The Last Express

A Hitchcockian thriller set aboard the Orient Express on the eve of World War I, Jordan and Smoking Car Productions’ cult-classic 1997 real-time-rewinding adventure game The Last Express has now arrived on mobile devices.

The Last Express Arrives on Android

For The Last Express fans with Android devices, I’m happy to share some good news from French developer DotEmu: Our game is out today on Google Play.

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.

For non-Android folks, The Last Express remains available on PC, iOS, and in its original 1997 three-CD-ROM version.

Posted on Aug 28, 2013 in Blog, Games, Last Express, Old School | 2 comments

From Prince of Persia to Templar

Update: Templar is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and bookstores. Follow the Templar Tumblr and Facebook pages for news, reviews, and upcoming events.

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.

PrinceOfPersiaWallpaper1024Meanwhile, 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.

Templar-COVFor 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.

(Templar is available from Amazon and other booksellers; more info on the Templar Tumblr page).

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.

p137s squareThat 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.

Posted on Jul 9, 2013 in Blog, Comics, Featured, Film, Games, Last Express, Making Games, Prince of Persia, Templar | 12 comments

The Last Express Arrives on iOS

Update: The Last Express has just been released for iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch! Check it out in the App store.

I tested the final version yesterday on a long transatlantic flight (Frankfurt-LAX, with headphones), and it’s my new favorite way to play it. Next to playing on an actual train, that is.


Here’s the trailer:

Posted on Sep 24, 2012 in Blog, Games, Last Express, Old School | 22 comments

Announcing Last Express for iOS

Update: The Last Express will be released for iOS on September 27, 2012.

I’ve been biting my virtual tongue for the past few months in my eagerness to respond to the many fans of The Last Express who’ve suggested how beautifully this 1997 adventure game could work as an iPad/iPhone app.

Ilya, Veronika, Jan, Jáchym, Sebastian, Felipe, Robert, Will, Stefano, Chiara, Felix, Alexander, Arnim, Jennifer, Lydia, Lauren, Ravi: You’re absolutely right.

It’s with enormous pleasure that I can finally share this good news: A young French company, DotEmu (who celebrated their fifth anniversary in Paris last night — making them ten years younger than the game) is developing a full iOS version of Last Express, to be released later this year.

Details to follow — but be assured, this will be the complete, original PC game, a deep and immersive real-time interactive narrative offering 20+ hours of game play, with a few additional enhancements to make it more iOS-friendly.

For those who are new to The Last Express, you can read about the original game here. Watch this space, and the official Last Express facebook page, for updates.

My thanks to DotEmu, the original Smoking Car team, and all the Last Express fans who’ve encouraged us to refill the coal tender and stoke the furnace so that this train can leave the station once again, fifteen years later.

I can’t wait!

Posted on Mar 16, 2012 in Blog, Games, Last Express, Old School | 53 comments

Moving Pixels Rewinds Time

Moving Pixels at PopMatters have posted a great hourlong podcast all about playing (and replaying) The Last Express: “Playing on trains and playing with time.”

You can download it from their blog, or hear it here:

Posted on Apr 11, 2011 in Blog, Games, Last Express | 0 comments

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Gamasutra analyzes Last Express

A thoughtful article by Tom Cross on Gamasutra about The Last Express and immersive game worlds:

Read the article at Gamasutra.com

Posted on Sep 3, 2009 in Blog, Games, Last Express | 3 comments