Jordan Mechner, Replay

Steve Reich’s Music Echoes in Jordan Mechner’s Graphic Memoir ‘Replay’

Like Steve Reich’s Different Trains, Jordan Mechner’s graphic memoir Replay is a work of introspection that looks to history and tragic synchronicity.

Replay: Memoir of an Uprooted Family
Jordan Mechner
First Second
March 2024

Throughout Jordan Mechner‘s graphic novel memoir Replay: Memoir of an Uprooted Family, the family is fond of music. The late great saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter was keen on speaking deliberately and playing even more so. From Shorter’s perspective, the reverberation of words when spoken and notes when played would ripple throughout the world, affecting the atoms that compose our world. Once spoken or played, words and sounds reverberate infinitely, changing all that they contact forever. Is this scientifically sound? It doesn’t matter. His point is made: actions have consequences.

Mechner is the creator of the award-winning Prince of Persia video game series and the narrative adventure masterpiece The Last Express. He has experienced an artistic resurgence since Digital Eclipse released The Making of Karateka in 2022. A milestone in video game history, The Making of Karateka is lauded for its use of documentary footage, development diaries and documents, and video game library compilation to provide an experience seldom seen in the medium. More interactive museum than a video game, The Making of Karateka still provides the opportunity to play games.

Mechner has always been open about his work. The creation of many of his games is well documented. He makes a point of making specific design documents available to the public. Replay: Memoir of an Uprooted Family is a continuation of this, albeit it is primarily a memoir that follows the saga of the Mechners’, a Jewish family’s story across three generations. Replay was first released as Replay: Mémoires d’une famille in 2023 by the French publisher Editions Delcourt. It won France’s 2023 “Chateau de Cheverny” history graphic novel prize. The book has recently been released in English with some changes.

Replay begins with the story of Adolph, Mechner’s grandfather, as he’s trying to leave Austria in 1938 shortly after the German annexation of the country. Adolph wrote his memoirs in the late 1970s, numbering a staggering four volumes. His work serves as critical source material for Replay’s retelling of the family history. At the time in 1978, Mechner admits to being too busy playing on his new Apple II to read his grandfather’s book.

Replay interweaves family history with Mechner’s modern life in the game industry and at home. Mechner portrays how the conflicts arising from working long hours in the game industry can ruin family life. His examination of family is approachable and relatable. This story is full of historical echoes that reverberate in Mechner’s contemporary life.

The heart of the story is the juxtaposition between the family’s survival and escape from Nazi-controlled Europe with Mechner’s own life as an adult in the US and France. Replay spans decades and many countries, from Cuba in the 1940s to France during the Second World War and the late 2010s. Mechner’s grandfather served in the First World War. His tale is a principal narrative arc in the book.

After the War, he marries and has kids. Years later, Mechner’s father, Franz, is stuck in France during the Second World War, awaiting to be reunited with his family across the Atlantic. His life is full of uncertainty, and he is constantly at risk of being apprehended by the Nazis and their collaborators.

Mechner also explores his own life working on big-budget video game development. Games have been an integral part of Mechner’s life but have also been a family affair. His father composed some game music and his brother, David, was the model for the animation on Mechner’s earlier games for the Apple II. Conversations are often had over board games, Chess, and Go.

There is a high degree of reflection in the Replay. In one scene, Mechner recalls his experience with the notoriously rigid French bureaucracy. Though frustrating, it was very different from his grandparents’ experience of trying to flee Austria by applying for visas for the United States “because some bureaucrat at the U.S. consulate in Paris decided to hold up his visas for petty detail.”

Replay is primarily concerned with pedigree – retelling the stories of the Mechner family. Mechner’s life is nearly ideal (yes, it has ups and downs). Mechner struggles to succeed in a notoriously volatile and trend-chasing industry. Yet, unlike Franz and Adolph’s stories of family reunification and escape from Europe, Mechner’s tribulations seem miniscule and self-inflicting. Fortunately, he is aware of this. Thus, Replay becomes a work of contrast, context, and relative experiences. So many things could have gone differently, and this story would not have existed.

The word if is constantly on Mechner’s mind, who, as a video game designer, is used to having a certain degree of control over his work and the products created with his labor. He is trained to see the world from a viewpoint of variable possibilities. Yet in life, there is no restart button, no save scumming (saving before a key decision to assure that the desired result is achieved). At least not yet, that is.

Replay is not about redoing life via graphic memoir. It’s about revaluation and telling what is learned from shared experience. I imagine drawing and writing Replay must have been deeply therapeutic for Mechner.

Replay’s illustrations are minimally colored. Three main colors delineate different time periods. Black-colored panels take place in the scenes where the family lived in Europe and their experience as refugees after the late ’30s. Blue panels are of the recent past when the Mechners were firmly resettled in the US. Yellow represents the present (circa 2016). It’s a simple and clever device that helps orient readers in a story that constantly switches between perspectives and time.

Replay reveals some pretty cool factoids about the creation of some of Mechner’s games. For example, the limitations of designing Prince of Persia on the Apple II, a machine already more than a decade old in the late ’80s, led to innovation on Mechner’s part. Also, it gives details, like how the European setting in The Last Express was inspired by the family’s history in Vienna and Europe.

In an odd admonishment of his life’s work and a wise insight into how he feels about his legacy, Mechner tells his brother, David, “the far past seems more interesting, somehow. Making games isn’t exactly a life-and-death drama.” The safe fantasy world of making games is shattered when Mechner’s father becomes upset about a trip that Mechner is planning to take to Iran. Mechner tells his father, “I’ve spent thirty years imagining Persia. I need to see it with my own eyes.” Due to souring U.S.-Iranian relations, Mechner couldn’t make that trip after all.

Life seldom goes according to plan. The reason Mechner moved to France and uprooted his family was to make a new Prince of Persia, which was eventually canceled by Ubisoft Montpelier after years of work. Is the prize of game development worth it? “You might wonder whether there’s a link between the unannounced, canceled Prince of Persia project that brought me to Montpellier in 2017 (as told in Replay) and The Lost Crown. Is it really a coincidence that both projects were launched in the same small city in the south of France?” Mechner writes on his website.

Ubisoft Montpellier published Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown earlier this year. It’s a game that Mechner called “the Prince of Persia game I’ve been wishing for.”  Mechner states that he had no direct involvement with this game. Regardless, it’s good to know that the work of Mechner’s development team was not lost.

Like Steve Reich’s 1988 composition Different Trains, Mechner’s Replay is a personal work of introspection that looks to history and tragic synchronicity. Both works are told through the perspective of Jewish men reexamining their childhoods under the shadow of the Holocaust. Reich’s Different Trains speaks to the elephant in the room, while Mechner only hints at it. What if…?

During World War II, Reich made long train journeys from the US East Coast to the West Coast to spend time with his separated parents. Reich in Different Trains explores the ghastly thought of what if instead of being on a train in the US, he was on a train somewhere in Europe? Where would that train take him?

Different Trains is a work of music that utilizes Reich’s modern sensibilities as a composer: minimalists composed of melodies that build through repetition. The string quartet arrangement, audio recordings of people retelling their experience in the US and Europe during the war and after, come together in three movements to create a sense of parallel worlds: one safe, one not.

The tracks converge with Reich and Mechner’s work. Both are minimalist in the sense that their oeuvres are focused on providing short and concise feedback loops. Different Trains is an elaborate and painful echo, a sonic rumination of the fragility of life and circumstances. Mechner’s Replay is also the sort of time echo that Shorter described.

It’s an accomplished work as a graphic novel, and it has enough insight into Mecher’s career as a video game developer to uphold interest for those like me who were initially interested in his design process. Where Replay transcends, though, is in its telling of The Mechner family history. It’s a tale whose retelling reverberates today and forever.

For additional background information about Replay‘s formation, Mechner provides a detailed “director’s commentary” on his website, Replay Annex.

RATING 8 / 10