getting another chance to draw in a new audience.

“Most people would say the perfect iPhone game is something you can pick up and put down whenever you want, and the Last Express is kind of like a big thick novel that you can curl up with on the couch. It’s about immersing yourself in this world and this story. It’s going to be interesting to see how that translates on a device that you literally can curl up with,” he said. We brainstormed the best places to play The Last Express on an iPhone or iPad and agreed that on a plane with headphones may be the ideal way to enjoy the game.

So what’s next? Karateka is being remade for modern consoles, but Mechner has remained busy between video game projects. He wrote and directed a documentary called Chavez Ravine: A Los Angeles Story, and he also works on comics and screenplays. “There’s something about really switching it up and moving yourself to a different sphere of thinking, or going to a country where you don’t speak the language, or trying to learn a new skill, or even something like music as hobby that uses your brain in a different way,” he said. “That’s tremendously important for creativity. The trap is that once you get good at something, people expect you to keep doing it. That gets stale.” He points out that musicians create their best work after times of external change.

“I think I often look for that change, even if I don’t understand it,” he said.