Subscribe to Jordan's monthly newsletter to receive the latest updates and announcements
Meet Victor Sirin
I'm excited to announce that the second volume of my new graphic-novel trilogy Monte-Cristo arrives in bookstores tomorrow (March 22) in France. It's the story of Sam Castillo, an innocent young man unjustly accused and imprisoned for 17 years, who returns as mysterious mega-billionaire Victor Sirin to take his revenge on the three men who stole his youth.
In 2005, post-9/11 America (Book One), 24-year-old SAM CASTILLO has every reason to be happy—promoted to foreman of his company's Iraq reconstruction project, engaged to his high-school sweetheart ABBY—until he's framed as a terrorist and rendered to a “black site” prison an ocean away.
Three men put him there: Sam’s supervisor EDDIE DALGLEISH, who’s been skimming money in a boondoggle Sam’s promotion threatens to expose; FBI agent WALTER FARRELL, who makes a devil’s bargain to conceal his Army general father-in-law's corrupt dealings with military contractor Greendale; and Abby’s best friend ANDREW McCLANE, who betrays Sam to clear the way for his own courtship of Abby.
Over the next 15 years, cut off from the world, Sam forms a deep friendship with fellow detainee FARHAD—a brilliant, multi-lingual master of intrigue, who bequeaths to Sam the bank codes of his late Russian-oligarch employer's hidden fortune... and by his own death enables Sam’s escape.
In Book Two (our present day), Sam arrives in the U.S. with a new identity as mysterious mega-billionaire emigré VICTOR SIRIN, owner of the offshore shell MONTE-CRISTO CORPORATION. The three men who separated him from Abby and shattered his life have risen in the world. Dalgleish is a hedge fund billionaire, McClane is a Congressman running for governor, and Farrell is U.S. Deputy Attorney General. Abby, now a public defender, is married to McClane with two children. They have no idea what's coming.
Victor skillfully plays on his enemies’ greed and ambition, using his wealth to insinuate himself into their world of power and privilege while he methodically lays the groundwork of an elaborate plot that he hopes will destroy them. Only young FBI agent DANICA JORJEVIC suspects him. Convinced that Victor’s elegant international façade masks a criminal identity, she lobbies her boss to investigate him. Victor appreciates Danica’s integrity and determination, even as he frustrates her attempts to learn the truth. Their ensuing battle of wits will test Danica's trust in the legal justice system she's sworn to uphold... and reawaken Victor’s frozen heart.
My collaborator, the supremely talented Italian illustrator Mario Alberti, has done incredible work bringing Sam, Victor, Abby, Danica, and their rich universe to life. I love these characters, and hope you will too. You can check out the first 10 pages of both volumes online here, and in French comic book stores starting tomorrow.
Meanwhile, my 30-years-ago journal continues this week on this website's Library page. On 22 March 1993, I was a 28-year-old American in Paris, discovering the world of European comics for the first time. Hugo Pratt, Jacques Tardi, and Enki Bilal (along with Alexandre Dumas) became key inspirations as I researched and developed the story for my next game, The Last Express. Prince of Persia 2: The Shadow and the Flame was in its final weeks of playtesting and debugging.
I couldn't have dreamt then that 30 years later, I'd be back in France and once again immersed in comics, this time not just as a reader, but as an author. I hope fans of Prince of Persia, The Last Express and my other games will join me in rooting for Sam Castillo and Danica Jorjevic as they fight for justice, each in their way, against enemies so powerful that they seem untouchable. Monte-Cristo is my first adventure story set not in a historical or fantastic past, but in our own world of today. I can’t wait for you to discover it.
When I launched this website in 2008, I began transcribing and posting daily entries from my old handwritten journals as a "blog from the past," documenting my game-development odyssey making the first version of Prince of Persia in 1985-1993. Later, I released the collected journals as a book, The Making of Prince of Persia, followed by a prequel, The Making of Karateka (my even older journals from 1982-1985, when I was in college trying to break into the game industry with my first Apple II games). The response was more enthusiastic than I imagined. The Making of POP has since been re-published twice, in a beautiful illustrated hardcover edition from Stripe Press (and in French, from Third Editions).
The Making of POP ends in January 1993, at Las Vegas CES, a few months before the release of POP 2: The Shadow and the Flame. I stopped there because, as I wrote in the afterword: "After that, my attention (and what I wrote in my journal) focused more and more on Smoking Car Productions and making The Last Express. Nearly a decade would go by before I'd be hands-on again in the creation of a Prince of Persia title [Sands of Time in 2003]."
I'm sometimes asked by people who enjoyed those journals whether I plan to publish a third volume about The Last Express. I've always answered no. The Last Express development was too complex and involved too many people. My journal tells only a small part of the story. There are gaps where I went weeks or even months without writing (I barely found time to sleep). Although it's a fascinating read for me personally, I don't think my 1993-1997 journal in itself would be enough for a stand-alone book entitled The Making of The Last Express.
That said, there is a lot in the journal that I think retro-gaming fans and developers would find interesting. When I set out to make The Last Express in 1993 at age 28, I was in a rare and fortunate position, thanks to the success of Karateka and Prince of Persia. Few creative artists ever get an opportunity to write their own ticket in the ways that were offered to me then. How I navigated those choices — my ongoing struggle to reconcile values of art, business, and life; mistakes I made, things I was blind to, things that miraculously went right — makes for a valuable post-mortem.
Rereading my journal, seeing my steps and missteps exposed in merciless real-time day by day, I know this is the kind of story I would have loved to read at that juncture in my life. (Hungry to learn from others' hard-won experience, I devoured Steven Soderbergh's and Eleanor Coppola's production diaries of Sex, lies and videotape and Apocalypse Now.) Non-fiction first-person narratives featuring protagonists with grandiose artistic ambitions who are mature in some ways, painfully immature in others, and spoiled for choice are not so numerous.
On February 1, 2023, I posted my first batch of "30 years ago this week" journal entries on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Mastodon. Since this year marks the 30th anniversary of POP2's release and Last Express's beginning (and the cancellation of POP3, featuring the mysterious sorceress glimpsed at the end of POP2), I thought it would be a good moment to continue the "making of" narrative. Even if my 1993-96 journals don't make a book, they deserve at least a dedicated page in this website's Library section. So here it is: The 1993 Journals: Prince of Persia 2 and The Last Express.
I'll do my best to keep up the weekly Wednesday posts, staying exactly 30 years ahead. That's a pace I think I can confidently handle on top of my other workload. It took the team four years to finish The Last Express; I’ve got enough journal to take us through 2026.
You can follow my weekly old-journal postings on social media (links are at the bottom of this page; take your pick). Or via this site's RSS feed and/or my monthly e-mail newsletter, which are ad-free and cookie-free.
See you back in 1993!
Prince of Packaging
So many video games, films, and music albums I “own” now live in the cloud, and I’m nostalgic for the days when they existed as physical objects on a bookshelf. The tactile quality, size and shape, and cover art of every game box was linked to memories of how I’d acquired it—new, second-hand, or as a gift?—and of hours spent playing.
For a game developer, a shrink-wrapped box that holds the thing we’ve been working on for years brings home the reality that our game is truly done. In the pre-internet 1980s and early 90s, before downloadable updates and patches, shipped meant shipped.
Last month, the sale at auction of American painter Robert Florczak’s original artwork for my game Prince of Persia (the Broderbund “red box” edition) triggered memories of the in-house drama surrounding its creation.
That summer of 1989, I was in the throes of trying to finish and ship Prince of Persia on Apple II, its first platform. I didn’t know if it would be a hit or a flop. Thanks to the journal I kept then (a habit since age 17), I can now recall dates and details I’d have otherwise forgotten—like these pencil sketches I did at the end of April to show Broderbund’s art director my ideas for the package:
As a rule, a game programmer can expect marketing to receive creative suggestions about package design with about as much delight as a surgeon getting advice from a patient on how to operate. My pitch to do a painting in the spirit of old-school Hollywood swashbuckling film posters like Robin Hood (1938) or Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) earned a “meh.” But I had a staunch ally in my product manager Brian Eheler. He made sure I was invited to the marketing meeting. Nine color comps were considered; this one won.
Florczak, our first-choice artist, developed the idea into a detailed sketch (which he sent by fax—this was before e-mail).
Things went smoothly until the head of marketing balked at the $5500 price to execute it. My June 7 journal entry records my angst: “After making the rounds and lobbying everyone, I think they’ll OK it, but the whole thing was a really disturbing vote of no confidence in POP.”
While I crunched to ship the game I’d been working on for three years, the general feeling at Broderbund was that it wouldn’t sell. Foolishly, I’d built Prince of Persia on the Apple II, a decade-old machine that even Apple had stopped supporting. My game had fans at the top and bottom of the company but not in the middle, where the actual marketing got done. Apart from Brian, the QA testers who were playing Prince of Persia daily, and Broderbund’s CEO-founder Doug Carlston, few people believed in it.
In the next four weeks, while Florczak painted (his friend Kevin Nealon, an actor and Saturday Night Live comedian, posed for the vizier Jaffar), I fixed bugs, added features, and spent four days in New York with my dad, adding his newly-composed music to the game.
In July, Florczak delivered a lovely painting in 1980s movie-poster style—exactly what Brian and I had hoped for.
But seeing the finished work, marketing thought it was too pulp-sexy. Broderbund had started as a game publisher; by 1989, its emphasis had shifted to educational and productivity software like The Print Shop and Carmen Sandiego. Prince of Persia was out of sync with the company’s new family-friendly direction.
Marketing sent the painting back to Florczak for revision. I can imagine with what enthusiasm he duly added a green Persian sports bra to the princess’s decolletage. Personally, I preferred the original; but as I wrote in my journal on July 25: “There are battles you win and battles you lose, and in the big picture, this one is pretty meaningless.”
Then the whole thing nearly crashed at the final hurdle. The box was shown at a company-wide meeting. A group of employees wrote to the CEO, saying the package condoned violence against women and requesting that it be scrapped. Doug gave a balanced two-page reply, acknowledging their valid concerns (“We don’t want Broderbund ever to be seen in such a light”), but defending Jaffar’s threatening gesture as nonetheless appropriate for a villain in a game whose hero could be “impaled, sliced in two, squashed and otherwise discomforted for relatively minor lapses in behavior.” After a tense week of debate, the box was approved.
The rest is history... sort of. Prince of Persia shipped on Apple II in September 1989, PC in April 1990, then Amiga. It got rave reviews on all three platforms. And it was a flop.
By July 1990—ten months after launch, three months after the much-anticipated (by me) PC release—fewer than 10,000 red boxes had found their way into gamers’ homes. I recorded in my journal: “POP sold 500 units last month on PC, 48 on Apple. That’s about as dead as can be.” In August, the major chain Electronics Boutique de-listed Prince of Persia due to lack of sales. Chilled, I visited the local mall where my game could no longer be found and was told by a saleswoman: “It’s a great game, but the box was horrible.”
Over the next two years, in a miraculous turnaround that would scarcely be possible today, Prince of Persia was gradually, then suddenly, saved by a confluence of events. First, foreign and console versions, which Broderbund had sublicensed in a dozen different countries on platforms like Nintendo NES, Sega Master System, and NEC 9800, began to ship. There was no coordination; it was the Wild West. Each sublicensee did its own packaging, marketing launch, PR, and distribution, not overseen by Broderbund. The U.S. release flopped, but some of those overseas and console ports became hits.
Some licensees used the red-box artwork, others created their own. For the most part, I didn’t see packages until they shipped. Domark’s box art for the UK Sega version made me wince; I still find it offensive, even by that epoch’s standards. It was too late for them to redo the package, but Brian made them promise never to use it outside the UK. (They promised, but forgot.) At the opposite extreme, I loved Katsuya Terada’s gorgeous illustration for the Japanese Nintendo Super FamiCom version. It’s a fan favorite as well; French book publisher Third Editions used Terada’s artwork for the cover of their deluxe collectors’ edition of my old journals.
The second unanticipated factor that saved Prince of Persia was that the Mac port—which I’d subcontracted to friends at Presage Software—ran two years over schedule. Between 1989 and 1992, Apple released a series of new Mac models: black-and-white and color, with different-sized screens. The Presage team, wanting to take advantage of the latest capabilities, went back to the drawing board and redid the graphics sprites three times. (Each time, I tore my hair out.)
By the time the Mac version was finally ready, Prince of Persia’s overseas successes had given Brian and me ammunition to persuade Broderbund marketing that the game had untapped potential. Doug okayed our proposal to combine the Mac release with a PC re-release in a bigger, solidly constructed 1990s-style “candy box,” which we hoped retailers and customers would perceive as denoting a higher-quality product than the flip-top, flimsy-cardboard red box (even though the .exe file on the PC disks hadn’t changed).
San Francisco designer Hock Yeo, of Wong & Yeo, designed a two-piece candy box with an unusual shape reminiscent of an hourglass. If you’re a PC or Mac gamer who played Prince of Persia in the U.S. in the 1990s, this is the box you most likely remember.
The dual Mac-PC release in the oddly-shaped box turned the prince’s fortunes around. A previously untapped cohort of gamers—among them, journalists and editors who used Macs for desktop publishing—were excited to have a game they could play on their new color screens. Prince of Persia became the #1-selling Mac game at a time when most game publishers considered the Mac market too small to bother with. Prince of Persia went from ice-cold to hot on PC as well. Two years after its failed first PC launch, Prince of Persia became a hit.
I was reminded of all this when Florczak’s artwork popped up on an auction website in December. (Doom co-creator John Romero, an Apple II aficionado, spotted it and sent me the link.) The last time I’d seen the full painting unobscured by a title, logo and stickers, it was propped on a desk in Broderbund’s marketing office. It hung for 33 years on Kevin Nealon’s wall, a thank-you from the artist for modeling the Vizier.
Seeing it again, now that its role in the drama of that summer of 1989 is ancient history, I can appreciate the painting as an artwork in its own right. The green stripe still bugs me. But a flaw in a Persian carpet only makes the whole more beautiful. And if there’s one thing video games have taught us, it’s that timing is everything. (The collector whose $63,000 bid won last week's auction would surely agree.) Florczak’s painting joins the ever-expanding collection of diverse physical objects, of all sizes and shapes, that form the tangible record of a video game character’s intangible digital existence.
A Prisoner Escapes
A huge thank you to everyone who bought a print of "A Faithful Friend" last month! I was really touched by the warm response from Prince of Persia players who remembered the princess's brave little companion. I hoped my drawing would evoke fond memories; I didn't expect the entire edition of 40 prints to sell out in less than 24 hours.
A number of people wrote to say they wished they'd heard about the release sooner. I cannot print more of "A Faithful Friend" (that's the nature of a limited edition), but I've gone ahead and drawn a second author's tribute artwork, inspired by a gameplay moment in the Prince of Persia dungeon. I'm calling this one "Bones." If you've played level 3, I'm sure you can guess the reason.
I've enjoyed creating these artworks. In the past, when I've put pen on paper to draw the world of Prince of Persia, the purpose was to clarify an idea in my head or communicate it to the team during development. To revisit that universe now as a visual artist, seeing the games through the lens of decades of personal memories, is a wonderfully pleasant experience for me.
"Bones" is available as a giclée print in a signed and numbered limited edition of 40, exclusively here.
I'm excited to make a second announcement especially for French readers. Book Two of Monte-Cristo, my new graphic novel trilogy with the wonderful illustrator Mario Alberti, will be in bookstores in France on March 22. It's a tale of thwarted love, unjust imprisonment, and a daring escape — a modern update of the Alexandre Dumas classic transposed to post-9/11 America.
In 2005, Sam Castillo is a happy young man—promoted to contractor, engaged to his sweetheart Abby—until three enemies conspire to frame him as a terrorist. Rendered to a black-site prison an ocean away, Sam befriends a brilliant, multi-lingual fellow detainee who educates him in the ways of the world... and bestows on him the key to a secret fortune. 17 years later, Sam resurfaces with a new identity as enigmatic billionaire Victor Sirin, and a plan to take revenge against the three men who stole his life.
Monte Cristo T2: The Island will be released in France by Editions Glénat on March 22. You can read about it, preview it live, and pre-order it online here.
A Faithful Friend
Happy New Year! 2023 will be an exciting year, with new releases and announcements lined up.
To start off January, I want to share a nostalgic artwork that I was recently inspired to create. It's a tribute to a delightful moment Prince of Persia fans may remember from the original 2D game. I've titled it "A Faithful Friend."
The following video clip (from Level 8) shows why the little white mouse — sent by the princess to help the prince in a dark dungeon moment — is one of my favorite characters. I added the mouse to the game in August 1989, when Prince of Persia was already well into beta testing. Today, no publisher would let a developer slip in a feature like that at the last minute.
I drew "A Faithful Friend" as an author's tribute, not just to a memorable moment in a game that's meant so much to me, but to the teams, collaborators, and fans who have supported and kept its legacy vibrant for 33 years. Without you, there'd be no Prince of Persia.
If you'd like to own a hand-signed limited edition giclée print of this original artwork, "A Faithful Friend" is available here. Tomoe, my local fine-art printer in Montpellier, printed 40 in total. I've stamped, signed and numbered them. Once they're sold out, the edition won't be reprinted; this protects its value for collectors.
Having spent most of the past four decades creating digitally, I appreciate more and more the tactile qualities of handmade physical objects. My ink line these days is finer than was possible on a 280 x 192 computer, but I've respected the restricted Apple II color palette. As for the 8-bit hand stamp (my personal logo), I expect old-school gamers will quickly recognize its source.
I'll share next month's announcements here in this space, and in my monthly newsletter. As subscribers already know, I've also recently joined Mastodon, and will be tooting there as well. Thanks for following!
On graphic novel writing
Thanks to all the early adopters who showed up for the French launch of Monte Cristo, Book One! Our May festival and bookstore signings were a great occasion for illustrator Mario Alberti and me to see each other in person. (Mario lives and works in Trieste, I'm in Montpellier.)
Here's a sneak peek at our work-in-progress on Book Two of the trilogy: "The Island," on track for early 2023 release. Mario has drawn the first 19 pages (only 51 to go!), working in B&W grayscale, with color to be added at the end. He began by storyboarding the full 70-page book, working from my script; we thrashed out details via Slack and Zoom.
For those curious about the graphic-novel collaborative process, here are the script and rough storyboard excerpts for the panels above:
Every project, and writer-artist pairing, is unique. Sometimes writers dictate page layouts and panel compositions in detail. For me to do that with an artist of Mario's caliber would feel like telling a film D.P. what lens to use. I "see" panels in my mind's eye as I write, but that doesn't mean Mario needs to draw them exactly that way. A comics artist's job is like a film director, D.P., set designer, cast and crew rolled into one. In writing, whether for a graphic novel or film/TV, I try to suggest my ideas for panels and shots (and casting, and actors' performances...) indirectly through word choice and phrasing, rather than "do it this way." I want the script to be specific enough to make scenes and moments come alive in the reader's (director's, illustrator's, actor's) imagination — then leave them enough room to create those moments anew as only they can.
That said, to fit a dense, complex story into 70 large-format pages is a writer's, not an illustrator's, job. In my script for Monte-Cristo, I do specify page breaks. (I knew the panels above would be near the bottom of page 2, and that it would be a left-hand page.) But again, every project is different. For an in-depth look at the creative process on another graphic novel — Templar, with illustrators LeUyen Pham and Alex Puvilland — check out this free 86-page e-book.
Now, back to work — Mario on pages 20-21, and me (since I've already written the scripts for the three books) on projects not yet announced. Monte Cristo T1: "The Prisoner" is in French comic book stores now. You can read about it (and read reviews, and download color PDF excerpts) here.
A Last Express milestone
The Last Express left the station 25 years ago this month, on 3 CD-ROMs -- shipping on PC and Mac in April 1997 after an intense 4-year development. It's a game that will always be close to my heart. In honor of the anniversary, Dotemu is offering the game at 75% discount on iOS and Steam from April 19-May 3 (on Android until April 26).
To mark the occasion, I'm adding two new items to the Last Express section on this site’s library page: The original 1993 game script that Tomi Pierce and I wrote for the game production, and the movie adaptation I wrote for director Paul Verhoeven in 2010 (three years after his Black Book, which I loved). We never got to make the movie, so you’ll have to judge for yourself whether it would have worked on screen.
I've had my French driver's license and mobile phone for two years now, but it took me a little longer to get this website switched over. As of today, jordanmechner.com is bilingual. (To change languages, click on the icon in the upper right.)
Now, I get to make my first announcement in French and English: In May 2022, Glénat/Comixburo will release Volume 1 of my new graphic novel trilogy, Monte Cristo. It's a modern update of Alexandre Dumas' timeless tale of betrayed love, revenge, and redemption, transposed to post-9/11 America and today's globalized world. The illustrator is the wonderful Mario Alberti (The Wall).
Monte Cristo will be published first in France as three 72-page hardcover volumes. Volume 1, "The Prisoner," will be in bookstores in early May; it’s now available for pre-order. Volumes 2 and 3, "The Island" and "The Storm", will be released next year. If you’d like to be notified when an English version is announced, you can subscribe to my monthly e-mail newsletter here.
My last two book launches (Samak the Ayyar and The Making of Prince of Persia) were virtual, for 2020-21 reasons. I'm happy to say that for Monte Cristo, Mario Alberti and I will be doing in-person book signings in Paris, Montpellier, and a few other cities. I hope to see some of you there. I can’t wait for readers to discover this new adventure.
Details on Monte Cristo (and link to order online) are here.
This week, I'm excited to share two new book releases.
You can order Samak on Amazon, or direct from Columbia University Press, via the store. If you order from the publisher, enter the code CUP20 for a 20% discount.
My other July book release is the third in a trilogy: Year 3 in France, 166 pages of my sketchbook journal from 2018-19, the third year after I moved to France from L.A. for a video game project. Like the first two volumes, it’s a small, high-quality print run from local publisher Tomoe.
I've signed a stack of books, so the first 30 people to order Year 3 from the online store will receive signed copies.
Year 2 has sold out its print run, but you can get signed copies of all three books at Chicago Gamespace, where my sketch art is on exhibit thru August 23. It's a unique space dedicated to video game culture and art, well worth a visit if you're in the Chicago area.
The Chicago show also includes a new print from Year 3: "Les Beatnik Modernes", in a signed and numbered limited edition of 10. It's a sketch I did in May 2019 at a café just up the street. I've missed sketching in cafés, and can't wait to rekindle the habit.
I'm pleased to announce that Chicago Gamespace, the leading Midwest video game museum and art gallery, will host a solo exhibition of my sketch journal and art prints this summer. The exhibition will run from June 4 to August 22, 2021. Artwork will be available for sale in their gallery. Details are at chicagogamespace.com.
The show will include a new, yet-to-be-chosen print from my sketch journal. If there's a drawing in Year 1 or Year 2 that speaks to you especially and that you'd like to see as a print, please let me know. Just post a photo of the page on Twitter or Instagram, and tag @jmechner #sketchbook.
In the meantime, a big thank you to everyone who's purchased art prints online. Editions that have sold out won't be reprinted -- that's part of the deal to guarantee that signed/numbered prints won't lose their value.
If you're in the Chicago area between now and June, I encourage you to check out Gamespace's current exhibition: "Nom Nom: 40 Years of Pac-Man Design and History."
Episode 2, I mean 1
Thanks to all of you who've supported my sketching habit -- on social media, in person, or by purchasing art prints or a copy of Year 2 in France (sold out as of last week). The warm reception you gave that first release has encouraged me to release the prequel: Year 1 in France -- a year of my sketchbook journal starting in July 2016, when I arrived here from L.A.
And yes, it'll be a trilogy. I can say that now that Year 3 has safely wrapped.
As with the first book, this will be a small print run, designed and printed by Gami in Montpellier. Due to pandemic, a bookstore or café signing isn't in the cards this year, but I've signed 30 copies for the first 30 takers. If you'd like one signed, just include the secret code word ESPRESSO in your order (anywhere in the address field, or as your middle name); Gami will remove the extra word before shipping, so as not to confuse the post office. You can order books here.
A tale of ancient Persia
I’m excited to share a very special project. It's been my honor to adapt a wonderful, thousand-year-old Persian adventure saga in its first English-language edition -- Samak the Ayyar.
Despite having spent a certain number of the past 30 years delving into Persian culture and lore for video game and film development-related purposes, I'd never heard of Samak (or ayyars) until the day my translator and collaborator Freydoon Rassouli took down a dusty out-of-print volume from his shelf and said: "This is what you've been looking for."
As he began reading to me from its pages, translating on the fly from archaic Persian, shivers ran down my spine. Here was a fantastic adventure set in ninth-century Persia, featuring a treacherous vizier, a star-crossed romance between a noble prince and princess, kings, warriors, and an agile trickster hero who scales walls and sneaks into palaces. It was the source material my Prince of Persia games (and movie) had always wanted but never had. But since I don't read Persian (and even most Persians don't read 900-year-old manuscripts), I couldn't read it.
I really, really needed to read that book. So... we wrote it. Samak the Ayyar will be released in paperback this August from Columbia University Press.
What are ayyars? A concept as specific to Persia as ronin and samurai are to Japan, and as universal. Samak is a hero and bandit, a man of the people with the skills of a ninja and the ideals of a knight. You could call him a Persian Robin Hood, but he and his band of male and female ayyars have a unique and compelling spirit all their own. Armed with a dagger, a lasso, and his wits, he accomplishes things even kings can’t.
If you appreciate the 1001 Nights, or classic tales of world folklore, I hope you’ll be as enchanted by Samak’s adventures as I am. You can read more about the book (and pre-order it, once it becomes available in your territory) here.
The Dagger Refilled
Ubisoft has decided to postpone the Sands of Time Remake release date once more, to enable the dev teams to deliver a remake that will meet fans' high expectations.
Personally, I'm glad to see this remake get the extra time and resources. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is a very special game for me. I've been touched to hear from gamers and developers who've let me know that it has a place in their hearts too. I know how important this project is to the remake team, and how hard they're working. After 17 years, I'm more than happy to be patient a little longer until I can pick up the controller and play Sands of Time again as if for the first time.
The new release date hasn't been announced yet, but as soon as it is, I'll share it on this channel.
Update: Ubisoft has postponed the release of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time Remake to March 18, 2021, to give the team additional time to work on and polish the game. Especially given the special challenges of this past year 2020, I welcome this as good news, and have no doubt they've made the right call.
France has been home for me the last four years, so it’s a special pleasure to see my Prince of Persia journals published in French. The book is now available from Third Editions, a small French press with a big passion for retro video games.
I didn’t do the translation myself — that would have felt weird, especially since I didn’t speak French when I started the journal in 1985 — but I did hand-write new French margin annotations, this time with an orange pen. (Yes, Third Editions respected the limitations of the Apple II color palette.) I used a silver pen to hand-sign 300 ex-libris, for a boxed limited (and numbered) edition of 300 copies. There really are three editions; Third’s site has the details, so you can choose whichever best suits your collecting style.
Both Stripe and Third have put real care and attention to detail into the design and printing of these hardcover editions. I love physical books, so to see my old journals (which started as ball-point in spiral-bound notebooks 30 years ago) complete the round-trip journey back to paper -- ça, ça me fait plaisir.
The Stripe Press edition of my "Making of Prince of Persia" journals is now available as an audiobook. I couldn't have asked for anyone better to play the role of 20-year-old me than the multitalented Yuri Lowenthal -- who voiced the prince in The Sands of Time (and its upcoming remake), and whose acting chops are easily versatile enough to encompass both wall-running and 6502 assembly language programming.
I recorded an introduction. I may never be brave enough to listen to the whole audiobook past the first couple of journal entries, but I hope you will.
Announcing the Sands of Time Remake
For Prince of Persia fans who’ve been waiting patiently for a new game, I’m delighted to finally be able to share this piece of good news: After two years of development at Ubisoft’s Pune and Mumbai studios, a faithful, modern-gen remake of The Sands of Time will be released on January 21, 2021, for Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC.
I didn't take an active role in the remake (making The Sands of Time once was enough), but the team kept me in the loop, beginning with their first question two years ago: What things did you and the POP team cut or compromise in the original game that you’d most wish to see added?
Last week, I played a recent build. It gave me tingles. I was relieved to discover that my gameplay reflexes and level-map memories of fifteen years ago are still valid, letting me fluidly navigate a newly-rendered game world that's lush, sensual, and immersive in ways the Montreal team and I could only dream of in 2003.
The remake team aimed to update the experience to meet modern gamers’ expectations, but without bending it so far as to contradict our memories. To my taste, they’ve hit the target. Although rebuilt from the ground up with new assets and engine, the story, gameplay, level design, and dialog are faithful to the original.
Revisiting The Sands of Time
One of my top wish-list items was to remake the cinematics. The script and voice acting were always solid, but the POP team and I had been disappointed by the FMV production values even in 2003. The introductory sequences especially should evoke an epic, populated, sensual, authentically Persian (and Indian) world, so that we feel the distance traveled between the kingdoms, and the devastation wrought by the sands. The India team embraced this mission.
I gave them notes on what I'd like to see, but I didn’t ask to change a word of dialog. My present-day contribution was to put the team in touch with Yuri Lowenthal, a first-class actor and friend since we met in an L.A. recording studio 18 years ago. Somehow, his voice still sounds like he’s 22. Yuri was thrilled to recreate his signature role on a state-of-the-art performance capture sound stage, and to finally hold in his hands an actual (well, wooden and duct-taped) Dagger of Time.
I’ve only played a few levels. I’ll save the full experience for when the game releases in January. I’m excited to play The Sands of Time from start to finish for the first time since I laid down my PS2 playtesting controller seventeen years ago -- exhausted, anxious, hopeful, knowing it was time to ship. I hope you’ll join me.
I’ve always been fascinated by other people’s stories. In my twenties — dreaming of making video games, books, movies — I devoured memoirs and interviews with my role models, hungering for insight on how they’d done it. Published journals were most rare and valuable of all, because they were a raw record of experience: written in the heat of the moment, not shaped and burnished into a smooth narrative with hindsight.
I was 17 when I started keeping my own journal. I kept up the habit, filling dozens of spiral-bound notebooks over the years. I thought I’d never show them to anybody.
The cumulative power of daily practice is well known but still amazes me. Ten years ago, my brother David picked up a ukulele and started strumming. Now he’s a ukulele player. A behavior becomes a routine, a habit, and finally a trait. The things we do every day shape us, literally: We become a guitarist, a smoker, a programmer or athlete or stoner, by doing something for the first time, then keeping it up.
I’m a journal-keeper. With over a hundred notebooks filled since 1982, it’s become part of who I am. I couldn’t have expected or anticipated all the ways my new habit would enrich my life.
Even if we never reread what we write in our journals, the act of writing changes us. It shapes our perceptions and memory. Over time, opening the notebook and picking up the pen becomes like resuming a long-running conversation with a friend. We develop a voice, even though there’s no one on the other end to hear it — or rather, our self is listening.
I decided to publish my own 1980s journals — begun as a Yale college freshman, while I was making my first video games, Karateka and Prince of Persia — when enough years had passed that their value as a time capsule outweighed my embarrassment. I still cringe rereading certain entries, but I’m glad the journals exist. They contain hard-won experience I wish I could have had the benefit of when I was 20.
Keeping a journal has special value for anyone engaged in a creative project. Reading pages written a year ago, or five, or twenty, can help reveal the big arc of our lives, and illuminate the present. Past journal entries remind us of intentions, resolves, lessons forgotten. They bring home how much of our worries, schemes and plans are transient, even quaint in retrospect.
In the four years it took me to make the first Prince of Persia game on the Apple II, my journal did more than record my creative process: it was part of it. I used my notebook as a sounding board — wrestling with design challenges, discarding ideas and sparking new ones in the act of writing. In dark moments I poured out my angst, questioned whether I was on the right path, if the game was even worth finishing. More than once, my journal brought me back from the brink and helped me find the clarity and confidence to continue. Some entries capture the exact moment of illumination when I hit upon a solution I’d been groping toward in the dark. For all the digital and technological advancement of the past half-century, pen and paper may still be the tool that comes closest to being able to record thought.
For every entry that makes me feel smart, there’s a youthful wise reflection like this one: “The games business is drying up. There’s no guarantee there will even be a computer games market a couple of years from now.” (July 1985) Or: “I’ve grown middle-aged these last few years. Roland is 23 but he’s still young at heart.” (Written when I was 22.) Rereading such passages is a joy that only journal-keepers know.
The final PC version of Prince of Persia that shipped thirty years ago, in April 1990, is so familiar now it feels inevitable. It’s easy to forget that it was once a fragile thing in flux. My journal reminds me of roads not taken, of how easily things could have turned out differently.
These days, I keep my journal in a Hobonichi Techo — a compact format that reinforces the practice of one page a day, neatly fitting a year into the palm of my hand, a decade in a shoebox. I’ve found poignant solace in this month of confinement, April 2020, flipping back a few dozen pages to see how many of my concerns and decisions of February have been rendered irrelevant, while a few mattered more than I knew.
A journal keeps us honest and tethers us to truth. In George Orwell’s 1984, the protagonist’s first act of resistance to brainwashing is to start secretly keeping a diary — a crime not explicitly forbidden, but punishable by death, because it threatens a totalitarian state’s power to retroactively rewrite history.
Like a yardstick calibrated in millimeters, a journal holds both the detail and the scope of life. Our human condition is to live one moment at a time; we’re never given more than that. Of all the gifts journaling gives us, maybe that’s the greatest: The simple practice of making daily marks on paper, like mental push-ups, can strengthen the part of us that tries to rise above the timeline, to see a pattern and bigger picture — and, paradoxically, also strengthen the part of us that can learn to treasure the present moment.
Thanks to all the fans who made the 30th anniversary launch of The Making of Prince of Persia a success.
Stripe Press just let me know that the collector's edition is already going into its
second print run. I’m delighted that the book has found its way into so many hands, despite the
logistical challenges of launching (and shipping!) a physical hardcover in the time of Covid.
The images in this collage came in from all around the world. The generous sentiments you’ve
shared about the book and the original game are wonderful to hear.
Some of you have asked how you can get a signed copy. I'm not set up to receive or ship
books, but I'll be happy to sign your copy in person if you (or a friend) can make it to an event
where I’ll be.
As of now, I’m scheduled to appear at the TGS Toulouse Game Show in France, November 28-
29 (fingers crossed). We also have some online giveaways coming up. I’ll post about upcoming
signings and other events on social media.
Here's my journal entry from 30 years ago today.
August 24, 1990
Checking in with Broderbund was, as usual, infuriating. Another great review. A bunch of fan mail. And the chilling news that one major chain, Electronics Boutique, has recalled the title due to lack of sales. (“It’s a great game, but the box was horrible,” explained the saleswoman in the mall.) I don’t know how much more of this I can take before I throw a fit in Doug’s office.
Game developers, take heart: Four months
after Prince of Persia shipped on PC in 1990, 26-year-old me was seething with frustration that
the game I’d labored on for four years was a flop. I had no dagger of time to give me a glimpse
of the long view, or how much I’d enjoy celebrating this anniversary with you.
Hot off the presses!
The new Stripe Press edition of my "Making of Prince of Persia” journals will be released on April 28, 2020 — 30 years to the month after the first PC release. (I can't tell you the exact date in April 1990 it shipped, because I didn’t write it in my journal. I might have been busy celebrating, or maybe sleeping.)
Sheets are coming off the presses as I write this. The binding is hardcover, and a pleasure to the touch. I hope you’ll find it worth the wait.
A big thank you to everyone who sent in stories and images for the “Legacy” chapter. Your contributions added up to a full-color, 32-page special section at the end of the book, highlighting moments in the prince’s 30-year (so far) journey since the original game’s release. The whole book clocks in at 336 pages, with work-in-progress sketches, screen shots, and visuals illustrating the stages of the game’s creation.
We’ll be doing a giveaway of 10 signed advance copies, so you can have a chance to win and receive your copy a month before the pub date. I’ll post details on Instagram when the contest opens, on or around March 9.
Note: The paperback first edition of The Making of Prince of Persia will be withdrawn from sale and replaced by the new hardcover edition.
Meanwhile, here's my journal entry from 30 years ago:
March 5, 1990
Doug [Carlston] came in all excited about making Prince of Persia Roland MT-32 compatible. Nice thought, but it would mean slipping the release date. We talked him out of it, but just barely.
When I was a kid, I spent as much time as I could drawing... until I got my first Apple II. Old interests got swept aside to make way for my new obsession: making games. Over the next three decades of writing, programming, and other activities, I almost forgot that drawing had once been a primary means of self-expression.
It came back to me in 2008. My artist friend (and collaborator on Templar) Alex Puvilland gave me a Moleskine notebook, black Pigma Micron pen, and no eraser. I started sketching people in the street, at cafés and airports, in live-model workshops. (And on the Prince of Persia movie set. There were camels!)
I found the tactile, no-undo, Zen aspect of pen on paper a soul-refreshing break from screen time. Other than showing my sketchbooks to friends and family, and an occasional snap-post on Instagram, I had no plans to take my hobby public. But over time, it became clear to me there was something about the drawings that others found of interest.
Today, after over a decade and 34 Moleskines filled, I'm happy to share with you a year of my no-longer-private sketch journal. It's a little book entitled Year 2 in France -- 164 pages drawn between August 2017 and August 2018, the second year after I moved to France from L.A. (There's some New York, London, and other locations too.) I hope it captures the atmosphere of that year, and of those places.
I've worked closely with Gami, a local fine-art printer here in Montpellier, on a small print run of the book. We've also done limited-edition, signed and numbered giclée prints of selected drawings. When an edition runs out, it won't be reprinted. Prints are available in the store.
Collecting a fan legacy
The Prince of Persia book project is going full steam ahead. I've spent enjoyable hours combing the Strong Museum collection for images to illustrate my old journals, while book designer Tyler Thompson has been developing exciting design concepts.
It felt right to end the book in 1992, when Prince of Persia 2: The Shadow and the Flame signed out of QA. After that, a decade would go by before I'd be hands-on again in the creation of a Prince of Persia title — joining Ubisoft in Montreal to make PoP: The Sands of Time, then pitching it to Disney/Bruckheimer as a movie.
But a 30th-anniversary collector's edition wouldn't be complete without some kind of acknowledgement of the prince's subsequent adventures. So Stripe and I decided to add a "legacy" chapter: a kind of scrapbook of the prince's odyssey since 1992.
We have mementos of the episodes I was involved in, but what I really want to see are things that aren't in the Strong's collection. Like this fan-made Prince of Persia LEGO, which I love. (If you're the person who created it, I hope you'll read this and submit it for the book.)
We're reaching out to you for submissions. If you feel inspired to share a souvenir of a Prince of Persia-related moment in your life — whether as a gamer, fan, artist, programmer, collector, cosplayer, dev-team member, or other capacity — please send it! We'd like to see photos, art, screen shots, anything that could fit on a book page.
Because time is short, and Stripe's book design staff is small, we ask you to adhere to the following guidelines:
Please only send images that are yours (photos you took, or something you created). If it was a work for hire or someone else controls the rights, let us know who.
The text of the email should include your name, where you live, and explain the context or story of the image, in 1001 words or less.
One email per submission.
There's a good chance we'll receive more submissions than we have manpower or bandwidth to acknowledge. Here's the deal:
We'll choose a selection to include in the book.
If we choose yours, we'll reply, and ask you to sign a release. As a thank-you, we'll send you an autographed copy of the book once it's printed. This courtesy copy is the only compensation we can offer.
Submissions that don't fit in the book might get posted on Instagram @pop30anniv, @jmechner, and/or jordanmechner.com.
We won't be able to answer follow-up emails, individual messages, or questions. (Especially if they're about when and what the next Prince of Persia game will be. I promise that when I have info to share on that subject, I'll post it.)
Thanks for playing! I'm excited to see what you'll send.
Meanwhile, here's my journal entry from 30 years ago:
September 6, 1989
Oliver found a bug in POP. I'm bummed — it was one I'd fixed once, too, and it somehow got undone. But it's shippable, even with the bug, so that's probably what they'll decide to do. Shit.
Thirty years ago today, I was at my Apple II, crunching on a six-week deadline to finish Prince of Persia by mid-July to ship in September.
I know this because I wrote it in my journal. If I hadn't, those details would have long since faded from my memory, along with the 6502 hex op codes I once knew by heart.
In 1989, I could never have imagined that Prince of Persia would last this long — much less have foreseen it being ported to a future generation of game consoles from the makers of the Walkman. (Or to the big screen by the producer of Beverly Hills Cop.)
To all of you who've played, watched, and supported PoP over the years — thank you! I've been especially moved by the things you've shared about the ways PoP has touched your lives. Your kind and encouraging words have been an inspiration to me.
Many of you have asked when there will be a new PoP game (or movie, or TV series). If you feel that it's been a long time since the last one, you're not alone. I wish I had a magic dagger to accelerate the process — it would have been poetic to time a major game announcement with this 30th-anniversary year. But I'm only a small part of a bigger picture.
There is one PoP announcement I can make, and am happy to share with you. Stripe Press, an imprint specializing in books about innovation and technological advancement, will publish a hardcover collector's edition of "The Making of Prince of Persia" — my 1980s original game development journals, newly illustrated with notes, sketches, work-in-progress screen shots, and as many visual features as we have the bandwidth to add by our target "gold master" date of September 2019 (30 years after Apple II PoP signed out of Broderbund QA). Oh, and there'll be an audiobook.
What I cherish about books
For me as a kid who dreamed of creating mass entertainment, in the pre-internet days, when you still needed a printing press to make a book and a film lab to make a movie, the Apple II was a game-changer: a technological innovation that empowered every user to innovate. Suddenly, I didn't need adult permission (or funding) to tell a story of adventure that might reach thousands — and ultimately millions — of people.
That direct connection between author and public is still possible today for small indie games — and for books. By contrast, making a major movie or AAA game requires millions of dollars and hundreds of people. It's a thrilling ride, and the rewards can be great, but by nature it's beyond the scope of what one person or even a tight-knit creative team can accomplish alone.
So it felt very much in the magical 8-bit spirit when Stripe's co-founder Patrick Collison emailed me to propose this book, and less than two months later, we're doing it. For me personally, in the midst of longer-term projects whose announcement is still a ways off, it's refreshing to add one whose timeline is reckoned in months rather than years.
In 2012, when the PoP source code disks I thought I'd lost turned up in my dad's closet, I discovered that an incredible retro-gaming fan and archivist community has been keeping the flame of early game development knowledge alive.
The Internet Archive and Strong Museum of Play (which houses work materials and artifacts from my past projects) are already on board to help us make the collector's edition of "The Making of Prince of Persia" as feature-rich as possible.
As we move toward beta, we'll document and share our progress online via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. With luck, we'll be able to bring boxes of printed hardcover books to PAX East in spring 2020 — 30 years after the PC release of Prince of Persia (which is the one most people remember). I hope to see many of you there in person.
Until then, here's a fateful time-capsule post (and photo) from the week PoP went alpha, thirty years ago. Reading it now, the drollest part is that I still thought (as usual) I was about two weeks from the finish line.
And then there's the mullet.
July 26, 1989
Left a stack of disks three inches high on my desk for Brian. Eleven for sales, three for QA, plus seven more. Hope they work.
I played the whole game straight through for the first time ever, start to finish, cheat keys turned off. Made it with seconds to spare (my hour ran out while I was fighting the Grand Vizier).
You know what? It was fun!
There's a level of tension generated when you know you can't cheat, which is completely absent from the normal playtesting I do. By the time that final battle rolled around, I had a solid hour invested, and damned if I was going to lose!
Still a few bugs — two weeks of work, like I said — but it's a game, and a damn good one. I'm content. I'm ready to go river rafting.
As a writer and game designer, I've spent a good chunk of the past 30 years trying to do various types of creative work while sitting, standing, or slouching at a computer keyboard (and, more recently, a touchscreen). The power of those devices has grown exponentially, enabling me with a tap or a keystroke to accomplish marvels that would have been inconceivable just a few years ago. ("Upload PDF to Dropbox"; "Open Scrivener file.")
And yet I've been increasingly bemused to realize that by real-world measures of productivity — words written, problems solved, good ideas crystallized — my output has not only not multiplied along with the power of my tools, it hasn't increased one bit.
Not only that: I've had for some time the gnawing feeling that my best ideas — the ones that really make a difference — tend to come while I'm walking in the park, or showering after a workout, or talking a problem through with a friend, or writing in a notebook; i.e., almost anywhere but in front of a screen.
For a long time I tried to talk myself out of this. I figured that if my computer time wasn't maximally productive, it was because I didn't have the right software, or wasn't using it right. I tried configuring panels and preferences differently. I created keyboard shortcuts. I downloaded apps to track time I spent using other apps, apps to make it easier to switch between multiple apps. Nothing changed the basic observed fact: There was an inverse relationship between my screen time and my productivity on a given day.
I started mentioning this to people. Cautiously at first. For someone who makes his living by putting stuff on screens, to question the fundamental symbiotic bond of user and machine could seem perverse, even a sort of heresy. But the more I brought it up, the more I discovered I wasn't alone.
It turns out that some of the most productive and successful people I know still write longhand. Screenwriters write on index cards and big rolls of paper, the way I did in elementary school. One dictates his first drafts out loud and has an assistant transcribe them. Game designers and directors scribble on whiteboards and in notebooks. And some of these people were born after 1980.
For myself, I've found that I spend the vast majority of my working computer time staring at the screen in a state of mind that falls somewhere within the gray spectrum from "passive/reactive" to "sporadically/somewhat productive," and in which a few minutes can stretch unnoticed into a quarter-hour, or a couple of hours, without breaking the seamless self-delusion that because I am at my desk, at my computer, I am therefore working.
It's so easy to move words and sentences around in Word or Scrivener or Final Draft that it feels like writing, even if what I'm actually doing would rate only a 2 on the scale in which 10 is "getting an idea and writing it down." Writing down an idea, an actual idea, is something I can do as easily with a fifty-cent ball-point pen as with a thousand-dollar MacBook Air. Only with the ball-point, it's harder to fool myself. If the page stays blank, I can see it's blank.
Which is why, after years of making progressively heavier use of more apps and more devices to do things I used to do without any devices at all, I've thrown that train into reverse. I now keep my project notes and journals in actual notebooks. I've even switched to paper for my "to-do lists," and cross off action items literally, not figuratively. It's simpler and I get more done this way.
As much as I love my tricked-out MacBook Air, I try not to begin workdays automatically by lifting its lid, as if to say "I have arrived at work; now tell me what to do"; just as I try not to reach for my iPhone to fill the silence of a solitary moment. Ideally, I want my screen sessions to begin with a conscious choice, a clear intention of why I'm turning to that device at that moment and what I mean to accomplish.
It's easier said than done. The more I try, the more I realize that what I'm actually doing is fighting an addiction. The Apple II that first enchanted me thirty years ago as a tool to make fun games has evolved, one update and one upgrade at a time, into a multi-tentacled entity so powerful that it takes an ongoing effort of will for me not to be enslaved by it.
Build the game in incremental steps — Don't make big design documents.
As you go, continue to strengthen what's strong, and cut what's weak.
Be open to the unexpected — Make the most of emergent properties.
Be prepared to sell your project at every stage along the way.
It's harder to sell an original idea than a sequel.
Bigger teams and budgets mean bigger pressure to stay on schedule.
Don't invest in an overly grandiose development system.
Make sure the player always has a goal (and knows what it is).
Give the player clear and constant feedback as to whether he is getting closer to his goal or further away from it.
The story should support the game play, not overwhelm it.
The moment when the game first becomes playable is the moment of truth. Don't be surprised if isn't as much fun as you expected.
Sometimes a cheap trick is better than an expensive one.
Listen to the voice of criticism — It's always right (you just have to figure out in what way).
Your original vision is not sacred. It's just a rough draft.
Don't be afraid to consider BIG changes.
When you discover what the heart of the game is, protect it to the death.
However much you cut, it still won't be enough.
Put your ego aside.
Nobody knows what will succeed.
These practical tips were first published in 2004, at the time of the release of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.
Designing story-based games
Eons ago, in 1996, Next Generation magazine asked me for a list of game design tips for narrative games. Here's what I gave them.
Reading it today, some of it feels dated (like the way I refer to the player throughout as "he"), but a lot is as relevant as ever. I especially like #8 and #9.
The story is what the player does, not what he watches.
List the actions the player actually performs in the game and take a cold hard look at it. Does it sound like fun? (Resist the temptation to embellish. If a cinematic shows the player's character sneak into a compound, clobber a guard and put on his uniform, the player's action is "Watch cinematic." Letting the player click to clobber the guard isn't much better.)
The only significant actions are those that affect the player's ability to perform future actions. Everything else is bells and whistles.
Design a clear and simple interface. The primary task of the interface is to present the player with a choice of the available actions at each moment and to provide instant feedback when the player makes a choice.
The player needs a goal at all times, even if it's a mistaken one. If there's nothing specific he wishes to accomplish, he will soon get bored, even if the game is rich with graphics and sound.
The more the player feels that the events of the game are being caused by his own actions, the better — even when this is an illusion.
Analyze the events of the story in terms of their effect on the player's goals. For each event, ask: Does this move the player closer to or further away from a goal, or give him a new goal? If not, it's irrelevant to the game.
The longer the player plays without a break, the more his sense of the reality of the world is built up. Any time he dies or has to restart from a saved game, the spell is broken.
Alternative paths, recoverable errors, multiple solutions to the same problem, missed opportunities that can be made up later, are all good.
Don't introduce gratuitous obstacles just to create a puzzle.
As the player moves through the game, he should have the feeling that he is passing up potentially interesting avenues of exploration. The ideal outcome is for him to win the game having done 95% of what there is to do, but feeling that there might be another 50% he missed.
Crafting a video game story
In 2001, a small team within Ubisoft's Montreal studio led by producer Yannis Mallat began concept development on the project that would become Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Initially a consultant, I later joined the team as writer and game designer. Being part of this project was a great experience and I'm glad to revisit it for this book.
By its nature, video game writing is inextricably bound up with game design, level design, and the other aspects of production. A film screenplay is a clean, written blueprint that serves as a starting point and reference for the director, actors, and the rest of the creative team. It's also a document that film scholars and critics can later read and discuss as a work distinct from the film itself. Video games have no such blueprint. The game design script created at the start of a production is often quickly rendered obsolete, its functions assumed by new tools created to fit the project's specific needs.
In this chapter I'll try to shed some light on the creative and technical decision-making processes that went into crafting the story and narrative elements of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (POP for short). The team's approach was practical, not literary; our challenge was to find the right story for a mass-market action video game. In the rapidly changing game industry, each project is unique and presents its own demands and opportunities, according to current technology and the nature of the particular game. What works for one game might not work for another.
Storytelling is, of course, just one aspect of game design. For those interested in reading more about the overall production process on POP, I recommend Yannis Mallat's postmortem article (Mallat 2004).
Rule #1: Do it, don't view it.
What kind of story does a video game need?
The traditional way to tell a story in a video game is to create a series of cinematic cutscenes that serve as "rewards" — transitions between gameplay levels. However, the cool way to tell a story in a video game is to eliminate or reduce the canned cutscenes as much as possible, and instead construct the game so that the most powerful and exciting moments of the story will occur within the gameplay itself.
The screenwriting maxim "actions speak louder than words" applies to video games as well as films, but in a different way. Video games, unlike movies, are interactive. Whereas in a film it's better to show than to tell, in a video game it's better to do than to watch. Give the story's best moments to the player, and he'll never forget them. Put them in a cutscene, and he'll yawn.
Philosophically, the POP team was pretty much united in our lack of enthusiasm for cutscenes. If we could have eliminated them altogether, we would have done so with pleasure. On the other hand, our mandate was to make a successful mainstream action-adventure game on a relatively tight budget and schedule. The game concept already called for pushing the envelope in a number of ways; an overambitious approach to storytelling could have sunk the ship.
New mediums have trouble escaping the shadow of their predecessors. At the turn of the last century, the dominant audiovisual medium was the stage play. So in their quest for mass-market success and artistic legitimacy, early filmmakers strove to be theatrical: They shot scenes as if the cast were onstage, with the cameraman stationed in the audience seventh row center. Today, those early movies seem hoary.
Likewise, the evolution of video-games has been shaped by gamemakers' determination to be cinematic. A typical game features hours of cutscenes (the mini-movies shown at designated moments). Yet for the most part, cutscene-heavy games based on Hollywood mega-productions like The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings have failed to set the industry on fire. The truly seminal, breakthrough hits of the new art form — the Dooms and Zeldas and Metroids and Simses — are original properties.
That may be because movie storytelling and game storytelling follow totally different logics. A great film sequence and a great game sequence may look similar. But videogames are interactive. To appreciate a videogame, you need to play it — an experience that can consume dozens of hours, encompassing moments of joy and anguish so intense that you reminisce about them years later.
In a movie, the story is what the characters do. In a game, the story is what the player does. The actions that count are the player's. Better game storytelling doesn't mean producing higher-quality cinematic cutscenes; it means constructing the game so that the most powerful and exciting moments of the story occur not in the cutscenes but during the gameplay itself. To simply watch a few recorded snippets of game footage as you would a film is to miss the point.
One small example: In Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, the hero doesn't realize he's gained the power to turn back time until the player discovers that he has a new controller button at his disposal — and uses it to save his life by rewinding a fatal mistake. Had this revelation occurred in a cutscene instead of during active play, it would not have the same impact.
Cinematic cutscenes have their place in videogames. But they are not the engine that moves the story forward. The key moments, emotional highs and lows, surprising twists of a videogame story are played — not watched. If the object is "Shoot every spaceship you see," packing the cinematic cutscenes full of human relationships, dialog, and backstory won't deepen the experience.
As we gamemakers discover new ways to take storytelling out of cutscenes and bring it into gameplay, we're taking the first steps toward a true videogame storytelling language — just as our filmmaking forebears did the first time they cut to a close-up. One day soon, calling a game "cinematic" will be a backhanded compliment, like calling a movie "stagy."
Guest article for Wired, published in April, 2006.