Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Game Translation: The Last Express

I must admit that I am biased because I fell in love with the game from the very first time I laid eyes on its trailer on a PC Format CD. Years later I managed to track it down from a friend and very recently I have managed to purchase my own copy from There was just something about the clever artwork, the blend of action and intrigue, the fantastic music, and the fact it was set aboard the Orient Express, no less, that made it one of the top three videogames I have spent years searching for (alongside Realms of the Haunting and The Pandora Directive from the Tex Murphy series).

I must say that I wasn't disappointed.

Now I recognise that the game has its faults but many of them also come from what makes it truly great. There's a real sense of being in a living environment and I'm the type of player who can spend hours flitting down corridors and searching for opportunities to eavesdrop, over and above trying to simply get to the next plot point. I peeked everywhere and thus found most of the clues. I took advantage of every distraction of the conductors to try to sneak into the compartments. I played it the way it was intended to be played and thus it was very good.

Having said that, I'm also the type of player who squees over death scenes because they were something new. So I was quite hard to frustrate. After all, I'm the player that enjoyed KGB (also known as Conspiracy) which was a very difficult game that saw no reason NOT to let you continue playing for hours after a breaking point which wouldn't allow you to progress past a certain point. Until you reached that point, you wouldn't even know. The Last Express, at least, rewinds you to the point of failure.

Anyway, so how to evoke The Last Express in your game?

In truth, I think it very much is like a roleplaying game so I'm going to spend more time pointing out ways where running a game like The Last Express can improve or damage your game.

In the videogame, you get plunked down in media res in a situation that you know little about and must learn what your character knows through the actions others take in the game. The game would've gone down much more smoothly with a briefing but the game, like some Storytellers, didn't much see the need to do so. The benefit to this is that there's all the more of an aura of discovery. The drawback is that you must spend time discovering the very basic details of, for example, why you wouldn't approach the conductors about your friends' murder rather than focusing on matters like the conspiracy.

Going back to the conductor, there's a very good reason not to alert him. The train would most certainly stop at the next station and call the police who would then do the investigation for you. This wouldn't be very exciting and there's a good chance that the bad guys wouldn't be detected.

So there's your out of character reason. However, players might not realise that this would be the standard practice and might approach a conductor believing they would become allies in this situation. You could always go with it, but if you're tending towards a very realistic approach then you need to let your players know what their characters should. The authorities aren't going to be sympathetic to their investigation.

Ensuring that the characters have adequate motivation can also be tricky. Robert Cath has a checkered past due to his involvement with the I.R.A. that will land him into trouble if he's caught. His friend has been killed and he's not exactly the most authority loving individual. It would've helped if we had known about this as players because it would have affected our attempted choice of actions.

This is all the more important in a roleplaying game because in a videogame we can't make Robert Cath drag a conductor into the compartment but a player character can most certainly do so. Therefore, you need to make sure that you and the players are on the same page by taking a good, hard look at their character choices. It might even help to give the players a short quiz. "In this situation, what would your character do?"

Robert Cath also gets a convenient cover when, while wearing Tyler's jacket, people confuse him with his friend (which can be tricky to manipulate without player buy in at the very start of the game) and it ends up being easier to simply go with those assumptions.

Another aspect of the game is that it keeps to its own timetable. Time passes, regardless of your actions or inactions. You could spend a great deal of time simply sitting in the dining car and doing nothing, overhearing the occasional conversation that takes place around you. Of course, if you haven't accomplished what you need to by a certain time than you lose that opportunity. This adds a level of realism but also has caused incredible frustration to some players as they have fewer options. At least in a roleplaying game, players can try an alternative path if they have enough imagination.

I do think that allowing time to pass is an important aspect of the game and well worth the use in a roleplaying game. Of course, time isn't linear in roleplaying games. It can't be. It could take five minutes for you and the players to establish their positions and the full description of a location so you can't simply use a stop watch. Well, I suppose you could but you'll need to remember to keep hitting the pause button. An hour glass could also be used if you put it on its side when time wasn't flowing or let it run backwards if you forget to do so. That can certainly raise the tension in a game with a time limit - like the Orient Express which will eventually reach its final destination (or not).

The other benefit of having a time frame is that you can have a timetable as a Storyteller aid. First bells for breakfast at this time. Lunch at this time. Pull into Blah station at this time. When the right time comes, something happens regardless of the players' actions which can remind them that time is pushing on and, again, add to the tension.

"Oh, I have the gold. Last night I hugged the gold to sleep."

You can also have it that a fight will occur at some point in the Dining Car between, say, 5.00PM and 6.00PM. If the players enter the Dining Car at any point during that time the fight happens. If they don't, it still happens but they miss seeing it but must hear about it later. This again adds to a real sense of the world being bigger than them and, again, can raise tension.

Such timetables can also help you handle a large set of NPCs as you can prepare for their likely actions in advance. Just be aware that such a timetable should be kept flexible as the players may intervene in unpredictable and unlikely ways and thus change all of the NPC reactions from that point onward.

Be aware, though, that players will rebel against this if you don't give them suitable warning. If its something the players would want to deal with, throw them a few clues or try to steer them in that direction. Perhaps a conductor suggests that they look stressed and perhaps should have a cup of tea in the Dining Car to calm down. They don't have to go but if they do, they get to witness the fight. If they don't, well, they'll know you played fair by them and it was their own fault they didn't go.

If its a major plot point, move heaven and earth to get them to the right place or shift the plot point in time or location unless the players are being really dense.

This is also why an hour glass can be so helpful. The players can see it sitting there in the middle of the table and know when time is running or when its 'paused' for out of character conversation. You can also enlist their assistance to ensure that the sands don't run unless time is continuing and this can cut down on the 'It can't be four o'clock yet, we've been busy doing blah'.

The other thing you'll need to sort out is if you'll be dealing with accelerated time or not (other than at obvious points such as if they're all sleeping). You could have it that two in-game hours pass for every out of game hour or you could simply declare that an hour means an hour. Be aware that the more condensed time is, the more reminders you need to give the players. Point out that their pocket watch says blah or that the clock catches their eye and tells them it is blah. Provide them with the itinerary so they can tell the time by the stations they pass.

If you don't accelerate time, figure out how you will keep the players occupied. You'll need more things for them to do. More interesting NPC conversations. More clues. More of everything, really. Either that or bring the deadline closer to the start. Perhaps rather than having the end occur at Constantinople it occurs at a far earlier stop.

A campaign based around the The Last Express, or including elements of it, should appeal to Investigators who can slowly piece together a mystery through conversations and written clues (ideally through hand outs). Conspiracies involving multiple individuals also really allows Communicators to shine though they may sometimes forget to pay attention to the plot. Explorers would get a kick out of poking through other people's luggage and would especially enjoy any time granted for them to get out of the train (or other location) to take a peek at exotic locations even if only briefly.

Tacticians won't have much to do as the violence is generally sudden. Having said that, if they tend toward an Investigator style than they could be incredibly successful and you will have a lot on your plate to keep them from quickly solving the plots through directing party members to distract key NPCs or decipher plots while the others infiltrate compartments.

Action Heroes could enjoy it so long as you are sure to punctuate it with the odd gunplay, the chance to clamber over the train or fight on top of it, and perhaps with the odd chance to disarm bombs or other exciting actions. The trick here, however, is that the other party members will likely try to downplay all action in order to stay clandestine. The trick will be to either keep those characters otherwise occupied so they can't interfere or perhaps have some sort of out of character arrangement that you're willing to go along with violent actions so long as a dose of subtley is maintained. For example, you can fight in a compartment but don't fire a gun. Things like that.

If you'd like to take a look at the trailer to learn more about this game, you can check it out here. If you'd like to read the sort of tropes that The Last Express used, you can find them here.

For the next Game Translation, you have a choice of these: Left for Dead, Half Life 2, Metro 2033, Skyrim, KGB, Gears of War, Mass Effect, Dracula: Origins, Realms of the Haunting, Dragon Age 2, and pretty much any survival horror or horror game. If no one picks anything by next week, it'll be either Metro 2033 or KGB. I've not decided yet.

If you want to see the list of games I've done thus far, you can find the Game Translation series starter over here.


  1. I hope you don't mind, but I linked my review back to this article, because it gives an interesting alternate view and explains some of the idiosyncrasies that I never got far enough to understand. I thought the things I had to say were more relevant there than here.

  2. I never have a problem with people linking to me. I also am happy for you to post your review link in the comments if you like as well as you do have good points.

    Oh, by the way, I got stuck mid-way through this time.... *le sigh*

  3. Sure, it's at GOGathon: The Last Express. Watch me fail at playing games!

    Happens to us all... one of the risks of sandboxy games, I suppose. I will get round to giving it another crack sometime.