The Last Express Gold Edition (1997) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
2Apr/180

The Last Express Gold Edition (1997)

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Special note: while I urge you to experience The Last Express for yourself if possible, both parts of my longplay of The Last Express (failures and all) are temporarily available for viewing.  Here's part 1 and part 2.

With two narrow hallways, a sampling of side-rooms, a smoking section, dining center, and two intermittently accessible areas of the train - The Last Express Gold Edition (just The Last Express moving forward) provides more of an "open world" videogame than products that openly advertise that feature.  Jumping in can feel daunting.  I know I had some issues getting into it the first time because no matter where I went there was a conversation to overhear, discussions to jump in on, and a murder mystery my player character Robert Cath (David Svensson) unwittingly becomes a suspect in.  Then there's the steady hypnotic sounds of the train itself, bumping on bits of rail and providing the kind of low groaning grind that's catnip for an afternoon nap.

No first-person adventure game of the '90s, not even Myst, gives me the freedom to explore this fascinating microcosm of the world circa 1914.  In Myst there's a discrete objective, even if the means of achieving the goal allow the player to achieve them in whatever order they see fit.  There's no such goalpost system in The Last Express, I could tarry around the narrow corridors peeking in on eunuchs and passengers making idle small talk without even discovering the mutilated corpse of Tyler Whitney.  Granted, if I choose to ignore the compartment and go about my merry way, then I'll lose and be thrown off the Orient Express.But that freedom is tantalizing.  Open world games are still bastions of markers, clear goals that the player needs to secure to unlock the next thing, and the only restraint on me in The Last Express is my ability to document the schedules of the passengers to know who will be where and when.  There are few item-based puzzles, and all of them revolve around understanding life aboard the Orient Express.  Short of Majora's Mask, which would be a better game if the combat was removed (same for The Last Express - more on that in a moment), it's hard for me to think of many games that successfully reward progress by getting to know the people instead of picking the right dialogue options or clicking the correct item on its proper spot.

Designer Jordan Mechner creates an excellent mechanic to get the player used to the always-moving life aboard the Orient Express.  The train only moves in one direction in modestly accelerated real-time, so instead of save points the player can choose to rewind the journey back however far they wish.  There is a point of no return late in The Last Express yet Mechner still allows the journey to rewind back if there's something I felt I might have missed.  Right up until the point of no return, I could roll back The Last Express to the beginning when Robert jumps aboard the Orient Express.  With so many passengers and ongoing conversations as options for light voyeurism, and quite a few ways of losing the game, it's a great way to learn everyone's schedules and encourage experimenting with who I observed and when.  The recent Tacoma used a variation of this system to similar effect, allowing me to find recordings of different areas and observe the crew.Yet Tacoma, by design, could only place me in the role of observer.  The Last Express allows me to shape relationships, enhanced by the way most humans make accelerated connections when they're on vacation or on a long journey together.  I might meet young Tatiana (Corinne Blum) for a cigarette only to lose her friendship later when she catches me with one of her family's possessions.  Or I might not make friends with her at all, only observing from a nearby seat as she plays chess with her childhood crush Alexei (Mikhail Douniyev).  It's possible to see The Last Express through to the end without forging many relationships, or I could be as chummy and obtrusive as possible.  The Last Express' gameplay is in these connections, connecting the dots to figure out what's going on, and hoping my actions will solve the mystery in time.

In the 1914 setting of The Last Express, World War I is on the horizon, and following that the artistic movement of Modernism.  The thing that impresses me most about The Last Express is how Mechner crafted a game in the spirit of Modernism without making overt references to the artistic practice.  There were games that utilized FMV and some light rotoscoping before The Last Express, but none that blended the two together with performers in heavy makeup to draw precisely what was needed and not one bit more to capture the rhythm of conversation and body language.  The artistic style echoes Ezra Pound's statement to "Make it new", and the rough 'n tumble Cath with his strong sense of loyalty would fit right in alongside Ernest Hemingway's male protagonists.  Even the hint system introduced in the Gold Edition cuts right to the point, providing typically one-line straightforward thoughts about the present circumstances without telling me exactly what to do.What fits in with Hemingway's view of men, but highlights The Last Express' negatives, is Cath's tendency to get involved in fisticuffs.  These sections control abysmally, requiring mouse clicks timed correctly to dodge and punch the sparring partner.  In addition to the often wonky timing needed to successfully complete these fights, they stand at-odds with the overarching design of getting to know then ingratiating Cath with the Orient Express' occupants.  It's not as much of an issue as the combat in Majora's Mask, where I would have been perfectly content not to leave the town, but it's enough to break the flow of an otherwise excellently executed game.

It's sadly easy to understand why The Last Express didn't catch on with the same flair as Mechner's own Prince of Persia or Myst.  Passed the fight scenes and mingling comes an ending that fits well among the weary pessimism of Modernism.  There's no happy conclusion for these people as the children will grow up to face another planet-engulfing conflict and the adults tie themselves to national interests that drag them into the looming war.  Mechner refused to condescend to the time or his artistic vision.  Now that The Last Express is back in Mechner's hands and widely available, I urge you to get lost in the Orient Express if you are able.  The hypnotic lull of those wheels and murmurings of the passengers may haunt you as they do me.

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Posted by Andrew

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