The unique thing about The Last Express is that all of the events, actions, and interactions of people on the train are scripted. And by scripted, I don’t mean in the manner in which most video games are scripted, around the activities and progress of the player. Cath’s (and the player’s) appearance on the train allows for observation of the dramas that will unfold on the train, but these dramas will unfold regardless of whether or not Cath is in the right place and at the right time to view them (or to take advantage of knowing when a certain character will be out of their compartment in the dining car, which would allow Cath to sneak inside and rifle through their belongings for clues, for that matter). Important pieces of narrative are not contained merely in cutscenes. The player has to seek out such scenes on his own.
In other words, part of the dominant strategy in this game concerns time itself and knowing the timing of certain events so that Cath can take advantage of these events to learn something important (being present during a conversation might help to better understand the relationship between certain characters or the motivations of others) or to act on hunches (as the aforementioned search of an unoccupied compartment might represent). Since the player may not realize when or where an important event is taking place or how to take advantage of the location of a character at a given time on an initial exploration of the Orient Express, the ability to manipulate time becomes an essential mechanism to achieve success in the game.
As a result, at any time during play, the player can slip from the confines of the train’s reality into the load screen and rewind time. Unlike the standard enforced regression of time that is usually catalyzed by death in most video games, the player deliberately and thoughtfully chooses to stop time’s progression and move backwards to reconsider the choices made earlier in the game. Often, this leads to glimpsing things that he has not seen before or enmeshing himself in events that he didn’t previously realize that he could witness or take advantage of in order to seek a more positive path of progress through the game’s narrative.
Certainly, the game does feature “lose states” in which the player’s inaction or poor decision making results in ending the game’s story prematurely (this is where that comparison to a Choose Your Own Adventure style of narrative is an appropriate one), but these moments also allow the player the option to rewind and try to get that segment “right”. However, the more careful player—one that wants to succeed in investigating thoroughly and effectively—will find rewinding useful in order to have another opportunity to see the way that the story might look from another place in the train at another time. This player will be more richly rewarded with the ability to solve puzzles and resolve the narrative via a shift in perspective triggered by shifting time itself.
That such a mechanic feeds directly into the gameplay style of Prince of Persia makes a great deal of sense. The Prince’s ability to utilize the Sands of Time to halt time just after or just before inevitable failure is really very different than the normal “do over” that one gets by having an additional life or the ability to continue in a video game. Like The Last Express, the ability to rewind time and still see the layout of a room and the actions that the Prince took in order to get himself into a predicament makes redoing something a much more well considered event. It allows the player to notice where he should have jumped up, rather than to the right, or where he should have paused to avoid a trap before charging forward.
Normal restarts in other games might involve some of this sort of thinking (though we have to recollect and sometimes guess at where a mistake occurred), but as noted before, these are often moments that merely require the player to “muscle through”—just be persistent enough to succeed or simply fail enough to memorize a pattern. Mechner seems to want you to look at a problem (be it in The Last Express or Prince of Persia) to see why you failed, how it could be done better, and then how to enact a better outcome in a more clearly informed way.
This tendency might be attributed to Mechner’s propensity towards mechanics of a more puzzle-like quality (The Last Express certainly features puzzles, and despite its action elements, Prince of Persia‘s platforming most frequently resembles something more like a spatial puzzle), but even many puzzle-style games of the video game variety tend more towards the “try, fail, and then muscle through it” attitude of your typical platformer, shooter, or other action-style game. Consider that games like Tetris (1986) do not allow for reconsideration of movements because it keeps you on the clock, moving forward, and making decisions rapidly rather than thoughtfully. Failing at Tetris means starting completely over in the hope that lessons learned while manipulating blocks will lead to a better game the next time.
Mechner’s puzzles don’t assume a complete reset of the game or the idea that just growing accustomed to a style of play makes the player better under similar, but ever changing circumstances. Both The Last Express and Prince of Persia assume that it isn’t about resetting the board and starting over. Rather, there are events and locations in space and time that are inevitable, the player needs to be aware of this inevitability, learn it, and then move on after he has looked at the situation from as many angles (and from as many places in time) as is necessary to take the best advantage of the way that a situation is laid out. The game doesn’t offer a fresh challenge, but it does offer a fresh chance to reconsider a challenge and to try again after some reconsideration.
In this sense, Mechner’s worlds often have a very different feel to them than those of other video game worlds. Mechner’s worlds are ones that feel strangely stable (just because the flow of time changes, doesn’t mean that space does – in fact, space seems less arbitrary than it does in other games because you study it so closely and it remains the same), as well as reassuringly correctable. Persistence and endurance are not rewarded so much as careful thought and the ability to reconsider and look again from another perspective.
In some sense, time in Mechner’s worlds seems slower, which may be somewhat true, since the ability to deliberately choose to start again and not accidentally fall victim to time itself does cause the player to witness events over again and progress more slowly than they might in other games. Starting over is less a punishment in his games than it is an opportunity to appreciate an experience in a new way, to progress in a new way, and maybe see something that you would have otherwise missed in what often becomes an effort to rush to the end of story instead of lingering over its details from various perspectives.
In this sense, Mechner’s games might “look” a little more like something akin to static forms of art, like the aforementioned Cubist paintings that invite the viewer to linger over time by freezing a number of moments for careful inspection because they have been slowed long enough to appreciate in fragments, rather than as whole but fleeting images. Mechner wants you to see everything, and if that means taking your own time to do it, so be it.