Jordan Mechner vs. the sands of time

Francis Mechner remembers everything, including the time his family used watercolor paintings by Hitler to save their lives. He insists his son, Jordan, write it all down.

“I’m the only one left who remembers who these people and places were,” the father says in 2015, pointing to a family portrait of Uncle “Joji,” who had bought the paintings years before Hitler rose to power. The paintings were presented to barter for visas out of Nazi-occupied Austria. “A picture is meaningless without context.”

The scene is from a book about how history is also often meaningless without context. Few understand this better than Jordan Mechner, who acknowledges his relatively privileged life in “Replay: Memoir of an Uprooted Family,” a new graphic memoir drawn and written by him. The book is the result of exhaustive daily journals kept by Mechner, his father and grandfather.

Privileged, Mechner says, because unlike his forefathers, his childhood home still stands. Privilege led Mechner toward the freedom to become a historical figure by his own right. As the creator of “Prince of Persia” and “Karateka,” Mechner is one of the most revolutionary designers in video game history. As a teenage film student, he created games that borrowed the language of cinema to tell more emotionally evocative stories with characters that looked and moved like humans. Suddenly, video games weren’t just exploding pixels of light or stiff-armed figurines. They looked like people.

“You can definitely feel the inspiration all over ‘Uncharted,’ with the way the prince moves. It always felt like he was someone at the edge of their abilities, barely making that jump. It felt dangerous and cinematic,” said Neil Druckmann, vice president of Naughty Dog, the studio behind the “Uncharted” and “The Last of Us” series, and co-creator of the latter’s Emmy-winning HBO show. “When you watch Nathan Drake barely make a jump, you could trace a direct line back to that heritage.”

Today, the 59-year-old Mechner is more of an author. He’s published several books on game design, but with “Replay,” he is honoring the legacy of his grandfather and father, rabid chroniclers of their own lives. Mechner’s grandfather Adolf was born in what’s now Ukraine and fought in World War I as a teenager. He retired as a doctor in Brooklyn at age 78 and spent the next three years writing a memoir. It was more than a thousand pages across four binders. From Adolf to Jordan, there is an intergenerational dread that one’s life experiences will be consigned to oblivion.

“It’s almost like a relay, an obligation to keep telling the family’s story,” said Mechner, who began his journals at age 17. “So many families have been through wars and traumatic times and don’t talk about those events with their children and grand children, which leaves a gap. And my grandfather did the opposite.”

Just as his grandfather finished his memoir in 1978, a 13-year-old Mechner received the Apple II from his parents, beginning a lifelong obsession with programming. By 17, he learned how to program by cloning and modifying a version of “Asteroids” and submitted it to Broderbund Software in the hopes of getting published. His games were rejected, but impressed with his work, Broderbund executives mailed back a copy of “Choplifter!,” a best-selling game at the time. They encouraged Mechner to pursue original work.

“If the computer hadn’t come along when it did, maybe I would’ve kept on doing comics and cartoons, as one of my childhood dreams was to become an animator for Disney,” Mechner said.

Mechner spent the following years as a Yale University student barely attending classes, focusing instead on creating “Karateka,” inspired by his family’s karate classes. He used rotoscoping animation techniques, tracing over Super 8 footage of his family. His father composed the music to add some dramatic flair. An epic story of love and adversity was made by a family of four. Impressed, Broderbund published it in 1984, and it became one of the earliest examples of fighting games, a genre that would include the Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat series.

“Programming fascinated me because when you’re a kid, everything important is out of your control. You go to school, do your best, but there’s a limit on how much impact you can have on the world,” Mechner said. “But with a computer, it was this little universe where I could type in a few lines of code, type ‘run’ and see what it did.”

The feeling was “intoxicating,” Mechner said. “If I can make a game that looks good, nobody will know that I’m a kid.”

Gaming’s Criterion Collection

Mechner’s obsessive record of his life has been a treasure trove for video game historians and archivists. When Mechner revealed that he still had the original data for “Prince of Persia,” his landmark 1989 game, internet archivists descended upon his Hollywood home for extraction and preservation, as detailed in a 2012 Wired magazine story.

His archiving and journaling helped Digital Eclipse, a game studio owned by Atari, produce “The Making of Karateka,” an interactive documentary released last year as the first entry in its Gold Master Series. The studio hopes this series becomes the Criterion Collection of video games, said editorial director Chris Kohler (also the Wired editor who assigned the 2012 piece). Kohler’s work with Mechner has come full circle. The game features an interactive museum-like exhibit, along with documentary footage of Francis Mechner, now 93, displaying an apparently impeccable memory, recalling details his son forgot.

The younger Mechner said as a film student, he was keenly aware that art preservation was already in peril. “So many early silent films were lost, including the specific craft that went into making them and the stories of those pioneers.” In the United States, commercial and corporate interests often shaped the choices of early historical preservation, according to Whitney Martinko, a historian and author of “Historic Real Estate: Market Morality and the Politics of Preservation in the Early United States.”

Mechner would navigate these clashing interests in a later game. In 1997, Mechner created “The Last Express,” set during the last run of the Orient Express days before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and World War I. He wanted to portray the train accurately as it was in 1914, but Mechner said the Belgian company that built it in 1883 destroyed archives detailing the train architecture of that time. Mechner resorted to placing classified ads in train enthusiast newsletters and magazines.

“And we got a call. There was a club of retired railroad workers, and they had actually taken those archives home rather than see them destroyed,” Mechner said. “So they had floor plans, the photographs, the conductor’s manual. So we were able to authentically re-create the 1914 Orient Express for that game because of these volunteer amateur efforts. And I think of that now looking at the efforts of retro gaming, the clubs and organizations who are passionate about the Apple II or the Commodore. They care more than the companies do.”

Today, video games are being lost to time. About 87 percent of classic video games — defined as those released before 2010 — are no longer available in the modern gaming market, according to the nonprofit Video Game History Foundation, which advocates for eased copyright restrictions on preservation.

Physical media in games are also beginning to disappear. The PC market is nearly all digital, and retailers like Best Buy are no longer stocking many games on shelves. Atari CEO Wade Rosen said he believes physical media will become an enthusiast’s market, similar to what’s happened in music.

“Vinyl in the grand scheme of music is still much smaller than digital, but for the people who it’s still meaningful for and the people who focus on it and do it sell, it’s a really great business,” Rosen said. “There’s a lot of personal value that comes out of that emotional connection. … There still is a tremendous amount of retro game stores all the time because there is absolutely a demand for that type of product.”

A narrative legacy

When Druckmann first laid eyes on “Prince of Persia” on an Apple II at his brother’s friend’s house, he called it a revelation.

“When you look at movement of games before, they’re just very mechanical, and here was this character, there’s a body signature to this person that makes it more specific,” Druckmann said. “When we cast someone in our games, we ask what’s their body signature, because that’s one of the first things you notice when you play and push the stick forward.”

Druckmann’s recent entry into Hollywood has taken him to rooms with A-list celebrities, but he’s more star-struck recalling meeting Mechner while he worked as a young volunteer at a gaming convention.

“Sometimes people talk about me and they refer to me as an auteur, and I don’t agree with that. The games I’ve always made are made by dozens if not hundreds of people,” Druckmann said. “Jordan is an auteur because he does everything, from programming to coming up with the concept. … Back in those days, those guys and girls had to do it all by themselves, in this lonely endeavor.”

Unusual now, Mechner’s early games presented only his name as the creator. As he’d hoped, nobody knew he was just a kid.

Mechner was in Virginia recently for his book tour. He spent some time with his sister, who played the role of the princess in “Karateka,” and wandered among the Smithsonian museums for this interview. He mourned that even in museums, there is so much that doesn’t make it in. And then he remembers the railroad archivists. He remembers the programmers who scoured through his data. He remembers the people who try to keep these memories alive.

“All historians, everyone who’s involved in archiving and curating is standing on the shoulders of a long line of thousands of others going back into the past and passing it forward,” Mechner said.


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