The Last Express
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|The Last Express|
|Developer(s)||Smoking Car Productions|
|Designer(s)||Jordan Mechner (game director, game designer, writer)
Tomi Pierce (writer)
|Release date(s)||Microsoft Windows, Mac OS, DOS
March 30, 1997
September 27, 2012
The Last Express is a video game created by Jordan Mechner and Smoking Car Productions, published in 1997. It is an adventure game that takes place on the Orient Express, days before the start of World War I. It is noted as being one of the few video games that attempts to realistically simulate real time. The game was a commercial disappointment, despite receiving highly positive reviews and a positive post-release response.
Set on the Orient Express in 1914, the player takes on the role of Robert Cath, an American doctor on the train's final journey from Paris to Constantinople (modern Istanbul) before World War I. Cath, already wanted by French police as he is suspected of the murder of an Irish police officer, is contacted urgently by his old friend Tyler Whitney, to join him on the Orient Express, gateway to the East, and a possible exit from all his troubles. Cath boards the train via a motorcycle and looks for Whitney, who is already on board. However, from the moment he steps onto this luxurious train, Cath becomes involved in a maelstrom of treachery, lies, political conspiracies, personal interests, romance and murder.
The game has 30 characters representing a cross-section of European forces at the time, including Serbian freedom fighters, a German arms dealer, a Russian anarchist, a suspicious Austrian concert violinist, a Persian eunuch and his private harem, a mysterious art collector and others. As the train races east, the player must stay alive while interacting with these characters, which includes eavesdropping on conversations, sneaking into compartments and defusing a bomb. The story is non-linear, with the player's actions (and failures to act) determining the course of the story; as a result, the game's script is 800 pages long.
- Robert Cath
- A young American doctor and the protagonist of the game. Seemingly ostracized by the American medical circles due to his tendencies to the occult, Cath moved to Europe. During this period, he had a run-in with Irish nationalists, resulting in a firefight with British police along with an Irishman named Reilly. The fight resulted with the death of a British policeman and the injury of Reilly. Cath escaped to the continent and retreated to Paris where he was contacted by his old friend Tyler Whitney with whom he seems to have a grudge about "what happened in Cuba". Cath is depicted to be a capable character in social circles (he speaks French and Russian and seems to understand German, judging by the subtitles which are absent when he overhears Arabic or Serbian)
- Tyler Whitney
- An American gentleman, and close friend of Cath, who seems to have traveled extensively as he is known by many characters in the train. His social contacts vary from Serbian military to German industrialists. Whitney invites Robert Cath to the Orient Express for them to take a journey to Jerusalem where Whitney claims to have found something interesting for Cath (which later turns out to be a manuscript). Tyler Whitney's personal agenda for being on the Orient Express is a three-way business transaction: He possesses an antique egg which he wants to sell to a certain Prince Kronos for a hefty amount of gold which he would then turn over to the German arms dealer August Schmidt to purchase military equipment to support the Serbian "Black Hand" for their liberation campaign in the Balkans. Unfortunately, Whitney turns up dead before the journey even starts, leaving Cath in a very delicate and dangerous position.
- August Schmidt
- A wealthy German industrialist and an arms dealer. He plans to sell his weaponry to Tyler Whitney. Along the way, he meets Anna Wolff, an Austrian violinist and socialite to whom Schmidt is seemingly quite attracted. However, after the acquisition of the guns "Tyler" bought for them, Serbians hijack the train and subsequently Schmidt is left inside the sleeping car to which he was evacuated.
- Anna Wolff
- An Austrian socialite. One of the porters in the train refer to her as "having made more journeys on the Orient Express" than the porter himself. After discovering Tyler's corpse, Cath finds a scarf with the monogram "W" upon it which puts Wolff under some suspicion. Later in the journey, it is revealed that Anna Wolff is actually working for Austria as a spy, tracking August Schmidt's arms deal. Anna becomes Robert Cath's eventual love-interest. After reaching Constantinople and learning that the war has broken out, she leaves Cath to join the war effort, promising to return after the war is over.
- George Abbot
- A British gentleman who boards the train in Munich, Abbot appears as a talkative and ordinary man who converses with practically everyone he comes across. After the murder of the young Dolnikov, he reveals to Cath that he was aware of his true identity, along with his exploits concerning the Irish incident and his impersonation of Whitney and offers him to work with the British government for the upcoming European crisis. He is one of the few characters to actually make it to Constantinople.
- Alexei Dolnikov
- A Russian nobleman who disdains his aristocratic roots. Alexei espouses anarchism and the abolishing of all authority. He and Tatiana Obolensky are childhood friends and Alexei asks her to elope with him. When she refuses, he attempts to plant a bomb and kill Count Obolensky whom Alexei considers as a relic of Tsar's oppressive rule. In his confrontation with the Count, Alexei is stabbed to death by the delirious elder aristocrat.
- Count Vassili Alexandrovich Obolensky & Tatiana Obolensky
- The Tsar's cousin and a former Russian ambassador, Count Obolensky takes his young granddaughter Tatiana, who spent several years in Paris, back to Russia. The Count is rather senile at first, with occasional seizures which Cath treats with herbal medication. During a confrontation with his granddaughter's lover Alexei, the Count, in his delirium, stabs the young anarchist to death. Tatiana, wracked by guilt and shocked by Alexei's death, assumes an almost catatonic state. Even during the Serbian hijacking attempt, they do not move from their table in the dining car. The Count displays a certain aspect of what might be called clairvoyance as he claims that those who were evacuated to the sleeping cars will never reach Constantinople. In the end, as the train reaches its final destination, Tatiana opens the gun cache and blow them up with what seems to be Alexei's lighter.
- Prince Kronos
- Rumored to be an abyssinian prince in exile, Kronos is a wealthy art collector who travels with his private car along with his bodyguard Kahina. He seems to know Cath's secrets and wishes to carry on with Whitney's transaction. He never leaves his car, except for one occasion, on which he invites Anna Wolff for a duet as he plays the piano. In the end, he turns out to be the main antagonist of the game, as he returns to the train in Constantinople to take Robert and Anna hostage to acquire the "egg".
- A Serbian military officer and a member of the "Black Hand" who assassinated Prince Ferdinand. Apparently, the Serbian High Command gave Tyler Whitney an antique to liquidate and buy them military equipment. Milos and his comrades, Vesna, Ivo and Salko board the Orient Express to get the weapons from Munich and then hijack the train through Austria into Serbia. During the attempt, Cath kills the subordinates after which Anna Wolff shoots Milos to death.
- The Firebird
- The object that forms the main story arc of the entire game, the Firebird is a jeweled egg with a world map engraved upon it. The egg is accompanied by a whistle, both of which are lost in the beginning. It turns out that after finding Tyler's dead body, Anna Wolff took the egg and later gave it to the unsuspecting Tatiana for safekeeping. The whistle turns up in the hands of the French boy, François. Cath recovers both items and hides the egg in the luggage car while keeping the whistle. A recurring reference is made for the Firebird: Tyler Whitney (in Cath's nightmare), Count Obolensky and finally Kronos all refer to the bird's "singing". A the climax of the game, Kronos holds Cath at gunpoint to open the egg. Cath opens the jewel by the virtue of the Russian fairytale he found in Tyler's luggage, referencing various locations on the world, forming some sort of combination. As the egg opens, it turns into a mechanical predatory bird. At Kronos' demand, Anna plays the violin and the bird sings. However, instead of closing the egg Cath blows the whistle, launching the creature first on Kronos and then on Tahina. As the bird's claws tear and shred at Kronos, Cath finally sees how Tyler met his end.
The Last Express is unique for taking place in almost complete real-time, albeit accelerated by a factor of six. The player can also rewind and occasionally fast-forward time at will. The game begins at 7:14 p.m. on July 24, 1914, and ends at 7:30 p.m. on July 27 (if the player has reached the proper ending). The only events during which the game does not proceed in real-time are times when Cath is sleeping or unconscious, as well as a few cutscenes. One of the game's most notable uses of this technique during a concert, in which two of the non-player characters perform a piano/violin duet that lasts approximately twenty minutes of real-time: the player character is free to sit down and enjoy the music, or move as he pleases. The game's some thirty characters have their own artificial intelligence and individual agendas, moving around to accomplish their goals, or changing their plans due to player intervention. In this way, the game has a higher replay value than a similar-length linear game, with no two playthroughs exactly alike. Additionally, the game features multiple endings; about thirty are "fatal", in which Cath is killed or arrested, and four are "non-fatal" endings, of which only one is considered to be the proper ending.
Art production 
The game is notable for its unique art style, with characters illustrated in the "art nouveau" style popularized by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec that was in style in 1914, the year the game's events take place. Since illustrating a game of this magnitude by hand would most likely take an exorbitant amount of time, the look was achieved by using rotoscoping, a process that Mechner had used to a lesser extent in his earlier games. During a 22-day long live-action video shoot, every action by every character in the game was photographed by actors wearing distinctive makeup and costumes against a bluescreen on 16mm film and digitized. From this, a limited number of frames were selected and put through a patented process developed in house, where the frames first had all colour removed. Then, a powerful computer program created black-and-white line drawings of the frames, which were then coloured in by hand. The finished product has 40,000 frames in total.
After five years of development, at a final cost of US$ 5-6 million, the game was released on a multi-platform 3 CD set that covered Windows, Mac OS, and DOS. Following a bidding war between several major game publishers, Brøderbund, SoftBank, and GameBank split the worldwide distribution rights for the game. Dubbed versions of the game were released in French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian and Japanese.
A version for the iOS mobile platform was released on the 27th of September in 2012.
Running thirty-nine minutes, the soundtrack for The Last Express was published by Intrada Records in 2000, but is no longer in print. It was composed, orchestrated and conducted by American composer born in Czechoslovakia, Elia Cmiral, who later composed the scores for Ronin and Stigmata. Consisting of a mix of dominant synth instruments and occasional solo violin, the score was recorded at Forte Muzika Studios in Los Angeles. The lone exception is the Sonata for Violin and Piano in A major by César Franck featured in the game's concert scene.
The Last Express received highly positive reviews both in print and online. Newsweek called it "exquisite" and "thrilling" and MSNBC said "the mystery and characters are very fascinating" and "this game is definitely for everyone". Games Magazine declared it the Best New Adventure and Role Playing Game, and it received Editor's Choice awards from PC Gamer, Computer Gaming World, Next Generation, and dozens of game websites, including a gold medal from GamesDomain.
However, the game only remained in stores for a few months. Brøderbund's marketing department quit just weeks before the game was released, resulting in virtually no advertising for it. Softbank pulled out of the game market, dissolving its subsidiary GameBank and canceling several dozen titles in development, including the nearly finished PlayStation port of The Last Express. As a final blow, Brøderbund was acquired by The Learning Company, which was only interested in their educational and home productivity software. The Last Express was out of print within a year.
In 2000, the game publisher Interplay bought the lapsed rights and began quietly selling the game as a budget title. A short time later, Interplay went bankrupt, so the game was once again out of print. In 2006, the American subscription-based game service GameTap began offering the game on its network. In 2011, Good Old Games and DotEmu began selling a downloadable version as well that included the original soundtrack and a Making Of video.
On March 16, 2012, Mechner announced an upcoming release of the game for iOS devices, to be developed by DotEmu, with "additional enhancements to make it more iOS-friendly." The game was released for iOS (iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch) on September 27 by DotEmu.com and is available in the App Store.
Film adaptation 
On April 13, 2010, MTV's Movies Blog posted an excerpt from a recent interview with Dutch film director Paul Verhoeven. In the interview, Verhoeven is quoted as saying, "I am working on a movie now that is... situated in 1914. Basically, Indiana Jones-ish you could say, but also Hitchcockian." He also states that the source material is a video game, and that "the writer of the video game has asked me to keep [the identity of the game] secret until he has a script." Subsequently, several other websites speculated that the video game in question is The Last Express, considering the relative dearth of games set in 1914, as well as Jordan Mechner's work on the film version of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.
In October 2011, Verhoeven confirmed that he is working with Mechner to develop a film adaptation of the game. The film would most likely be filmed in 3D, although it may not be Verhoeven's immediate next project.
Notes and references 
- The Last Express: Behind the Scenes (short film). Interplay. 1997.
- Mechner, Jordan (2010-02-04). "In memoriam Tomi Pierce". Retrieved 2011-07-12.
- Remo, Chris (2008-11-28). "The Last Express: Revisiting An Unsung Classic". Gamasutra. Retrieved 2009-02-28.
- Barba, Rick: The Last Express: The Official Strategy Guide, page 194, Prima Press, 1997
- Back of box, Brøderbund release of The Last Express, 1997
- Griffiths, Diana (June 1997). "Mark Moran joins Diana for a chat in the smoking car of The Last Express...". Games Domain (archived). Retrieved September 28, 2012.
- Burch, Anthony (2006-08-15). "The Games That Time Forgot: The Last Express". Destructoid. Retrieved 2011-07-12.
- Mott, Tony (2010). 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die. London: Quintessence Editions Ltd. p. 343. ISBN 978-1-74173-076-0.
- Mechner, Jordan (March 16, 2012). "Announcing Last Express for iOS". Retrieved March 18, 2012.
- "The Last Express (iOS)". 2012-09-27. Retrieved 2011-07-12.
- Rosenberg, Adam (April 13, 2010). "EXCLUSIVE: Paul Verhoeven Pushes Play On Video Game Adaptation Set In 1914". MTV Movies Blog.
- Sciretta, Peter (April 13, 2010). "Paul Verhoeven Developing Big Screen Adaptation of… Jordan Mechner’s Video Game The Last Express?". /Film.
- Schaefer, Sandy (April 14, 2010). "Paul Verhoeven Bringing ‘The Last Express’ To The Big Screen?". Screen Rant.
- ""3D Could Become as Normal as Colour" – Paul Verhoeven". 3D Focus. October 11, 2011.
- Official link to The Last Express on Jordan Mechner's website
- Official game website (1997) (mirror)
- The Last Express at the Internet Movie Database
- The Last Express at MobyGames
- The Last Express at Adventure Gamers
- Nick Bousfield's review of The Last Express nine years later (2006)
- Games Domain interview with Mark Moran (1997)
- Mark Moran's history of The Last Express and Smoking Car
- Ars Technica: A truly graphic adventure: the 25-year rise and fall of a beloved genre - Express train to nowhere
- Gamasutra interview with producer Mark Netter and technical designer and lead programmer Mark Moran (2008)
- 25fps interview with art director Nicole Tostevin (2012)