Review: The Last Express

Official web page; Smoking Car Productions (creators); Broderbund (publishers).

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Very good
Dialog and writing
Fairly hard
Pretty good
Very good (or, perhaps, a brilliant attempt that doesn't completely succeed)
Forgiveness rating
You can easily get yourself into an unwinnable position, often by decisions you didn't know were important at the time. However, the program automatically saves games for you, repeatedly and often.

Those of you who know me, and who know this game, probably expect me to say that The Last Express is the best graphical adventure game I've ever played. Well -- as you should have guessed, matters are more complicated than that. :)

The best written game? Well, certainly. Unique? The only graphical game to even try doing what it does? The most interesting to review? Yes, all of these, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

July 24, 1914. The Orient Express leaves Paris. It is three days to Constantinople; passing through Munich, Vienna, Budapest, and Belgrade on the way. This mess between Serbia and Austria is in all the newspapers. The train doesn't stop for such trivia -- of course.

You're an American doctor, Robert Cath. You've missed the train, I'm sorry to say; an old friend named Tyler Whitney cabled you to meet him in Paris, but you were... delayed. Fortunately, you're athletic enough to board a speeding train in acrobatic style. Now you have to find Whitney without anyone realizing you lack a ticket. Which is the easy part.

Thus, the start of the story.

Here's what The Last Express is doing: there are two dozen passengers. Plus assorted conductors, cooks, waiters, engineers, and the trainmaster. (To say nothing of the dog.) All these people have lives. They're all in constant motion. Some of their courses intersect; some don't. You can interfere with events, eavesdrop on them, or ignore them. They'll happen anyway. It's probably impossible to catch every event in a single pass through the game; you have to replay sections to get the full effect.

Just for a sampling: an elderly Russian count travelling with his quiet daughter; an Austrian musician; a German industrialist; a Turkish harem, complete with fezzed guard; a pair of young women, English and French, unescorted; and Serbs and Slavs and English gentlemen and the mysterious private car at the train's end... of course, that doesn't tell you anything. They all have stories.

If this sounds like a tremendously multithreaded plot -- yes. Precisely. On two levels, actually. There are several main branches the story can take, depending on what you do. In the normal manner of adventure games, some branches leave you in some unsatisfying resolution; some get you stabbed or shot or blown up; exactly one gets you all the way to Constantinople, alive and more or less victorious.

But also -- and this is even more unusual, in graphical games -- there's tremendous variability possible within each branch. There are many events you can initiate. To the extent that they influence each other, they make major plot branches occur or not occur. To the extent that they don't, they can occur in any order. You see? Events are available, but you go through them at your own pace. (Mostly.)

This kind of variation is very familiar in its most trivial form, in the text IF world. Consider: you can pick up objects, drop them, move them around. A simplified physics model keeps track of everything. That's the basic framework on which all the special cases and scripting of a game are overlaid. That framework is the player's freedom of action -- the scope of the possible, to borrow a phrase. A game works when the interesting actions of the game lie within the scope of the possible, without limiting it.

Graphical adventure games tend to make that scope extremely narrow: you move freely, and you can bop the thing in front of you, but there are no more axes than that. Objects can't be placed anywhere in the world, as they can in text games. Why? Because rendering realistic images can't be done in real time (currently :-). The game can't store images of every combination of objects on the table, or in the corner, in every room. It takes enough space and too much, just covering the complete scope of the single axis that is available -- your location.

And this works, because it doesn't matter how big the scope of the possible is; what matters is whether it's complete. In Myst, you can stand just about everywhere and face in just about any direction, and this only becomes annoying when there's an interesting corner that you want to stand in and can't. But you can't drop objects anywhere. In Zork 1, you can stand anywhere and drop any object in any room; but there's no concept of facing a particular direction. Two different scopes, and therefore two different kinds of games, but both more or less complete; both work.

If you'll pardon that didactic sideline, I'll return to the tra -- the subject. In most graphical games, characters are as inflexible as objects. You encounter a person in a specific location, so that the encounter only has to be rendered once. People don't walk around freely, because they would have to be filmed multiply in each path and from every viewpoint.

And The Last Express, with dozens of people in independent action, pulls out a whole set of tricks to avoid this problem.

Consider again: it's a train. Narrow gauge rail, inherited from Roman wagon ruts. A person can only walk directly towards you or directly away from you; and only up to the distance of a train-car. Film those, plus clips of the person slipping past you or walking through a side door, and you've covered that entire scope of the possible. (As always, exceptions can be added as necessary; but the basics are there.) There are only four common spaces: corridors (all identical), sleeping compartments (ditto), the smoking room, the dining room. That's four backgrounds to any scene, at most. If you limit an event to (say) a corridor encounter, you only need one background, and it can still occur anywhere down the length of the train, at any time in the game.

Trick two: simplify the graphics. The people you meet (and yourself, in third-person cut scenes) are not fully rendered, or filmed from live actors. The art is, well, anime-like -- hand-drawn animation frames. (The PR hype says "period Art Noveau style", which is weasel speak for "We know it doesn't look good, but there are reasons." These are the reasons.) A few sequences are smoothly animated (rotoscoped from live actors), but most are still frames. Which doesn't look good -- but is the perfect medium, because those sequences and frames can be arbitrarily arranged. There's no lip-synching. The designers can put in an entire conversation with three or four frames, alternating. A character can sit in one spot and read a newspaper for an hour, without either requiring an hour of video or becoming a statue.

By deliberately setting expectations low, the game can get away with a scope which flashier graphical games find simply impossible. Ok, I'm repeating myself. One more example. If you were to film a bunch of people going up and down a corridor, dodging each other, you could only use it for that bunch in that sequence. Here, you've got the rotoscoped animation of people walking towards and away from you (and the Z-buffering is trivial, because they're all in a line, because it's a train). If one turns and enters a compartment, there's no smooth transition. Animation ends, frame of person sideways, frame of person reaching for latch, frame of half-open door, slam. If two people pass each other, they pop through each other. And it's perfectly consistent with the game's visual style; it doesn't break expectation.

What isn't in the game's scope?

Physical objects really aren't treated any better than in Myst. There aren't many, and you pretty much just accumulate them. You can't drop something anywhere it isn't needed. Interface is limited to click-to-use, and sometimes click-to-use-on-that. But this isn't very important, since the focus of the story is characters, not objects.

More seriously, you never have any control over what your character says. If you start talking with someone, the entire conversation is scripted. If someone starts talking to you, the same is true, and you don't even have the opportunity to avoid it. Your scope of possible action (which is different from the game's scope of the possible, a distinction which I leave as an exercise for the reader) consists mostly of going places to bump into people, initiating conversations with people, and sometimes handing objects to people.

(Mind you, this narrowness isn't a bad thing; as I said, scope doesn't have to be wide, just complete. And this choice does have some interesting consequences. One of the mysteries of The Last Express is who you are, and how you got there. The answers come out slowly over the course of the game, but not because you're amnesiac or anything like that. You just don't like to talk about yourself. Since all the conversations are pre-designed, this works fine. And it leads to a much stronger characterization of the protagonist than is usual in IF -- graphical or text games.)

Now, I've been quite fanatical about how brilliant all this is, so I'd better moderate that stance. (Complications, complications. Sorry.)

There are limits to the plot-branching. Without intelligent intervention (human or AI), no scope of action can be truly complete over a nontrivial plot. And when the scope is as narrow as this, the restrictions are very jarring. If a conversation is going on in the next compartment, you can eavesdrop, but you (usually) can't interrupt -- and that means you just can't open the door. Or knock. Those hotspots are simply turned off. You might find a master key, but it only opens doors that the designers want to let you open. Even if someone is ransacking your compartment, if the game doesn't provide for an encounter, all you can do is stand outside.

Similarly. If you pass a person and there's no conversation to have, you can't start one. Clicking on the person does nothing. Even if you think the person would be fascinated to hear something you know -- or to see something you're holding. If it's not in the plot map, it's not possible. "Clang clang," my friend said, watching me play, as I tried to return an incredibly valuable item to the person I'd stolen it from. As she wept to another character about its loss. In real life, one could clang the damn thing against the door until she noticed. In this game, it wasn't an available option. You keep it; that's the storyline.

Whew. Enough about game design.

I haven't said much about the actual plot, and that's deliberate. There's far too much fun stuff to spoil it all. Just picture everything that might happen on a train... Since you're passing through Austria and Serbia on the eve of the Great War, it's not going too far to say that politics is involved. Spies and revolutionaries; romance; the working class and the incredibly wealthy; excursions and alarums in the night. And the most luxurious travel experience in Europe.

The sense of place is remarkable. I have little interest in real-world stories; it's science fiction and fantasy that usually turn my crank. But the Orient Express pulled me in, once I gave it a chance. All those kinds of people. Casual chatter in English, French, Russian, German, Serbo-Croatian, and Turkish. (You know French, Russian, and German, so those conversations -- or eavesdrops -- are subtitled.) Conductors in each car who stand and say "Bonjour" as you pass. Political discussions from the days when socialism was an ideal, not a Party. Everybody smokes. It's wacky.

And the writing itself -- well, it's nice to play a graphical game that doesn't read like a high-school writing workshop. The conversations would make a fine period novel. Or movie; that can't be accidental, that The Last Express with no interactivity at all would still be a heck of a film. Romance, action, surprises, a sprinkling of humor. The characters rely a bit much, perhaps, on stereotype -- the pompous German, the brooding fiery revolutionary, the sophisticated Parisian, the bluff cheery Englishman. And the tall, mysterious (even to you), handsome, sly, slightly untrustworthy, all-around movie hero of an American. But they all turn out to have something to say. I was astounded, counting characters for this review, that there were so many -- because they are all now so distinct in my mind. You'd think two dozen people would be a faceless crowd. These are fellow travellers.

And it was so much fun being that American.

I should complain about the action scenes for a bit. You get into a few fights. The interface is simple; click on the enemy to strike, click behind yourself to duck back. Watch your opponent's moves, and react quickly. They're very simple timing games. Not too hard -- but each one took me a few tries to win. (Losing always ends the game.) My reflexes aren't the twitchest, but I'm sure there are people who would have real trouble with them. That's not good in an adventure game. Maybe there should be a difficulty preference, with the easiest mode really easy (or fully automatic.) On the other hand, the scenes were about the right difficulty for me, and the pacing would suffer without the interactivity. It's hard to say what's best.

I will complain about the save-game system. It's certainly a new approach. The game automatically saves itself at every plot juncture (conversations, getting important items, etc.) You can rewind to any earlier saved game -- but you can't go forward again. Well, there's a thirty-second grace period during which you can. Just enough time to see where you are. But if you go back to an earlier position and play any significant amount of game, you lose all your progress; the only way forward is to replay everything. Hope you remember how you did it all.

The reasoning is obvious; you never have to fiddle with named positions, or keep track of a branching tree of saved games. And you never have to consciously save a game at all. The program stores a linear chain of games. You select one by its time -- or, given the miraculous isotonicity of train-tracks, by the position of the train between Paris and Constantinople. And yes, there's a very nice interface for selecting this, as the clock hands whirl around the face and the red line zigs across the map.

But it's a great nuisance sometimes. You can't go back and try a quick variation of the night before. I missed that sorely, sometimes. And replaying the game is slow. The first and worst objection to graphical games. Even if you know what you're doing, even if you hit escape to abort cut scenes, there's just a lot of time involved playing The Last Express. The first time through a segment, there's so much to hear that it flies by. The seventh or ninth time, it gets tedious. Sigh.

(Footnote: In fact, you can work around these restrictions. The program actually allows you to have six different saved-game chains. These are color-coded, and are stored as disk files called "blue.egg", "red.egg", "green.egg", and so on. You can quit the game, duplicate a disk file, give the duplicate a different color-name, and restart. Both will then be available as entirely independent chains.)

How hard? I got severely stuck once. Asking for hints, I discovered that I hadn't searched a room carefully enough. A common enough problem, in adventure games, but annoying nonetheless. Another puzzle yielded only to the "try every object on everything visible" approach; I didn't know why the correct object was correct until I saw the result.

There's a more general problem, which is unfortunately the realism problem; you don't know what decisions are important until later. You can get stuck quite far down a plot branch that dead ends, because you did something in the wrong order, much earlier. The dead-end branch may even be interesting, or half-satisfying. You may have several possible endings available -- giving you the impression that you can win. It ain't always true.

(When you die or reach an unsatisfactory ending, the game tries to rewind you to a save point from which you can win. But this is not guaranteed. Even if it does work, the winning path available from that point may be quite difficult; you may have to wind back farther before you actually find a way to win.)

And I spent much time in flail mode. That is to say, wandering up and down the train, waiting to hear or see something interesting. Or hoping that a conductor would turn aside, so I could sneak into a room. (They don't let you break into random compartments or enter the baggage car. But if the conductor is away from his seat, or if there's some other character blocking his view, you can get away with more.) A lot of the game is this kind of irritating little timing issue; not ideal. Realistic, perhaps, as I said. But too much of it.

This review has gotten very, very long.

In short: If you have any interest in graphical IF, you should play The Last Express. For the sheer chutzpah of it all, if nothing else. It ate several multi-hour play sessions, much longer than the usual game; and if some of that time was dull, much more of it was filled with fascinating, creative, and damn-right entertaining narrative.

Availability: This is a 1997 game, but on-line CD-ROM shops should have it, and at a reduced price. It's a Mac-PC hybrid game.

System requirements: Any PowerMac, System 7.1.2 or later, 9 megs free RAM, 2x CD drive, thousands of colors. (4x CD recommended.)

Macintoshness: Not particularly. It uses a large software cursor, so there's mouse jerkiness you don't expect on a Mac. And the save system doesn't prompt you for files at all, so it doesn't use standard Mac dialog boxes. No menu bar either.

Interesting Footnote: The designer is Jordan Mechner, whose first computer game of fame was "Karateka".

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