Ever since he began programming from his dorm room at Yale University, Jordan Mechner has wanted to make games that tell stories. Rising to prominence as a game designer during a time when the expressive qualities of computer games were severely limited by the machines they ran on, Mechner's timeless classics like Prince of Persia have become recognized as foundational to modern day gaming. His now-expansive career, which also includes screenwriting and filmmaking, recently led him back to his native New York, where he spoke at NYU's Game Center this week — ironically, his first time giving a talk there since being rejected from their film program in the early 80s.
Mechner is currently at work on a remake of Karateka, the narrative martial arts action game he wrote for the Apple II in 1984 while attending Yale. But he says that another Apple II game, Dan Gorlin's search-and-rescue simulator Choplifter, is what inspired the project in the first place.
"What blew me away about Choplifter was that here was a game that told a story, and it was also a game that created an emotional bond," Mechner reminisced to the packed lecture hall. "Small as they are, I could feel the emotions of the little characters waving, trying to get my attention." He says he was deeply affected by these tiny figures, who with only a handful of pixels were able to express joy and relief when rescued by the player's helicopter, or guilt-inducing devastation when left behind.
He also recalls noting how Choplifter displays "The End" rather than "Game Over" at the game's conclusion, a powerful and inspiring symbol for him in creating the narrative for Karateka. It established for him the idea that, like a movie, a game could have a happy or a sad ending depending on the player's actions. "That's what launched me on something that I've been trying to do my whole career, which was make games that tell stories — games that would not only be a challenge to play, but also engage the player emotionally."
Given his love of movies, it should be obvious that Mechner's most well-known creation, Prince of Persia, took cues from swashbuckling adventure films of the 1980s. "My model was the first 10 minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the moment when Indiana Jones jumps over a pit and he misses, but he grabs on and pulls himself up," said Mechner, who just last week posted the source code for the game on Github after finding it on its original floppy disk. "I wanted to get that kind of suspense – that kind of running, jumping, platform gameplay – and combine it with the visceral thrill of an action movie."
The only problem, of course, was that he had to do it all within the limitations of the Apple II computer, and crunch everything into just 48K of memory. That meant using the 6502 assembly language — a low-level machine language that was common to many 8-bit computers and game systems throughout the 1980s, including the original NES. Mechner compared it to "making games with some rocks and a chisel."
But these crude tools only made his eventual solutions all the more impressive. Mechner recorded his brother David running and jumping, using each frame of the video as a reference for his hand-pixeled character animations. The results surprised Mechner upon seeing how much of his brother's personality had come through in the character, but it also consumed a great deal of the available memory for the game.
"It's often in pushing against a constraint that the best ideas arise."
Mechner explains that despite these memory restrictions, he didn't want to create new characters simply by shifting the pixels over on the main character model like he had done for the enemies in Karateka. But this technical dilemma resulted in an interesting concept: a mischievous "shadow" Prince that would sabotage the player's progress, ending in a final Campbellian confrontation near the game's conclusion.
Even though many of these limitations are no longer an issue today, Mechner notes that the movement toward mobile gaming with smartphones and tablets has in some ways revived this creative dynamic. "You can see in today's triple-A console games how we can make it look and sound as awesome as we want, but removing those constraints doesn't necessarily make things better," he reminds us. "It's often in pushing against a constraint that the best ideas arise."