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Replay is the family memoir of the prince of game development | Jordan Mechner interview



Jordan Mechner has been an amazing game designer since he debuted Karateka in 1984 and Prince of Persia in 1989. But one of his most memorable contributions to the industry will be his graphic novel memoir Replay: Memoir of an Uprooted Family, which debuted last week during the Game Developers Conference.

It’s a personal memoir not only of Mechner‘s four decades of life as a game designer, but the story of survival of his parents and grandparents during two world wars. The sacrifices and risks that his family took to survive World War I and escape from Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II enabled him to have an ordinary life that in turn let him grow up to be a gifted creator.

Mechner got the chance to capture his family history in part because his grandfather, who retired in the 1970s as doctor, spent three years writing a family autobiography. This story is intertwined with his own shepherding of Prince of Persia across more than three decades.

In 2016, he moved from Los Angeles to Montpelier, France, (for a new video game project) as an American with two teenage kids, reversing the journey the previous generation risked their lives to accomplish. He released Replay last year in France, where it’s received awards including the 2023 “Chateau de Cheverny” graphic novel prize.

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And he signed books during the GDC in San Francisco and also gave retrospective of his first successful game, Karateka. I’ve read the book and it glosses over Mechner’s achievements — which designing and directing Prince of Persia 2: The Shadow and the Flame (1993), The prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2003), The Last Express (2012), and directing the documentary Chavez Ravine: A Los Angeles Story (2003). He collaborated with a team on the 2008 Prince of Persia novel, and wrote the graphic novel Templar (2013). This time, he both wrote and illustrated the graphic novel Replay. Digital Eclipse recently did an interactive documentary on The Making of Karateka.

Replay is an understated book that faithfully recaptures the travails of generations of the Mechner family as well as the creative life, personal upheavals and parent-child connections in his own life. He also talked about completing another graphic novel, Monte Cristo.

Unlike fictional stories, this autobiographical book talks about a modern life where tough things happen like divorce, canceled games and childhood upheaval. I found that understanding his life through telling the stories of multiple generations was a good way to get to know Mechner himself.

“I don’t know about you, but for me–maybe this is something that’s common to children of survivors, people who’ve been through war or something very difficult,” Mechner told me. “I grew up with the sense that my own problems weren’t that important or that dramatic. That was actually something that blocked me from writing this memoir for a long time.”

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Jordan Mechner is the creator of Prince of Persia.

GamesBeat: It seems like one of the biggest years for you, coming back to GDC. You have the book out. You have Karateka. You have the new Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown (which Mechner contributed to indirectly) game launched.

Jordan Mechner: It’s crazy how everything that’s been in the works for however many years all released this year. There’s Replay. There’s the making of Karateka from Digital Eclipse. There’s The Lost Crown. And then also Monte Cristo, another graphic novel I did in three volumes in France. We’re going to announce it next week. It will be a Kickstarter for the English edition. It’s all coming at once. It gives the impression that I’ve just now been super busy, but they’ve all been in the works for years. I love the period of quiet focus making stuff. But it’s nice to share it with people.

GamesBeat: When did you decide that you wanted to write a book like Replay and tell this story?

Mechner: The idea of telling my family’s story, and also telling my own story about making games over four decades, was always in the background. I’m a journal keeper. I started keeping a journal when I was in college. I eventually published some of them as dev diaries. My grandfather, when he retired as a doctor in the ‘70s, spent three years writing a sort of family autobiography. It’s also really a history of the 20th century. Two world wars, refugees immigrating to the U.S. Looking back, one of the themes of the book is that I’m continuing this family duty to record and tell the story.

Having moved to France for a video game project, which I talk about in the book–when that ended in 2019, that was the moment. In France there’s such a wonderful tradition of graphic novels. I was working with wonderful artists as a writer on other books, like Monte Cristo. If I was ever going to do this, to write and draw a memoir, that was the time. I made the decision to do that. For three years I was writing and drawing those pages.

GamesBeat: Some things were a little vague. I don’t know if they were intentionally so. But which games you were working on, which projects were greenlit or canceled. Can you talk any more about what was what?

Replay is color-coded to keep track of generations of family.

Mechner: I moved to Montpelier in 2016 for a Prince of Persia project. It was going to be a triple-A open world Prince of Persia game. That morphed into something else. Then at a certain point that project was canceled. I restarted a new project with members of the core team, a smaller 2D game. That was 2017 and 2018. I mentioned those turns in Replay, but you’re right. I don’t go into a lot of detail. That was a choice. Partly because it’s already a very dense book with many threads. I also didn’t want to go so heavy on the game development that people who aren’t into video games–I didn’t want to unbalance the rest of the book.

Also, as you know, in the industry we don’t like to talk about canceled projects or unannounced projects. You and I know how much time goes into projects that the public will never hear about. Most gamers don’t know that, though. Even journalists have expressed surprise to me that there could be a major Prince of Persia project in development that they never knew about. But of course that’s very normal in the industry, and in Hollywood as well. A lot of projects don’t go the distance.

Prince of Persia on the Apple II.
Prince of Persia on the Apple II.

I didn’t want to get too much into the details of who funded what and so forth. It’s not really relevant to the story. I’m trying to tell the human side of game development and a game developer’s life. That can involve relocating to a different country because of a project. Trying to balance the demands of an ambitious game with family, with relationships, with kids. This is what we all live as game developers. I wanted to talk about that a bit.

GamesBeat: Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown, then, was not one of these things you were directly in on at that time?

Mechner: The Lost Crown was kind of born from the ashes of those canceled projects. I love The Lost Crown, by the way. I know the team well. They’re in Montpelier where I live. Many of them worked on previous Prince of Persia games, and I had worked with them on other unannounced projects. I’m happy that some of the work that was done on past Prince of Persia projects–they were able to draw on that and draw all the research we did into Persian culture, but use it in a new way for The Lost Crown. Doing it as a 2D Metroidvania was a really smart choice, and a way to be true to the identity of Prince of Persia and evoke the original 2D games, as well as The Sands of Time and other games along the way. But neither of the developments that I describe in Replay are The Lost Crown. That’s a separate project.

GamesBeat: Even though it’s familiar franchise territory, they didn’t pull you into that project?

Mechner: No. At the time that The Lost Crown was starting up internally, when they were pitching it, I was starting to write and draw Replay. Those two things were kind of made in parallel over those three years, both in Montpelier. It’s poetic that they’re now releasing at the same time.

GamesBeat: How does it take four years to get something Replay done? Is the artwork a lot of it?

Mechner: This is my first time drawing as well as writing. I’d done other graphic novels like Templar and Monte Cristo as a writer, working with artists. Drawing takes time. It was a challenging project because I had to structure three separate timelines, and also dig deep, because it’s my own story and my family’s story. I was drawing episodes that are very personal, stories about people I know very well. To draw 320 pages, five panels per page on average, it was more than 1,000 individual drawings. Even when I was really into it, it was a big week to draw three pages. It took two and a half, almost three years.

GamesBeat: How do you describe it to people, the kind of story it is? Especially in terms of what you think about how it ends. Do you feel like it has a happy ending? Or is it some other kind of ending?

Prince of Persia: Sands of Time had wall running.
Prince of Persia: Sands of Time had wall running.

Mechner: As a memoir of three generations, including the beginning and the end of two world wars–there’s no ending, really. Like life, it contains joy and grief and loss and renewal. All those things are linked together. There’s something that I personally find healing about looking at the bigger perspective. I’ve always enjoyed history. I’ve always enjoyed personal stories, biographies and memoirs. I feel like it gives distance and perspective to appreciate what we’re living in the present. And also to realize how short and precious these moments are with the people we love and the projects we’re excited about. These are moments in life that we should appreciate. Also, taking a longer perspective helps us take in stride the disappointments and the frustrations that come with life.

What my grandparents suffered and lost in being displaced by war, losing so much of their extended family in the Holocaust, was in a way–that has to be set against the fact that they were able to start again in a new country. They were able to see their children and grandchildren grow up. The fact that I was able to spend my childhood in New York with the Apple II computer playing Space Invaders and making video games, that’s kind of what we as parents do it for. We want our children to have a life where they can pursue their own creativity.

GamesBeat: My mother passed away recently at 90 years old. She came from the pre-WWII generation, and many of her family were interned in the camps with other Japanese-Americans during the war. But she and her mother, father, and sister went to Japan in 1941 and were stuck there for the length of the war. They took care of their relatives there for seven years, during the war and beyond.

So much of her life was spent just trying to survive. Their level of existence was survival. It made me appreciate, so many years later–they created a stable life for us. We were able to grow up with childhoods that none of them had. It was enlightening to me to think about how you can concern yourself with other fundamental things in the pyramid of life.

Mechner: I don’t know about you, but for me–maybe this is something that’s common to children of survivors, people who’ve been through war or something very difficult. I grew up with the sense that my own problems weren’t that important or that dramatic. That was actually something that blocked me from writing this memoir for a long time. Just thinking about how I could put my own life as a game developer next to what my dad and my grandparents survived in the war. It’s trivial. My problems aren’t dramatic. There’s no stakes. I’m just trying to make a video game. I put that in the book, a moment where I was talking to my brother. “Making video games is not exactly life or death.”

As you say, when you’re fighting to survive, you want your children to not have to worry about surviving. It’s such a blessing to grow up in a place where you’re safe. You’re not in danger. You’re able to pursue things that interest you, like I did with the Apple II.

GamesBeat: It’s nice to be able to see that through this. Only through a multi-generational story can you see that. There’s a progression for a family over time.

Jordan Mechner’s family survived two world wars.

Mechner: And there are also themes and motifs that repeat. Part of the reason I called the book Replay–partly it’s because of video games. You can replay episodes until you get it right. But also just that themes repeat through the generations. Even the motif of art. It wasn’t until I did this book that I fully realized what an important role art and drawing and painting had played in my family’s life. My daughter is an artist. My great-aunt was a painter in Paris until the Nazi rise to power cut that short.

My family was saved through art, because at the time that my great-aunt was an art student in Vienna in World War I, the young Adolf Hitler was also an aspiring artist. She got into art school, he didn’t, and he went into politics instead. But during the period when he was trying to make a living selling watercolors, he sold a series of views of Vienna to a frame shop where my dad’s uncle bought two of those watercolors. In 1938, after the Anschluss, when many families were trying to get out of Austria, he found these two watercolors in his basement, signed by Adolf Hitler. He was able to trade those paintings to an official for visas for himself and his family.

Seeing all this together over generations, up to the fact that I’m now writing and drawing this book–it made me aware of how much art has been a through line for generations of my family. And then of course there’s the art that we see on the screen in video games.

GamesBeat: I thought it was good that you came up with the organizational touch of using different colors for different (generational) stories. Did that strike you early on?

Mechner: I wanted a simple, clean, easy to read art style. I learned to draw by sketching from life. My sketches tend to be monochrome, pen and ink, with a very light sort of sepia ink wash. I wanted the graphic novel to have that very loose, drawn from life style. Also, because it’s a very dense, multi-layered narrative, I didn’t want it to be so heavy–I wanted to make it easy for the reader. To have the different color palettes for the three timelines – blue for my memories, sepia for my father and grandfather, and then yellow for the present day – I thought would help the reader always stay oriented in time. That worked.

There’s something about a minimalist art style that I really like. It’s funny. I didn’t think about it consciously, but the Apple II games, Karateka and Prince of Persia–the Apple II really only gave you two colors, plus blank and white. In Prince of Persia’s case it was blue and orange. For whatever reason the palettes in Replay are also two colors, plus black and white. That makes it readable.

GamesBeat: Did you feel like you put all of yourself and your story into it? Or did you feel like there were parts that you didn’t want to tell or didn’t want to share?

Mechner: That was probably the hardest part of doing Replay. It was the realization that for the book to work, I would have to reveal some of myself now. Things that I’ve struggled with. Some painful losses in recent years. I’m more comfortable writing about things that happened 80 years ago. Even the game development of the ‘80s, what’s in my journals–these are things I wrote when I was 20. There’s enough distance. But the recent stuff is hard.

I realized that I had to do that in order for the book to work. My father and grandfather’s stories involved some things that were so painful. They had been so candid about them. That’s not the case with many families that have been through these hard things. They don’t like to talk to the children and grandchildren at all about what happened. But my father and grandfather did. In order to have the right to tell their stories, I had to bring that same level of candor to telling my own.

GamesBeat: The divorce is one of those losses.

Replay is unique among gaming memoirs as a cross-generational story.

Mechner: And the loss of several dear friends. Some of whom–people who’ve read my journals will know. Seeing the stories next to each other kind of gives them all–it puts them all into perspective. Because that is life. Whatever situation we’re in, whatever time and place, we do lose people that we love. That’s universal. To see the big arc of a lifetime, and also of several lifetimes–I think we feel that it makes sense. We feel that it’s true and that it reflects human experience. It’s not necessary to invent or to put emphasis on something for a dramatic purpose. Just by simply telling what happened and letting the story find its own shape, the result feels satisfying and harmonious and true.

GamesBeat: You have your session on Karateka. Are you talking about the book there as well?

Mechner: I will. If nothing else, it’s a convenient source of illustrations of some of the things I’ll talk about. When I was a kid and I got my first Apple II, making my first games leading up to Karateka. The rotoscoping I did with my dad. My dad putting on a karate outfit to climb onto the hood of the family car, climbing up the cliff at the beginning of the game. I drew that in the graphic novel, so it’ll be a good illustration for the talk. And I’ll go straight from the Karateka talk to the GDC bookstore to sign the graphic novel.

GamesBeat: Is there more from the book that you think you’ll be sharing, given the limited time you have?

Mechner: It’s a classic game postmortem about Karateka. There’s so much to say about that, and I think that’s what people care about. I’ll spend the whole time talking about that. The graphic novel is really a separate thing. I hope that people who enjoy the talk will also be interested to see more of the family context, especially because my dad–if you played the making of Karateka, my dad is such a presence. He composed the music. He was the rotoscope model. But also, just the support for me, age 18 and 19–having my dad as a sounding board and a supporting influence is not something that all game developers had. I really appreciate that. For people who’ve seen the documentary and seen my dad talking, it might be interesting to see more of my dad’s life, see his childhood. 50 years before he composed the music for those games, he had bigger problems to worry about.

GamesBeat: Are there any figures in the book still living?

Mechner: My dad is 93 now. He’s in great health. He remembers everything. Part of the pleasure for me has been being able to share this book with him, and for him to enjoy the Digital Eclipse documentary. For him to see now, at age 93, that this work we did back then in 1983 has been remembered and is still enjoyed by a new generation of game developers, it must be satisfying to him.

It’s been a gift being able to do this book. It’s a great chance to just talk to my dad. Often by phone, because I wrote and drew a lot of the book during COVID, the lockdowns. I was in France, in Montpelier, and the rest of my family was in New York. It wasn’t really the time for travel. But I was able to call my dad a lot and ask questions about things I needed to know to be able to write the book. Often those specific questions, describing an event in more detail–often those conversations led to more philosophical conversations. He would talk more about how things felt. It all helped me to appreciate more about what it had been like.

GamesBeat: I went to Japan 30 years ago with my parents for the first time. My dad got an apology from the U.S. government and a $20,000 redress check, so he took the whole family to Japan. We went to my mom’s hometown and took a riverboat cruise. When my daughter was going to USC she finished her last semester in Japan, and I told her about what we’d done decades ago. She went and rode the same boat. When you can go back and forth like that, it almost feels like you’re time traveling.

Mechner: The Prince of Persia games always seem to be about time going in unexpected directions. Again, with the theme of Replay–it seems obvious now, but it didn’t even occur to me, when I decided to move to France for this video game project, that I was going in the opposite direction that my grandparents had gone, bringing their kids out of Europe to America.

Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown

I really recommend journaling as a practice. Many people that kept a journal at one time or another in their lives, for whatever reason–when I started in college, I just kept doing it. I still keep a journal. It’s brought so much to me, often at unexpected moments in my life. Reading a journal is like having a conversation with yourself in the past, or yourself in the future. It can be really useful. And also, for anybody engaged in a creative project, it’s great to have that sounding board and that record of the way our ideas evolved.

GamesBeat: Monte Cristo, is this the third graphic novel you’ve written?

Mechner: Monte Cristo is complete. Mario Alberti, the wonderful Italian illustrator, drew it. It’s a modern adaptation of the Alexander Dumas novel, the Count of Monte Cristo, but his story is in the Napoleonic era. This one is set in post-9/11 America, New York and Connecticut, the towns where I’m from. It’s the story of a young American contractor who’s sent to Iraq by his company, comes back, and everything is going great for him. He’s engaged to his high school sweetheart. He’s been promoted. Then three people who, for different reasons, see him as in the way, conspire to have him framed for terrorism and sent to an offshore prison without trial.

He disappears for 15 years and then comes back in the present day with a different name as a mysteriously wealthy oligarch of uncertain eastern European origin. Nobody knows exactly where his money comes from. But he’s the CEO of the Monte Cristo corporation. He uses his wealth and his cunning to charm, manipulate, and ultimately take terrible revenge on the three men who stole his youth. One of them is now a hedge fund billionaire. The other is a Congressman running for governor. The third is a deputy attorney general. They’ve all risen in the world, so they’re very difficult targets, but Monte Cristo is up to the task.

Dumas’ story of love and revenge and redemption–it’s such a classic because the themes are so universal. It was very specifically about the politics of his time and place, but it lends itself so well to the present day. We’re going to announce the Kickstarter for that next week. It’ll be one graphic novel – in France it was published in three volumes – about 210 pages long.

GamesBeat: When you do these graphic novels, do you think of it as an art form that’s fulfilling in itself, or do you also see them as opportunities for the next game, or something else?

Mechner: Transmedia, adapting works from one medium to another, is something that’s always interesting. Obviously Prince of Persia–I adapted it as a movie. I also adapted The Last Express as a screenplay, although that one didn’t get made. But I think each–games, movies, TV, and graphic novels, all of them are mediums that I love. There’s no need to adapt something to another medium. A wonderful video game or graphic novel doesn’t need to become a movie or TV series. Sometimes it just doesn’t lend itself. I don’t think Replay could be a video game. I wouldn’t want it to be. But I could see it as a limited TV series.

Again, every project is unique. To bring a project from one medium to another is really making it all over again. All of the elements need to be lined up in place. It’s a very delicate chemistry. It’s easy to make a game or a movie that doesn’t quite work. But when it does work, it’s wonderful. Every project has its own qualities.

GamesBeat: So it’s not as intentional as something like, say–Robert Kirkman’s company really specializes in starting with comics and then springboarding into other things.

Karateka
Karateka

Mechner: For them it’s a business model. As an author, as a creator, I don’t really have a business model. I just try to do the projects that I’m passionate about. Sometimes some ideas just need to be a game. Others need to be a graphic novel. When I get passionate about a project to the point where I want to spend the next year or two years or three years doing that, it’s hard to see beyond that. I’m just trying to make it work.

GamesBeat: Did you start with that notion that this would be your next graphic novel, or did you think it might be a book before it became a graphic novel?

Mechner: It was always going to be a graphic novel. I had the desire to draw these scenes. That was part of it. Prince of Persia, of course, began as a game. Going back to 1985, what I wanted to do with the gameplay and the animation and the modular puzzle platform levels was so integral to it. It couldn’t have been anything else. But again, The Sands of Time was a story I wrote specifically to be a video game, knowing that the gameplay was going to be a mix of parkour and combat and this button on the controller that could rewind time. The story, characters, dialogue, everything was built around that gameplay.

Adapting that story to a movie, knowing what a Bruckheimer Disney summer blockbuster was capable of–it would be an epic adventure traveling across Persia. It inspired a different kind of story that used elements of the Sands of Time game, but it was something very different.

GamesBeat: With Replay, and the way you’re bringing the story to life visually, how much do you feel like this is all strictly non-fiction? Did you feel any license to fictionalize any part of it? Especially things that you hadn’t seen. There are scenes where people tell you what happened, but you have to fill in the blanks.

Mechner: It was very important to me that Replay be as accurate as possible. Of course it’s a graphic novel. I’m drawing these things in cartoon form. It’s not a documentary. In a sense it’s a dramatization. I wasn’t there. I didn’t record the dialogue. I had to imagine what people might have said. But I interviewed my dad. I asked him a lot of questions. And I also did my own research.

He remembers things from the point of view of being eight years old at the time. I had to do more research to understand the context, and to look at old newsreel footage and photographs to see what places looked like. I traveled to the towns he experienced as a child refugee in France and talked to local historians. I tried to get as much documentation as I could to understand how it had been.

Because my dad has an incredible memory, time after time what I found confirmed that his recollections were right. One example was this Luftwaffe pilot, Willy, that he remembered being friends with in 1940. That was a story that always struck me, that a small Jewish boy, a refugee in occupied France, could be friends with a Luftwaffe pilot. But he told me about how this pilot was a regular customer at the tobacco store where his aunt worked behind the counter. They would go for walks and talk about things. And then one day the pilot didn’t come back. They realized his plane had been shot down. Of course he was hoping that Germany would lose the war and he could be reunited with his friends and his parents, but he wasn’t rooting for his friend to be shot down. You had some of the pain of war and conflict there.

My dad had told me this story, but because I had to draw this man as a character, I asked him, “What was his rank? What did his uniform look like?” I didn’t know if it would be possible to find out those details. But I found a historian online, a Danish historian who specialized in the stories of the Luftwaffe. I told him all the details that my dad had been able to remember, and amazingly, he found Willy. He found his military identification with his full name, the town where he’d come from, and the circumstances when his plane was shot down. It all matched my dad’s recollections. There was only one pilot who was stationed in that place at the right time. When I told my dad he was really moved, not just to learn these details about someone he remembered from 80 years before, but also to have this confirmation that his childhood memories were true.

The original Karateka

But no, in Replay I didn’t make up any events. I didn’t change the roles or the personalities of any characters. I didn’t hype things up for dramatic effect the way you can in a movie. Of course there’s compression, where in real life we’d talk about something over a period of weeks – sometimes on the phone, sometimes via email – and in the graphic novel it becomes one conversation with two people in a room. That kind of streamlining. But the content around what happened and the points of view that people bring to it, I wanted to stick to the truth as best I could determine it.

Ultimately we can’t truly tell the stories of the past. Even if we’d been there and recorded it with a video camera, there would still be questions. We can only tell the story of what we’ve been told. We can tell the story of ourselves living and hearing these stories, the impact that has on us.

GamesBeat: It’s always beautiful when the truth is a great story by itself.

Mechner: The challenge is to find that story and shape it. What to include and what to leave out. In a way, not having the right to invent simplifies things. It’s there. It’s true. You just have to find a way to tell it.

I’ve spent my life telling stories and creating fictions. I really enjoy that. This was a different kind of challenge. The storytelling challenge is similar in a way, but the fact that the events are real made it a very different kind of experience. But I really enjoyed it. It brought me a lot. Being able to spend the time–I was excited to get up every morning and go to the atelier and draw more panels. It gave me a real satisfaction to try to bring these scenes and episodes alive in my imagination so I could draw them. And even to revisit scenes of my own life, like drawing the attic at Broderbund with my Apple II computer, where we were making games. I enjoyed doing the research and drawing it.

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