Words About Video Games

Gaming through history: The Last Express

So, we talked about it a bit while streaming, but I came away from The Last Express feeling as if it's a very basic remake away from being a brilliant game.

I wouldn't touch the story or the graphics and especially not the central conceit: events on the train unfold around you in real-time on a train from Paris to Constantinople on the eve of the First World War. (Real-time here is game time, but the important thing is that the game is not waiting for you to hit certain triggers to advance the story.)

For the most part the real-time nature is smartly designed. Certain stops on your journey act as gates (and are clearly telegraphed as such by the story.) If you are able to get through that station alive (and still on the train), you know that you're well set up to continue. If you fail, you will be rewound to the closest possible moment in which you can course correct. If you feel you need to go back further, you can always rewind time yourself.

And the story is atmospheric and smart. It's late July 1914, and you're on board the Orient Express. With you are a German, a French family, an American tourist in love with her French travelling companion, a cadre of Bosnian Serbs looking to complete an arms deal, an Austrian violinist, a Russian count and his granddaughter, her childhood friend a would-be revolutionary, and a mysterious man in a private car. You boarded the train to meet another American, but when you find his cabin, he's been killed.

What follows is a taste of what's about to happen to Europe, played out in the personal struggles of everyone on board. The end credits roll over a time lapse map of Europe showing the continent's changing borders from 1914 through 1996. (The game was released in 1997.)

The story is a pulpy pleasure with few missteps (like the sequel they seem to be trying to set up at the end), but the setting gives it resonance. It's sort of the anti-Casablanca, as the American hero despairs near the end that everything went to shit, and getting involved didn't seem to help anyone.

At times, I wish they'd pushed some of their themes further, but I often find myself wishing that of games. There's a moment near the end where the hero critiques his love interest's loyalty to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, telling her she's a Jewish woman born in Hungary. She argues that her family's military service gives her as much a right to call herself Austrian as anyone. He wonders if her loyalty is repaid in kind.

It's a single exchange, a footnote in the game. Never introduced, never interrogated further than that. The same is true of the Bosnian Serbs. The player is supposed to come in understanding what is happening there. The game doesn't bother to explain it. Given the setting, the game could be all about nationality and how people construct it, but it never quite closes the circle on those themes. Pointing out the love interest's Jewishness in this off-hand way, late in the game, without providing the historical context, ends up feeling a bit superficial, even cheap.

But a remake shouldn't touch any of that. Instead, it should address the frustrations a player will invariably face. Inventory object manipulation that functions differently from object to object. Several cases where progress was blocked by the need to pixel hunt.

Modern games have solved many of these issues in elegant ways. Having a button that highlighted interactable areas would have eliminated so much frustration without substantially impacting challenge.

The other thing I would have included is a way to wile away time. It seems counter-intuitive in a game that is partly about choosing what to do and what to potentially miss, but the reality is that when you're replaying a section for the third time and have figured out exactly what you need to do, you end up with a lot of dead time.

Lastly, if the game would pause the timer while you're reading documents, it'd be a big help. You find several multi-page journals and manuscripts over the course of the game, but you never feel like you have time to properly read them. Of course, you could read them and then rewind time, but somehow that feels like cheating.

A remake, of course, is just a figment of my imagination. As far as I know, there are no plans for one. But if you have patience for the foibles of older adventure games and a little pixel hunting and trial and error, The Last Express is worth it. There really aren't any other games quite like it. For the time you're on this train, it feels alive, inhabited by actors each moving according to their desires, loyalties, and need.