'The Last Express' Is the Most Honest End-of-the-World Game

Jordan Mechner's singular 1997 adventure invites you to re-live the final hours before World War I ended an era.

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May 9 2017, 7:08pm

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The Last Express was an oddity even for its time, and in the twenty years since Jordan Mechner made it, I think it's only gotten more singular. It's a real-time point-and-click adventure set on the last Orient Express run from Paris to Constantinople before the outbreak of World War I. There are hardly any puzzles. Most of the game isn't in English. Oh, and the entire thing is using rotoscoped animation captured from models and voiced by completely different actors, meaning that its action unfolds as a series of still frames and tableaus. It's a world that seems to be shifting and dissolving before your eyes, which of course exactly what that entire game is about.

You play as Robert Cath, an American doctor on the run from the law for an unspecified crime. You've been summoned to meet your buddy Tyler Whitney, a sometime freedom-fighter and full-time arms dealer, on the Orient Express to help him out with some kind of mysterious trouble. Naturally, no sooner of have you arrived on the train than you discover that he's dead… and you can take his place.

That decision thrusts you into a microcosm of Europe in the final days of peace following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Serbian rebels blackmail you into helping their cause by defrauding a gauche German arms dealer. A mysterious Hungarian violinist seems either to be seducing or surveilling you. A Russian anarchist argues with an old Orthodox priest about the decadence of Czarist society, while the working-class French railroad workers argue about what they'll do if war breaks out. It's such a ridiculous conceit—the entire train is a rolling metaphor—and yet it's carried off with such style and wit that is somehow just works.

But the clock never stops running: every minute brings you farther east, and closer to the outbreak of war. This isn't an adventure game about collecting items and clicking on random stuff in the environment, like so many of its peers. The Last Express is fundamentally about the puzzles posed by time and causality: characters go on their own missions around the train, and if you aren't in the right place at the right time, you'll probably miss something critical.

I'm not sure it's a great way to design a game. Not many games ever adopted this structure after The Last Express, and for good reason: it involves a lot of infuriating trial-and-error replay. But that structure perfectly fits the game's themes: time is running out for everyone on this train. You know what they don't: that the world as they have known it is coming to a swift and violent end. Possibilities are being closed off all around them, and disaster is becoming inevitable.

Yet I think the great achievement of The Last Express is that, by the end, you can grieve for these people and the deeply flawed—but in some ways idealistic—visions of the world that you see them clinging to. They're all members of a doomed species, as the internationalism of Victorian and Edwardian Europe finally gives way to the nationalist and ideological strife of the 20th century. But for a while you get to live among them, and see the world as they do: peaceful, orderly, and full of possibilities for the future. Possibilities that, in the end, will be taken away from them… and from you.

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