Rewind to Advance: Jordan Mechner’s Games with Time

The Last Express
Jordan Mechner

As an artistic medium, the video game is unique in its ability to play with time.

Painting and photography, for example, don’t excel at representations beyond those of frozen moments, pieces of reality to be considered in a still form. Certainly, a number of painters — the Cubists for example — have attempted to play with the form to allow it more versatility in representing process and progression. However, many viewers need to be instructed that part of the point of Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912) is that the fragmented images of the woman in the picture represent a body as it moves through space and time — not something that the typical painting aspires to.

Likewise, in The Vision Machine (Indiana University Press, 1994), Paul Virilio recounts that the sculptor Auguste Rodin complained that photography was a rather unrealistic form of art because it failed to capture time when mirroring reality. Rodin argued that his own later sculptural works managed to do so by including distended bodies with figures seemingly not proportional because they were “moving”, very much in contrast with the precise and proportional figures represented in his earlier works.

On the other hand, both literature and film are two mediums that cannot (for the most part) help but include time in their representations of reality. Books are always moving forward; a plot must advance, as it is almost trapped in the momentum of time itself. The reader is constantly moving the pages in order to advance in the text. Likewise, films tend inevitably towards conclusion, movement itself speaking quite directly to the progression of characters not only through space but also time. Barring the occasional flashback, the linearity of beginning at the beginning, moving through a middle, and then eventually concluding enforces a rather strict vision of time as constantly progressive.

Certainly some films do play tricks with time, occasionally making the effort to throw off the chains of a progressive model of time by playing around with the placement of events or the ability to change characters’ experiences. Tom Tykwer’s Run, Lola, Run (1998) allows its protagonist three chances to solve a particularly thorny problem for her boyfriend in 20 minutes by shooting three different alternative routes for Lola to take over the course of her “run”. Strangely “video gamey” in its doling out of “three lives” for Lola, the film rather uniquely allows the viewer to consider and then reconsider and then reconsider again how altering decisions can affect an outcome. This “restarting” of plot defies the forward momentum of time by pondering temporal events as malleable enough to force new options to emerge if reconsidered from another temporal vantage point.

Some similar effort at changing the way that a viewer sees the ramifications of choices is also present in Quentin Tarantino’s infamously temporally convoluted Pulp Fiction (1994), in which a typical linear plot is thrown out altogether by presenting a series of stories with some overlapping characters that take place in a shared setting that do not necessarily unfold in front of the viewer chronologically. Tarantino appears to not merely clip apart chronology of the stories of Vincent, Jules, Butch, et al. in an at all arbitrary way, though. Frequently it is useful to know the consequences of an action and decision in the film before that consequence actually takes place. Knowing that Vincent Vega will die at Butch’s hands, as Tarantino reveals to us in the middle of the movie, makes Jules’s speech to Vincent at the end of the film (an event that occurs earlier in time than Vincent’s death, of course) about taking advantage of the “miracle” that saved both their lives (which occurs in the earliest parts of the film) that much more compelling. The viewer knows that Jules is “right” because we already know what will happen to Vincent later in time, his fate pseudo-prophetically revealed mid-movie.

Now, while these interesting examples of movies that manipulate time in a useful way exist, they are certainly the exception and not the rule. Some viewers find these deconstructions of time in a medium that is typically about driving the plot forward disconcerting and confusing. Video games, however, are rather uniquely suited to “plays” with time. Unlike the static images in many of the visual arts or the comforting linearity of textual and cinematic narratives, games have always included temporal disruptions and events that are essentially “do overs”.

The plot of Super Mario Bros. (1985) is one that is expected to be interrupted regularly, with its protagonist frequently suffering a nasty end under the feet of a trampling turtle or over the edge of a seemingly bottomless pit, only to be returned slightly earlier in time in order to be retried, to be reconsidered, to be altered again and again and again. Like Run, Lola, Run, games feature the ability to constantly challenge the forward momentum of time, rewinding (as it were) to reconsider the best route to reach a more optimal solution.

Consideration of this constant temporal displacement allowed by multiple lives, continues, and the reload of saved games (a kind of bookmarking of time itself), however, is rarely in and of itself that interesting. These restarts do frequently teach the player things and hone skills, but all too often these “rewinds” in the plot are mere obstacles that need to be pushed through or that enforce practice at playing well, rather than moments of real reflection on the player’s part.

What I mean by this is that many a gamer has died in an encounter with an end-level boss only to respawn at the beginning of the battle to quickly fight it in largely the same way again. A better timed button press here or better dodge of an incoming attack there may mean the difference between success and failure, but little is learned besides something along the lines of: muscling through a tough challenge will eventually equate to victory; more simply, persistence pays off.

The games of Jordan Mechner, on the other hand, have a curious fixation on time and failure (or death) as an intentional mechanic and theme. What got me thinking about Mechner’s more methodical approach to time and its manipulation in a game world was curiously not his most famous game, The Prince of Persia: Sands of Time (2003), but one of its predecessors, The Last Express (1997).

While I had played the Prince of Persia trilogy and its 2008 reboot as well as earlier Jordan Mechner games like Karateka (1984), it was only recently that I had the chance to play through the critically acclaimed but financially unsuccessful The Last Express. I was surprised to see that the idea of being able to deliberately “rewind” a game was a mechanic that Mechner was already playing with prior to the appearance of the 2003 Prince. This mechanic is, of course, worked directly into the plot of the Prince games, but I was surprised to also see it applied to a less obviously fantastic setting and plot like that of The Last Express.

Narratively, a kind of mystery or thriller, and mechanically, a hybrid of something like a Choose Your Own Adventure with aspirations of being a point-and-click adventure, much of the plot of The Last Express is actually fairly realistic. It is a kind of historical fiction set just prior to World War I enlivened by a murder plot, arms dealings, and the subterfuge of spies all interacting on a fateful trip on the Orient Express. The player takes on the role of one Robert Cath, whose rather murky, but clearly sketchy background is revealed in fits and starts over the course of the adventure. Cath finds himself embroiled in the surprising death of a friend, which launches him into an investigation of that friend’s death and of a mysterious artifact over the course of several days spent traveling between Paris and Constantinople.

Time in Jordan Mechner’s Worlds Seems Slower

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. Jordan 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.

Jordan 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, Jordan 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, Jordan 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.