Now Boarding: Intrigue, Mystery, and Murder

I consider myself to be a connoisseur of adventure games.  I’ve played most of the classics— most, but not all.  Before the internet was mainstream and before I started closely following the industry I really only knew about games through word of mouth – meaning that I’ve missed a few.  I’ve made it my mission to track these games down and play through them.

On one of the podcasts I listen to (Idle Thumbs) the cast, specifically Chris Remo of Gamasutra, started talking about playing the adventure game The Last Express.  As he raved about the game I searched my brain trying to recall the title.  I vaguely remembered it – mostly that it had a unique art style.  Chris Remo’s enthusiasm was infectious and I decided to track the game down.  I managed to find a used copy for a good price and anxiously waited for it in the mail.

The Last Express, published in 1997, takes place in 1914 on the Orient Express traveling from Paris to Constantinople.  You are Robert Cath, an American doctor on the run from French authorities for the murder of an Irish policeman. 

You surreptitiously embark the train to make your escape, hoping to meet a friend who is already on board.  From there the plot thickens with political intrigue, under-handed dealings, foreign agents, and murder. 

To say that the story of The Last Express is superb would be an understatement.  I was riveted at every turn.  Each time I thought I had an understanding of what was going on a new twist would reveal itself. 

The best part about the game is how it reveals the story.  There are cut scenes like many games but a lot of necessary details are revealed through what I would describe as ambient conversation.  For example, as I was walking down the corridor of one of the sleeping cars I could hear the quiet murmur of a conversation at the other end.  I casually walked closer to eavesdrop on the dialogue and discovered that it was two train operators speaking softly to each other.  One was the head operator who apparently had dropped his master key.  He was worried about a passenger finding it and using it to access other travelers’ compartments.  Useful information indeed as there happened to be one particular compartment I needed to sneak into.  If I had stayed in the dining car I may not have heard this helpful tidbit and the story would have changed accordingly.

The story of The Last Express is non-linear and the game runs in near real-time.  The narrative may change based on the decisions you do or do not make.  With many endings your path through the game will vary greatly.  You can also rewind chunks of time which is necessary if you get yourself killed.  Many conversations you overhear have no bearing on the immediate story but create a rich atmosphere in what ultimately isn’t a big space.  Multiple languages are spoken in the game (with English subtitles) which accentuate what the experience of the Orient Express must have felt like.

I was fascinated by the art style of The Last Express and looked up the techniques used.  Mostly I wanted to find out how the designers created the characters themselves as they seemed to be drawn with more than just regular animation.  The game is designed using the technique of rotoscoping to animate the characters.  Rotoscoping involves filming live actors and then animators trace over the film.  It’s definitely a cool effect giving people on the train interesting features and the overall game a neat flip-book-like style.

The Last Express is a little daunting.  You’re given no instruction as what you should be doing even when the plot starts to unfold.  It’s up to you to decide where to go on the train and when.  Sometimes I found myself listening to passengers talk because the topic was interesting but quickly reminded myself that I should move on as their chat wasn’t really relevant to my goal.  While a little overwhelming at first the freedom the game gives you is quite refreshing.  You could sit through the whole train ride in the lounge car if you wish, though the game would end with you being caught by the authorities.  Or you can observe your surroundings, investigate your fellow passengers, and get yourself out of the mess you’re in.

The Last Express is an adventure game fan’s dream.  I’m sad to learn that it didn’t sell very well – Chris Remo outlines the reasons in his article.  It’s definitely a game that should have been trumpeted and praised at nauseam by proponents of the genre.  Maybe it was, but the honorifics didn’t filter down to adventure game buying 15-year-olds like me.  I highly recommend that you track down a copy for yourself.   The Last Express is a masterpiece.