Oddly, although The Last Express was conceived as a point-and-click adventure, mobile (with headphones!) has now become my favorite way to play it. Its immersive story, which encourages hours of meandering and eavesdropping, is best experienced in a comfortable position — like curling up on the couch with a good book. I especially like it the way it feels on a plane. And, of course, a train.
The story of how a book, movie, or video game came to be — any project that takes years and the combined effort of many people — is always intertwined with the stories of other projects that didn’t.
In 2001, when I joined a Ubisoft Montreal team hoping to revive an all-but-dead franchise I’d created in the 1980s, Prince of Persia, we had no guarantee that our efforts would see the light of day. We did our best, and the result was a game you may have heard of or played: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.
Whereas a game I can guarantee you’ve never played is the next-gen Prince of Persia sequel that team went on to develop. It wasn’t abandoned because it wasn’t good enough; rather, it was so good, Ubisoft decided to make it a new franchise in its own right. Assassin’s Creed was born.
Meanwhile, I’d written the “Prince of Persia” movie for Disney. My first screenplay would be substantially rewritten by others before cameras rolled — but the experience sparked a great friendship, and my next writing project with co-exec producer John August: an hour-long dramatic TV pilot about down-on-their-luck private military contractors who accept questionable missions in a different conflict-ridden corner of the world every week. We got as far as casting our leads (Luke Mably and LL Cool J) before Fox pulled the plug. You’ll never see that pilot (though you can read it on John’s blog).
All that happened in one year, 2005. One project cancelled, two others went on without me. To anyone outside the film or video game industry, such a litany of “might-have-beens” might sound discouraging. But if you do work in the industry, you know that what I’m describing is actually a normal, productive year. Most creative people spend a significant percentage of their careers working on projects that don’t see the light of day, or morph into something completely different by the time they do.
Which is why it’s such a rare miracle when a work reaches completion in a form that not only fulfills the writer’s dreams, but exceeds them.
For this to happen requires luck, timing, a talented and creatively aligned team, and a visionary and committed publisher. It happened with Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and now, ten years later, I’m delighted to say it’s happened again. This time not with a video game, but my original graphic novel Templar — out today from First Second Books.
The book is a self-contained romantic action-adventure about the fall of the medieval Knights Templar — 480 pages, full-color, hardcover, illustrated by the husband-and-wife team of LeUyen Pham & Alex Puvilland. If you’re a fan of Prince of Persia, graphic novels, or historical fiction, I hope you’ll check it out.
Here’s how it came to be:
From video games to comics
In 2004, I got an email from Mark Siegel, editor-in-chief of Macmillan’s new graphic-novel imprint, First Second, asking if I’d ever considered doing a Prince of Persia graphic novel.
A few minutes into talking, I realized that Mark wasn’t trying to jump on the Ubisoft/Disney bandwagon. Not only was he not aiming at a merchandising tie-in with those bigger-budget efforts, he didn’t know about them. He was remembering the original, side-scrolling Prince of Persia he’d played in the 1990s. This was just one of the things about Mark’s approach that charmed me. I said yes.
I couldn’t write it myself — I was still busy writing the Prince of Persia movie and the Fox pilot, and Assassin’s Creed was still Prince of Persia 2 — but, kibitzing from the sidelines as Mark brought together Iranian poet A.B. Sina and husband-and-wife illustrators LeUyen Pham and Alex Puvilland to create that Prince of Persia graphic novel, I realized three things:
First, I wanted to write a graphic novel. Comics had been my first love as a kid, along with movies (before video games existed). Cartoon art and storytelling had hugely influenced my work in video games, from Karateka to The Last Express. How could I have let three decades slip by without jumping on an opportunity to work in this art form I cared about so much?
Second, I wanted to write a graphic novel for First Second.
Third, I wanted LeUyen and Alex to illustrate it.
Oddly, throughout the year they worked on the Prince of Persia graphic novel, we’d never met. Whether out of reticence to intrude on each other’s creative domains, or because of the crazy pace of production (that book and their first baby both shared the same, non-negotiable delivery date), all our communication was by email, with Mark as intermediary. But I noticed that every single one of their polite and deferential suggestions made the book unquestionably better. They were brilliant artists, this was their first book-length comic as a team, and their mastery was visibly increasing with each new batch of pages. Whoever wrote their next book would be a lucky writer indeed. I wanted to be that writer.
A strange mystique
I’d had the Knights Templar on my mind for at least a decade. I first learned of their amazing backstory doing research for The Last Express — a World War I-era adventure game about the quest for a legendary, possibly cursed, object that never changes hands without staining them with blood. As anyone who reads books, sees movies, or plays video games with any regularity knows, such objects almost always turn out to be part of a Templar conspiracy.
Once Templars are on your radar, you start seeing them everywhere. They pop up in the third acts of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” “Robin Hood” (the 1938 Errol Flynn version), “The Da Vinci Code,” and in the prologue of “The Maltese Falcon.” As Umberto Eco put it in Foucault’s Pendulum: “Everything has something to do with the Templars.”
I became a collector of Templariana. I hatched any number of Templar-conspiracy plotlines — including a screenplay prequel to The Last Express, which I abandoned in 2002 (probably wisely) to focus on Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. If its MacGuffin bears an uncanny resemblance to The Da Vinci Code, it’s not because either Dan Brown or I were aware of each other, but most likely because we’d been independently reading the same pseudo-historical nonsense about the Templars. You can read the first 40 pages here.
A little research is a dangerous thing. A lot of research can be fatal. My enthusiasm for my various Templar conspiracy-theory plot lines was killed by realizing that they weren’t, after all, that original. The world didn’t need another third-act revelation where the hero discovers that the secret he’s been chasing/fleeing is part of a centuries-old Templar plot to uphold/destroy/hide/reveal something or other. (Or so I told myself. The subsequent popular success of “National Treasure” and The Da Vinci Code suggested that the world had, in fact, wanted at least a couple more.)
What really gripped my imagination, and stayed in my mind long after I’d put away all that historical and pseudo-historical research, was the actual history of the Templars and what had happened to them. It was weirder, deeper, more disturbing, and more moving than any of the best-selling riffs on it I’d scarfed down (and I’d scarfed a lot of them). It had the unmistakable ring of truth, of stuff you couldn’t invent. I wanted to read that story.
Which meant I had to write it.
Six years in the making
I pitched Templar first to Mark Siegel, in a café around the corner from First Second and Macmillan’s Flatiron Building headquarters.
Second, I pitched it to LeUyen and Alex, in the kitchen of their San Francisco apartment. They’d just spent two years exhausting themselves to produce a 192-page Prince of Persia book, and had just become new parents to boot, so I knew my chances of convincing them to sign on to an even more ambitious, multi-year book project were slim. But I had to try.
That was six years ago. A lot has happened since. LeUyen and Alex now have two children. Assassin’s Creed has become Ubisoft’s flagship franchise, and — in a historical irony that would not have surprised Umberto Eco — involves a conspiracy tracing its origins to those very same medieval Knights Templar.
As for the Persian prince who originally brought us together, he’s executed a remarkable series of running leaps — from the 8-bit Apple II screen where he began, to new generations of video game consoles, graphic novels, LEGO play sets, and the big screen that inspired his creation. I have no doubt that, being the plucky and resourceful character he is, he’ll find his way through the sandstorm and back into the video game world very soon.
For today, I’m immensely proud and excited to offer you Templar — one of the most rewarding creative collaborations it’s been my privilege to be part of. I hope you’ll enjoy it.
Comments are open below. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
I’ve heard from a lot of people who’ve expressed the desire to replay a certain 1984 side-scrolling, bird-punching game that traumatized them in childhood, exactly the way they remember it — on their mobile devices.
So, by popular demand, I’m happy to announce that Karateka Classic is coming to the App Store and Google Play this Thursday. It’s not a remake, not a port, but a faithful pixel-perfect emulation of the original Apple II game, with Olivier Goguel’s ActiveGS emulator running my 6502 assembly language code, graphics, and my dad’s music.
In engineering the app, Olivier has added a number of nifty touches, including the ability to choose between color CRT, amber, or green screen, as well as a few touchscreen-friendly updates, and a certain peculiarity of the 5.25″ floppy disk version which I won’t spoil here.
I’ll be curious to hear your thoughts. Does Karateka Classic match your memories? How does it compare to the Karateka remake? And is it better to kick, or always punch the hawk?
Download links will be posted here late Wednesday night. Oh, and the price will be 99 cents.
Prince of Persia 2: The Shadow and the Flame was released for PCs in 1993 — three years after the prince’s original Apple II debut, and a full decade before his leap to 21st-century consoles with PoP: The Sands of Time. I’ve posted a lot about my work process on the other PoPs, but almost nothing about this one.
To jog my memory, I dug out of my archives the game design “bible” I created for the PoP2 dev team in 1991. It’s a curious artifact of that era; you can download the PDF (19MB) if you’re interested.
Why I hate bibles, and made one anyway
There was no “bible” for the original PoP. That game evolved over four years in an organic process of improvisation, trial and error. The level design — the balance of action, exploration and combat that gave the game its particular flavor — came together only in the final few months. I had the liberty to do it that way because I was game designer, animator, and programmer, working on my own with no fixed timetable or budget.
Writing a detailed 200-page bible, then handing it to a team and saying “Make this” is the complete opposite way to start a project, and it’s almost always a terrible idea. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. But that’s how PoP2 was made. It worked because of a peculiar combination of reasons:
- I’d already made PoP1. The idea for PoP2 was to basically make PoP 1.5: keep the existing PoP1 code, animation, and gameplay, add souped-up graphics, a few new twists, traps and enemies, and build twelve new levels. Designing the entire game on paper was possible because it was just similar enough to the original that everyone could easily imagine how it would look, sound and feel to play.
- I was 3,000 miles away. The team was in California, and I was living in New York, about to move to Paris. In those pre-internet days, communication was by fax and long-distance phone calls, with game builds and data sent on floppy disks in DHL envelopes. I knew I wouldn’t be on site often enough to permit fast iteration and tight feedback loops. So it made sense to spell everything out ahead of time.
- We had a budget. Broderbund was a conservative studio and PoP2 was the biggest internal game project they’d ever done. They were already nervous about doing such a graphics-intensive project, and wouldn’t have signed off on it without a design document that gave them confidence that the cost estimates were solid.
- The team actually followed the bible. If the on-site team had included a creative director, my bible would have been obsolete by month two. Games evolve so quickly that any design that gets put on paper is usually out of date by the time anyone reads it. This is why making a detailed bible is usually a waste of time. PoP2 was the rare situation where the studio and team were united in wanting to faithfully execute the design I gave them — and I was safely off-site where there was less danger I might get inspired to improve it.
For all these reasons, it made sense to have a bible. It’s interesting to read it now and see how it compares to the final game. There were cuts and trims, for the usual budget/schedule reasons (the blow-by-blow story of the game development is in the second volume of my old journals) — but I’m most struck by how much was kept, and how faithfully it was executed.
The Shadow and the Flame burns again
To the many readers who have posted asking for a version of The Shadow and The Flame to play on mobile devices, I’m happy to report that Ubisoft has just announced a modern “remastered” version for smartphones and tablets.
The mobile Prince of Persia: The Shadow and the Flame will feature updated graphics, sound, and touch controls in the spirit of Prince of Persia Classic, rather than a direct port of the original like 2010′s Prince of Persia Retro. Here’s a link to the trailer. For myself, I’m looking forward to trying to beat the game again, twenty years later.
Questions & Answers (Spoiler Alert!)
I’m happy to announce that for the first time since 1984, Karateka is once again available for state-of-the-art Apple devices. You can download it for iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch in the App Store. (Karateka requires iPhone 4S or newer, iPad 2 or newer, or 5th generation iPod Touch.)
Update: Karateka is now available in the App Store and for Sony Playstation Network, Xbox Live Arcade, and Steam.
The modern remake of Karateka (out today on Steam) has given me a great reason to dig into my archives and revisit the long-ago era when I developed the original Karateka on a 48K Apple II.
If you’re interested in making games, you may enjoy this series of short videos about the creative and technical process of making Karateka, then (1982) and now (2012). Each episode focuses on a different aspect of production: Inspiration, Animation, Sound and Music, and Gameplay. They’re posted below.
The game industry has changed a lot in thirty years. And yet the more things change, the more they stay the same. For readers interested in delving deeper into the old days, check out the rest of this post below the videos.
Episode 1: Inspiration
Episode 2: Animation
Episode 3: Sound and Music
Episode 4: Gameplay
From My Old Journals
When I started the first Karateka, in 1982, I was a 17-year-old Yale freshman and avid gamer, trying to balance a college courseload with my aspiration to become a published game author. Karateka made that dream a reality. It launched my career and paved the way for my next game, Prince of Persia.
That same year (1982), I started keeping a private journal — a habit I’d keep up for the next decade, as readers of The Making of Prince of Persia (1985-1993) will know. More surprisingly, I never got around to destroying it. And now it’s in the distant-enough past that, rereading it, I’m able to laugh rather than cringe (OK, so maybe it’s a bit of both).
As a time-capsule record of that early Apple II era, and a window into the maniacal brain of a teenager obsessed with “breaking in” to making games and/or movies, it may be of interest to others. So here it is (as DRM-free pdf, epub, and Amazon Kindle ebook, with print edition to follow): Volume One of my old journals, The Making of Karateka.
And, of course, I hope readers will check out the new Karateka.