A visit to Lucasfilm

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Just gave a talk to Lucasfilm at their Presidio campus. The invitation included spending a night at the Skywalker Ranch — the stuff of dreams, for me.

I’d been to the ranch once before, in 1987. I was two years out of college, stalled halfway through the first Apple II version of Prince of Persia, and torn between pursuing a career in computer games or screenwriting. In fact, the old Broderbund Software building where I programmed POP is just down the road from the Skywalker Ranch (a long, winding, scenic road, often foggy and frequented by deer). So being invited back to tell Lucasfilm staff the story of POP’s 20-year journey — from 8-bit computer game to summer movie — felt pretty cosmic.

Especially considering that it all goes back to the first ten minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Both the Skywalker Ranch and the Presidio campus are seriously nice places — in idyllic natural settings, with a level of luxury and attention to detail rarely found in movie or videogame studios. And filled with sacred artifacts like the Original Millenium Falcon.

I got a tour and a sneak peek at some of the cool stuff the LucasArts guys have been working on, at least one of which I’m pretty sure I can mention without violating the NDA I signed along with the retinal scan.

Thanks, Lucasfilm, for a great and memorable visit.

Posted on Jul 11, 2009 in Blog, Film, Games, Prince of Persia, Sketchbook | 3 comments

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House of Game

Had fun checking out some of this year’s E3 titles (without actually going to E3) at House of Game, a “vernissage” organized by the Hollywood gamers who started Nerd Poker.

Among the cool-looking upcoming titles: Tim Schafer’s Brutal Legend, Pandemic’s The Saboteur, Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain, and, of course, Uncharted 2.

I especially enjoyed seeing some of the indie games: A USC student project called The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom. And Shadow Physics, a very cool mechanic in search of a game. Maybe because they’re works in progress, or just because they’re underdogs; but three hours later, I find myself thinking about them more than about the big studio fare.

Posted on Jun 1, 2009 in Blog, Games | 1 comment

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The tyranny of the epic

I found this Gamasutra editorial by Chris Remo interesting (and not just because he mentions POP).  He dares to ask: Why do today’s video games (and the movies based on them) tend so relentlessly toward the epic, at the expense of other kinds of stories?

Is it because games are often played as power fantasies? Is it because, when the default progression mechanic in most games is combat, grand conflict and badassery just make the most sense?

It’s a good question.  I saw Star Trek last week at the Arclight Hollywood with friends whose movie tastes run more towards art-house fare.  (I loved it, they didn’t.) After the first three trailers (Transformers, Terminator, and GI Joe), my friend leaned over to me in some perplexity and said: “I feel like I’ve just seen the same trailer three times in a row.”

Coincidentally, Terry Gilliam made much the same remark in today’s LA Times:

Terry Gilliam went to the movies the other night, and this is what he saw. “Trailers from ‘Transformers,’ ‘ G.I. Joe,’ ‘ Harry Potter’; they all had the same explosions, the same sound mix, the same rhythms, it was all the same film,” the director says, still not quite believing it. ” Hollywood’s been doing this for 20 years. When’s it going to end?”

[Small world: Gilliam's new film, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, was edited by Mick Audsley, who is also one of the editors of the POP movie.]

Kurosawa once said that he made movies for people in their twenties. For me, that’s the key.  Epics are the kind of movies I loved most when I was in my teens and early twenties.  I liked other kinds of movies too, but I lived for epics.  Movies (and video games) mattered more to me at that time in my life than they ever have since. This being a business, it’s fair to note that I spent a far greater proportion of my time and disposable income consuming them than I do now. So in a way, I’m still making movies and games for my 20-year-old self.

These days, when I go to the movies (or the Xbox), be it Star Trek, Bioshock or whatever, what holds my interest most are the small, quirky, human moments that somehow transcend the familiar epic framework, make it come alive one more time. They’re getting harder to find.

Posted on May 22, 2009 in Blog, Film, Games | 8 comments

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Prince of Persia released

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Many thanks to the readers who’ve been following and commenting on my old journals. Originally, I’d planned to end the feature here — in October 1989, with the release of Apple II Prince of Persia, four years in the making.

Now that we’ve reached that milestone, though, I realize that no self-respecting storyteller would end at such a critical moment, with my worst fears about the game’s commercial prospects soon to be horribly confirmed. So I’ll let my 20-years-younger self keep on blogging from the past a while longer.

Meanwhile, here are answers to some nostalgia-oriented readers’ questions — this one from Ugur Mengilli:

In which programming language was PoP written?

From Nabil Nawaz:

What language did you program Karateka in? How long did it take to code the game?

I coded both Karateka and POP in 6502 assembly language. Looks like this:

CLRMEM  LDA #$00        ;Set up zero value
        TAY             ;Initialize index pointer
CLRM1   STA (TOPNT),Y   ;Clear memory location
        INY             ;Advance index pointer
        DEX             ;Decrement counter
        BNE CLRM1       ;Not zero, continue checking
        RTS             ;Return

Karateka took me about two years and POP four. Both were significantly slowed down by other things I was attempting at the same time (like finishing college, and writing my first screenplay), as the old journals show.

For true die-hards (thanks, Maurice Kaltofen, for tipping me off to the existence of this site), and anyone who’s interested, I’ve posted the POP source code documentation here.

From Sam Assenberg:

I am Sam and I still play the original Prince of Persia almost every day. I’m a big fan of you and Prince of Persia!

Soon, Prince of Persia exists 20 year and we, my uncle and I, are planning a Prince of Persia anniversary! He played it during a few years after it had been released and I started to play when I was about seven years old, almost nine years ago. We love it very much.

We’ve searched all over the web for the exact release date of PoP (we need that for the anniversary), but we couldn’t find  it. And that’s our question for you: when has PoP been released exactly?

I had to check the old journals myself to find the answer. The first Apple II version was published in the U.S. on October 3, 1989. So, still six months away. Thanks, Sam and your uncle, for reminding me!

If you’d like to read the old journals from the beginning, they start here.

Posted on May 3, 2009 in Blog, Games, Making Games, Old School, Prince of Persia | 21 comments

The Last Express Remixed

A couple of years ago, for a fun weekend project, I captured a dozen hours of gameplay footage from my 1997 adventure game The Last Express and edited it down into a single, 75-minute linear narrative.

Other than a walk down memory lane, I’m not sure what it’s good for. It doesn’t work as a movie — the demands of game vs. film storytelling are too different — and the low-res, dissolve-between-still-frames animation looks awfully clunky now. But for anyone who’s interested, here it is (in eight 10-minute segments).

Spoiler alert: If you haven’t played the game, Part 8 gives away the ending.


The Last Express – Part 1 from jordan mechner on Vimeo.

Parts 2-8 are available here.

Posted on Mar 7, 2009 in Blog, Film, Games, Last Express | 22 comments

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A trickster prince

Though the Prince of Persia has managed to survive for 20 years as a videogame hero without any character ever mentioning his name, this wasn’t a realistic option when it came to writing the movie. He needed a name.

I found it in this passage from Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh (the Persian Book of Kings):

[The Simorgh] went to the youth and said, “O brave young man, until today I have brought you up as if I were your nurse, and I have taught you speech and the ways of virtue. Now it is time for you to return to your own birthplace. Your father has come searching for you. I have named you Dastan (The Trickster) and from now on you will be known by this name.”

Despite what the Simorgh says, the new name doesn’t stick; everyone goes back to calling him by his real name, Zal. But Dastan seemed like the perfect name for my prince (especially since Zal wasn’t using it). So I borrowed it.

The Trickster has been a popular heroic archetype for thousands of years (Joseph Campbell called him the “Hero with a Thousand Faces”). From his first incarnation as an Apple II sprite, the prince has run, jumped and scrambled firmly in the footsteps of other well-known Tricksters like Robin Hood, Zorro, Han Solo, Indiana Jones, and (of course) the Man with No Name.

As it turns out, the word dastan has shadings I wasn’t aware of — shadings that make it an even more appropriate name for the prince than I realized.

First, several people (including Jake Gyllenhaal the first day we met) have pointed out to me that Dastan is also a Persian word meaning ”story.” And so it is, although the vowel is pronounced differently. According to wikipedia, a Dastan is a type of Central Asian oral history “centered on one individual who protects his tribe or his people from an outside invader/enemy.” Hey, just like every video game.

Then, I came across this fascinating article by Dick Davis (the translator of the English edition of the Shahnameh I quoted above). He’s discussing the qualities of the Trickster Hero as they pertain to Rostam, Persia’s greatest epic hero (think Hercules, Siegfried, etc), who is way more famous than Zal or Dastan. It’s a great example of the kind of nuances that get lost in translation:

There is also the curious nature of his name to be taken into account. He is often referred to as “Rostam-e Dastan,” which can have two different meanings. One, “Rostam the son of Dastan,” is the meaning the poem foregrounds, and his father, Zal, is seen as having somewhere along the line acquired a second name, Dastan. But the phrase can also mean “Rostam who possesses the quality of dastan”, and the word “dastan” means “trickery.” This, I believe, was the original meaning of the phrase “Rostam-e Dastan” (probably long before the Shahnameh was written, while the stories of Rostam still had a solely oral existence), i.e. “Rostam the trickster”, the equivalent of Homer’s “Odysseus of many wiles”, and only later did the word dastan come to be identified as the name of his father (after all, his father already had a name, Zal).

The prince in Sands of Time (the video game) at one point wishes aloud that he had the strength of Rostam so that he could smash through a certain wall. I figured a seventh-century Persian prince would have grown up hearing those tales and would use them as a point of reference.

Now he’s got a name of his own.

Posted on Mar 2, 2009 in Blog, Film, Games, Prince of Persia | 26 comments

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