Jordan Mechner on Prince of Persia, respecting game writers

Ludwig Kietzmann
L. Kietzmann|03.15.11

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Jordan Mechner on Prince of Persia, respecting game writers
In 1985, Jordan Mechner was thinking about baggy pants, arches and columns -- images that could be clearly conveyed in a low-resolution, pixelated computer game. While delivering his Prince of Persia postmortem during GDC earlier this month, Mechner delved into his memories, his journals (which you can read online) and his temporary departure from the game midway through development to pursue a screenwriting career in Hollywood.

Mechner's interests and techniques have always been embedded in cinema. He filmed his brother David running about in a Reader's Digest parking lot with a VHS camera, and layered drawings on top of those movements (in a process called rotoscoping) to capture the protagonist's movements in Prince of Persia. You've heard that part, but you might not know about the fate of the camera that captured such iconic scurrying. According to Mechner, he purchased it, recorded the necessary footage, and then returned it within a 30-day guarantee. "I felt a little guilty about it, but I was trying to keep costs down," he said.

Initially dubbed "Thief of Baghdad" (and inspired by the film of the same name), the game continued to come together in a modular fashion, at one time incorporating a full level editor that Mechner had to persistently test, making sure users couldn't introduce game-breaking bugs. "My job title was programmer, all those other things were extra."

In May 1987, right after shooting more footage of his brother in then-publisher Broderbund's parking lot, Mechner embarked on his first "Hollywood adventure." He wrote a screenplay and devoted eight months to a project that had too much difficulty gaining traction, before returning to the Prince of Persia code. "I felt like I was looking at code that had been written by someone else," he said. It was at this point that Mechner got an unexpected puzzle idea and questioned what would happen if one of the game's fall-away floors fell on a trap tile below.

Prince of Persia's entanglement with Hollywood continued in 1988 when one of Mechner's colleagues insisted that he add combat to the game. The response was ambivalent at first, but he was jolted toward the end of the year when he played a near-complete version of the game and found that it simply wasn't that fun. Mechner concluded that Prince of Persia, as it was, lacked clear goals, a visual indicator of progress, setbacks and triumphs, and human opponents blocking players from the the final goal. "Everything should move you closer or further away from your goal, otherwise it's just window dressing," he said. In an attempt to address these issues -- and capture "that Indiana Jones feeling" -- the game's scope was dramatically reduced (from 50 levels to ten) and the level editor was thrown out entirely.

[Credit: Ricky Derocher; source: MobyGames]

Mechner turned to film yet again in order to capture the spirit and motion of Prince of Persia's sword duels. The Adventures of Robin Hood (from 1938 and starring a 28-year-old Errol Flynn) served as inspiration, with Mechner studying and deconstructing the fights to find their most fluid and elegant parts -- he eventually lifted about 6 seconds of profile footage for his game. Given its indispensable contribution to the Prince of Persia franchise, it's hard to believe combat was such a late addition before the Apple II version saw its gold master in September 1989.

At this point, many players have discovered and enjoyed the game in conversions that are far removed from that Apple II debut -- the classic version was included in certain editions of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, the SNES version was included in Wii copies of Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, and an excellent Gameloft remake is available on Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network.

"I think it's really cool that Prince of Persia, 25 years later, we're still talking about Prince of Persia, and that Prince of Persia games are still being made, and that there have been so many versions of it over the years," Mechner told me after his presentation. "And not just games, but also the movie, the Lego, graphic novels. So, yeah, the original game is what started it all, but more people have discovered it through the later versions than was even possible."

I also asked Mechner if he would return to games writing, following his experiences with interactive storytelling in The Last Express and, more recently, another Hollywood adventure in the Prince of Persia movie (pictured above). "Well, I think the short answer is that while there is demand for writers in games, there's really a demand for really low-level writers. That is, there's no chance for writers to create games or really influence them," he said. "The kind of jobs you can get as a writer, even a good writer, you're pretty much a low-level cog in the machine. You work ridiculous hours, and the compensation, and the respect, is very low compared to what film and TV writers are used to."

It's a matter of authority and creative control for Mechner, who also agreed that writers are brought in too late during the development process. "Yeah, the game is already being made, it's just a matter of write dialogue, figure out what these two characters are going to be yelling at each other while they're fighting. So that's not so much fun, compared to if you write a movie or a TV show, you actually get to create the world and the characters, and think of what the story's going to be about. That's what I like to do in games as well, but for me, right now in games, the only way to do that is as a game designer."

While you can get respect as a writer, Mechner said, more creative clout comes with assuming additional roles, such as a producer or creative director. "And the fact that you can write is sort of a bonus, but if you're just a pure writer who comes into the game industry saying, 'Hey, I really want to write stories for games,' I think the creative opportunities are pretty limited."

[Top image credit: Jordan Mechner; source: Vimeo]
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