Interview: Jordan Mechner And The Original Prince Of Persia
Jordan Mechner is the man behind Prince of Persia. He created the original game, its sequel, and was heavily involved the 2003 release, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. He also wrote the original draft of the Prince of Persia film, starring Jake Gyllenhaal. He’s a multi-talented man not interested in confining himself to just game design, and he recently released his collection of journals and notes chronicling the creation of the original Prince.
We spoke with him about the publication of his old journals, and the creation of the now iconic series.
I think it was interesting that you resisted the temptation to edit yourself when you were collecting these notes.
Mechner: Yeah, some of what I wrote definitely is embarrassing when I read it now. It was actually more interesting going back and reading those old journals to see what I actually wrote, because my memory has a way to kind of smooth things over, in retrospect. If I were to try to tell the story of the development of Prince of Persia now, to write it in a memoir or something, I would have made it make a lot more sense. So to go back and read what I actually wrote day by day, there’s no hiding from it, some of the things that I wrote were just absolutely wrong.
Something I noticed very quickly, one day you hate this game, but the next it seems like you’re incredibly excited about it. Do you enjoy the process of designing and programming games? In the book it really seems like you go back and forth.
I think even doing what I love from one day to the next – one day it’s great, the next day I think what I did the previous day sucks. That emotional rollercoaster is really part of it. I’ve come to love the roller coaster. I feel the same way about writing screenplays. Pretty much any long term creative endeavor, there are going to be days when I’m so happy with what I’ve just done, and then there are days when I feel the opposite.
That really comes out in the book. It’s literally dated where you said, "I don’t want to work on this anymore," and then the next day you say that you are incredibly excited to finish this project.
And of course, at no point during the three year development did I ever think it was more than a few months away from being finished.
I thought it was interesting that from the book you said, “There is no guarantee that the new game will be successful or that there will even be a computer games market a couple of years from now.” It seems that it wasn’t just that you didn’t have faith in your own game, it was that you weren’t sure if you were in the right industry all together.
This was in 1985, right? That’s one of the things I would have conveniently forgotten had I not been confronted with my own words on the page. I really thought, at the time, computer games might turn out to be like Rubik’s cube, just a fad that lasted for a few years and the world would move on to the next thing. I couldn’t really have envisioned how it was going to explode in the next decade or two.
That leads me to wonder, what motivated you to make your first game? Was it a project you did for fun that ended up being something you were able to sell?
Before I got my first Apple II in high school, I liked to draw cartoons, I liked to write stories, I was fascinated by Disney animation. I was trying to make my own animated movies, so I was doing all these things, of course, I was a kid so the animated movies that I made obviously were not as good as what I could go and see in the theatre. I could make little movies with my friends, but clearly it was not on the same level as Star Wars. The thing that was so compelling about the Apple II computer, when I got it, was that here was a device that I could use to make little interactive movies and stories. I could show my friends and they could play and it didn’t seem like there was that huge a gap between the games I was making on my Apple, and the games I was buying at the computer store. That was really addictive and magical for a 14, 15 year old to think, okay here is a field and I am within striking distance of being able to compete with the professionals.
What you were making looked as good as what you were able to purchase, which encouraged you to keep going with it?
Well, maybe not in the beginning. I remember the early Apple game, Space Invaders, just blew me away. It was a pretty good copy of the arcade Space Invaders with smooth high-res animation, and I was programming in Basic, in text mode. It took a few years to go from Basic, to assembly language, to high-res, but I loved playing games, and I loved then being able to make my own game and try to see what we could make the machine do. For my friends who were programming, too, there was something so magical and enticing, that this machine had secrets, things that it could do that we hadn’t tapped yet, that was almost within our reach.
Reading the book a little bit, we’ve gone into how pessimistic you were about making the game, how it seemed like you wanted to focus on film, and making Prince of Persia was just this job for you. Do you ever look back on that and wish that you had focused on filmmaking more, or are you happy that you stuck it out and finished Prince of Persia?
The irony, of course, is that while I was making Prince of Persia, on my dark days I was thinking, "Geeze, if I really want to make movies, maybe I should be going to film school or writing screenplays instead." Twenty years later, of course, it was Prince of Persia that got me my first paid studio screen-writing gig as first screenwriter on the Prince of Persia movie.
Reading the journals, it really depends on the day. There were days that I thought that movies seemed really appealing to me and I felt here I was spending years on this project and the chance to go and try to break into Hollywood was passing me by. But then there were other days when I thought movies are always going to be there. This is a really magic moment where if I don’t make this game, nobody will. You’re here because with games there’s a chance to do something with new technology that hasn’t been done before, and that’s so much more exciting than an art form that has been around for hundreds of years that has already been defined and established. That sense of being on the forefront was also very exciting and appealing. Reading the journals, I kind of ping-ponged between those two views.
Today, of course, I couldn’t be happier. I am certainly glad that I finished Prince of Persia. I was very proud of the game, and that, of course, opened the doors to so many other things. Now I love making games and making movies, and it seems funny in retrospect that I ever felt that I would need to choose between them when the destiny of those two mediums is that they were going to change and converge and sort of become part of the same thing.
One of the things about Prince of Persia is that it really had a strong story when a lot of other games weren’t focusing on narrative very much. Do you think that has to do with your desire to be in the film industry?
I would say that part of what appeals to me about both film and games is that they’re both ways to tell a story. They are both mediums to create a world that can draw you in, the player or the viewer. That is part of what fascinated me about the Apple II in the very beginning, was that it was a way to tell stories, in some ways more powerful and more satisfying than the stories I was able to tell by drawing comic strips or making animated movies. So, yeah, the idea of making a game that would be fun but also tell a story and would make the player feel like a character in that story – that was something that interested me from the beginning, and I tried to do that with Karateka and with Prince of Persia.
Do you think one medium is better than the other as far as telling stories? Especially with the way modern games look and the stories that have been told. Do you think games are catching up with film as a medium of telling a story?
I would never say that one medium is better than another. Every medium has its own special strengths that are very powerful that don’t really have an equivalent in another medium. That’s definitely true for games, it’s true for movies, and it was also true for opera and for stage plays. The important thing is to really love the medium you’re creating in and not try to make it something it’s not. When I make a game, I am really making a game, it’s not a game that is trying to be a movie. That applies also to graphic novels. That’s another medium that has its strengths and limitations that are very different from video games and films. I see each of those as its own kind of fascinating separate craft. There are moments you can experience as a player in a video game that we will remember and will talk about 20 years later. That’s a very powerful experience, and in some ways it’s an even more intense emotional involvement that with a film, where we tend to forget the details of the plot as the years go by.
Quoting you from your book, you said that you finished a letter to Ed Bernstein at Broderbund saying, "I needed to come up with some sort of story line so I just wrote something off the top of my head, sealed the letter, mailed it." Was it really that simple with Prince of Persia?
One thing that was really interesting to me, going back and re-reading these journals after so many years, is the extent to which the story evolved. I tend to remember only what was in the finished game, thinking, yeah, it was always going to be that way, forgetting all the things that I planned and envisioned that I ended up cutting from the game design. If you read the whole journal, you can see how the story evolved. Things that weren’t planned – for example, sword fighting was never envisioned to be part of the game. I had the idea in the beginning that Prince of Persia would be a non-violent game, where the hero was menaced by spikes, slicers, and death traps, but he himself was not a violent person. He was just trying to survive. It became apparent at a certain point that that just wasn’t a satisfying game. My friend, and this is recorded the journals, every time she saw the game she would say to me, "combat, combat, combat," and it drove me crazy, because I didn’t have enough memory in the Apple II to put in another character that you could fight with. In the course of many revisions and optimizing the code over a period of a couple of years, I managed to squeeze out enough memory to put in enemy guards you could fight with, and, of course, that transformed the game. Sword fighting immediately became one of the cornerstones of the Prince of Persia gameplay. It’s now hard to imagine the game without it.
So, that letter that I wrote with that first storyline, I actually remember that afternoon. It was one of those times it felt like a story that kind of popped into my head full blown, and I think it drew on all the Arabian nights stories I read as a kid, and a lot of the swashbuckling movies I had seen, and that’s why it came so easily. But then the work of the next two years was really refining that and it really changed quite a bit. I actually have that original storyline, and it’s interesting to see how different it is from the finished game.
I’m glad I kept it all [the notes and journals], and the one thing the journal really shows it just how long it all takes, kind of the cumulative value of patience. So many times the first draft that seems so great, and after a couple of months all the problems emerge, and the second draft is a bit better and then it’s the third or fourth draft where the magic really happens and we can’t see that end product from the beginning. We kind of have to go step by step. Oftentimes it’s not that the original idea was so brilliant, it’s that taking so many steps brought it to a place we couldn’t imagine it in the beginning.
What prompted you to put the book together? You got a really strong response when you began to put it online, but what even prompted you to put them online to begin with?
It was really in the months before the release of the Prince of Persia movie that I went back to read those old journals to refresh my memory, and it occurred to me that this is really a story, that it was interesting and entertaining to read. I started posting the journals online and it became the most popular feature on the website. A lot of people had asked if I could make the journal available for them.
You pretty much programmed and designed Prince of Persia by yourself. As far as modern game design goes, it’s much harder to do these kinds of things by yourself. Do you find it easier today to work with a larger team of people, or do you miss the old days when it was all in your own hands?
I’ve always loved both the solitary and the collaborative aspects of game making, and I think that comes across in the journal, too. How exciting and fun it was to go from working at home in my parents basement and my college dorm room, to find myself with Broderbund software in the '80s with all these other programmers and people making games. I loved that and as the game industry has evolved, I’ve come to love working with teams. And that is also something I love about movies, which, like games, is both a solitary and communal enterprise, because when you are writing a screenplay you’re alone in room with a blank page or with the computer and when other people get involved, that’s when it becomes real. I think that now, more than any point in the last 20 years, is really another time when one person with no special means or development budget can make a game that’s going to be interesting and innovative and get a lot of attention. That was true in the '80s. You could make a game with an Apple II, and now once again you can make a game with nothing but a regular computer. The wheel has really come full circle and I think that is exciting.
The Making of the Prince of Persia: Journals 1985-1993 is available now as an e-book. Click here to learn more about it.