For those who don’t know, The Last Express is a first-person adventure game that featured an intricately recreated version of the Orient Express, Linklater-esque rotoscoped characters, and an unprecedented degree of immersion. From the article:
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.
The article makes a comparison between this game and Shenmue which, I suppose, is accurate on the surface since both games play out in accelerated real-time in immersive game worlds whose characters move around with autonomy, but the comparison is severely lacking.
Warning: Some Shenmue and The Last Express spoilers lurk within…
In Shenmue, the events of the game wait for you to encounter them. If you just let the game sit there for an hour, sure, the sun will pass overhead and sink into the horizon, the shopkeepers will close the stores and people will walk home from work or migrate to the bars, but the game will not progress through the plot. That’s why you can waste so much time in the game taking care of a kitten, messing around in the arcade, or getting a job driving a forklift. The badguys won’t take the mystical artifact and hop on a boat bound for Hong Kong unimpeded thanks to your obsession with collecting Sonic the Hedgehog figurines.
In The Last Express, however, the characters, like the train you’re on, have a schedule to keep. They each have an agenda and they’re not going to wait around for you. At one point, you’re invited to a concert in one of the passenger cars at which you can learn some some interesting clues. If you’re too preoccupied catching a bug for the little kid with the headache-inducing flute to go to the concert, it’ll end and you’ll have to go on with the game without that information. Aside from a few bits of peril that require you to save the whole train (no one is going to diffuse that bomb for you) the game can goes on without your input.
Of course, it wouldn’t be any fun if you didn’t have a part in the story, and the big difference between Shenmue and this game is that it’s truely up to you to figure out what your part is going to be. In most adventure games, a second playthrough is superfluous since you already know the solutions to the puzzles. Not so here. Considering the thick layers of political intrigue, deception, and romance, it may take five or six playthroughs before you fully understand all the goings-on on that fated train.
In summary, I dislike the direct comparison between The Last Express and Shenmue because, in my opinion, Shenmue is a noble, but ultimately failed attempt at achieving the immersion that The Last Express reaches. I think most of the blame for Shenmue’s failure can be directed at its huge scale. Confining the gameworld to a small luxury train made it possible for the developers to really allow the player’s actions to affect the characters and story.
In an interview, (Gamasutra registration required) Jordan Mechner, designer of The Last Express, points out that the design goals dictated the game’s setting, rather than the other way around. In other words, the design process did not go like this: “Hey, I want to make a game on a train. Let’s think of all the cool things I could do in a train game…” Rather, he knew from the get-go that he wanted this living interactive world that could provide this immersion that I keep mentioning, but the technical limitations at the time forced him to think small for the setting, leading him to the Orient Express.
When Yu Suzuki created Shenmue, I believe that he started off with a similar set of goals, but since technical limitations had loosened up considerably in the three years that passed between the two titles, he didn’t have the same impetus to rein in his design. He set his sights big and bit off more than he could metaphorically chew by setting his game in a large city rather than a small train. He went for a macrocosm rather than a microcosm, if you will. Consequently, the player’s choices don’t feel like they are altering the story as they did in Mechner’s overlooked classic.
There’s a lesson in Game Design in there somewhere…
As a final note, you may be asking yourself, as I did, since this level of immersion was achieved in 1997, why don’t we see it left and right in today’s gaming landscape? Because the game, despite being a significant critical success, was an utter financial bomb, of course!
But the question that has always remained in the back of my mind regarding this game has been, “Why did such a great game perform so poorly? Were the people just not ready for such an innovative and mind-bending thrill-ride?” (Ok, not a lot of “thrill” per-se. The game is pretty slow-paced.) And the Escapist article does an excellent job of answering that question for me:
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. [...]
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 [The Last Express]. 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.
Of course! Business crap. I hate money, it keeps getting in the way of great gaming experiences. (Though I’m sure that my original supposition that “The people just weren’t ready” played its part in it, too…)
If you’re interested in playing the game, you’re going to have to check eBay because it’s all kinds of out of print.