The non-linear story helped make The Last Express one of the best adventure games of the 90’s, but it wasn’t the only reason. There was an incredible amount of work behind the scenes with bluescreens, actors and heavy stylised makeup, all of which was necessary to pull off the game’s look.
Set in 1914, The Last Express was a murder mystery dressed in the stylings of a point-and-click adventure. It all takes place on the Orient Express as it makes its final journey, days before the beginning of the First World War. You play as an American doctor who stumbles across a body, and the entire game plays out in real-time.
The real-time element is one of the most fascinating, since it helps build a non-linear story that was vastly unlike most other puzzlers of the period. It was up to the player to help progress the story, and in all the game had 34 separate endings, only four of which resulted in a positive outcome for the protagonist.
But maybe the most unique element of The Last Express was its look. Because of the time period, designer Jordan Mechner opted for an art nouveau style that was most prominent at the end of the 19th and early 20th century. From a fashion standpoint – although art nouveau was incorporated into furniture, architecture, the applied and decorative arts as well – art nouveau was characterised by a lot of long, flowing lines, juxtaposed with moderate to dark colours like brown, violet, olive, and so on.
As far as The Last Express was concerned, that translated to a lot of aggressive outlines. It’s almost a cel-shaded look, something gamers today associate more with Borderlands or Telltale’s suite of adventures.
But that’s only part of the story.
If the name Jordan Mechner rings a bell, it’s for good reason. Mechner made his mark on gaming courtesy of Prince of Persia, which immediately stood out thanks to the quality of its animations. The technique is called rotoscoping, and it was something Mechner utilised (but not to the same degree) on Karateka, a game he developed in between classes at Yale, and he used it further for The Last Express.
Put simply, rotoscoping is a technique where animators trace over footage one frame at a time. It’s one of the earliest motion capture techniques, although the video below explains this in much better detail.
In a chat with The Guardian to promote the game’s iOS release, Mechner explained that the idea was to bring a pen-and-ink drawing to life. But to actually achieve the look in-game, particularly with the technology available, the developers spent three weeks shooting over sixty actors with special makeup, wigs and costumes that were easier to rotoscope.
“We also had a separate film shoot with miniature model trains,” Mechner said at the time. “We shot on 16mm film and spent two years digitally rotoscoping the footage to create over 40,000 inked and coloured frames of animation, using a semi-automated process which we developed in-house and patented.”
It was a huge technological challenge at the time, because the actors had to be filmed at several angles. It also meant the developers had to cast actors with strong facial features, so their looks would be unique enough from each other when replicated in-game. And coupled with the bluescreens and costumes necessary for the filming process, it created a look behind the scenes that looked like it was pulled out of a BioShock Infinite cosplay.
Dotemu, which worked with Mechner to remaster The Last Express and port it to mobiles over the last few years, published the images on Steam. There’s also a featurette of the game’s production on YouTube, which shows a bit more of the rotoscoping behind the scenes, as well as the filming process.
It’s a fascinating look back at a technique that is fairly rare in gaming. Being so time intensive, it’s probably something developers would never seriously consider using in the future. But The Last Express will at least ensure that its place in gaming history is never forgotten, and there’s always the chance that the images and footage (not to include the game itself) will live on to inspire someone, somewhere.