More than 20 years ago, Jordan Mechner sat down and tried to come up with a video game for software company Broderbund, something set in the Middle East. Eventually, he struck on the "Arabian Nights" stories, and put together a narrative about the adventures of a prince and princess that would become "Prince of Persia."
Since then, that little idea has grown in fits and starts into a collection of highly selling video games and a big-budget, Jerry Bruckheimer-produced movie, filming now. And in yet another incarnation, there's now a "Prince of Persia" graphic novel, written by A.B. Sina and published by First Second Books in September. It's a fitting evolution, as Mechner's first love was comics.
Mechner recently spoke with CBR News about his continuing interest in comics, the new "Prince of Persia" book and the many other directions that first game has taken him.
Interior artwork from "Prince of Persia"
Growing up, you were really into comics, right? What were some of your favorite books?
I grew up in New York and read a lot of comics. It was the '70s Marvel and "Mad Magazine." I was 12, and I don't think my parents knew what the "Harvard Lampoon" was. When my mom actually looked at it she was horrified. Then I read some of the European comics, like "Asterix" and "Tintin."
And you were an artist too, right? Was that something you thought about going into?
Disney animation was something I was really fascinated by and really aspired to. I didn't know whether I wanted to do cartoons or comics.
Up until I was 12 or 13 I had the reputation as the kid who could draw really well. I would do caricatures at the local community fair - that's actually how I made the money to buy my first Apple computer. But I just started drawing again for fun, just a few months ago. I like it; it's fun and it's frustrating. If I spend an hour sketching, it's a happy hour, no matter how it turns out. Writing and programming uses a different part of my brain. But with art I'm constantly coming up against my own limitations. I have the utmost respect for the professionals.
What was it that shifted your focus to video games?
Comics and video games have this connection now, but at the time it wasn't like this. I was 15 when the Apple 2 games came in. Before that, video games were coin operated. To be able to make my own game on the Apple 2 was awesome, and the best part was the potential to do something actually good enough to reach an audience. For comics or animation it would be years...video games were within reach.
Were there common elements between comics and video games, in your mind?
What really appealed to me about video games is, I saw it as a storytelling medium, to create characters people would want to play with, to draw them in. The process of drawing comics, the similarity is you have to start by imagining something. You have to have a big-picture dream, but to actually execute it comes down to a lot of small actions. You have to master a lot of small steps. It's creative and absorbing and satisfying in much the same way.
Looking back, are you surprised by the longevity of the "Prince of Persia" story and how many directions it's gone?
Back in 1988 when I was doing the first "Prince of Persia," I thought I was just making one game, and a big worry was that the Apple 2 was on the way out, and I'd be too late. The next generation of computers was coming in. So I was worried I'd spent the past three years making a game no one would ever play. And that nearly came true - a lot of stores wouldn't even carry the game. What saved it was the next stage in what started out as a garage industry. These other systems were coming up, and it was the versions for those systems that then hit and made "Prince of Persia" a commercial success. It's kind of like translating a book to another language and it's a hit then.I think a turning point to me was seeing the Super Nintendo version. I played it, and halfway through the first level I didn't know where I was. They not only translated the code, but they expanded it. I realized I couldn't beat my own game. It had gone beyond my own control.
What do you think fueled that and the continued success of the franchise through so many incarnations?
It turned out [that] the most innovative thing was not the code, but the character and the world. So it's kind of a paradox. If you took the story of "Prince of Persia" as a story, it's so simple it's almost generic. There's a prince, a princess and a villain. It's straight out of "1001 Nights." But what makes it "Prince of Persia" was really the details of the execution of the gameplay. The way characters are animated, the level design; the personality of the characters emerged through action. That was kind of the thing that went on. Even though the games have gone in so many directions, there's still some DNA that's still "Prince of Persia" in all of them.
How much involvement did you have with shaping the different games and other properties?
When I was talking to A.B. early on, we talked about how there were all these different versions, and he talked about open source programming. And the game, the movie, the graphic novel are all being done by different entities. It's not like I'm sitting on the top of a corporate structure running things. My involvement has been in particular projects. The first one, "Sands of Time," I wrote the story. So I think on every "Prince of Persia" I work on, of course, part of my job is to be true to what "Prince of Persia" is. Make it a good and worthy work in its own right. And the same with the movie. I wrote the screenplay for it. Part of the challenge of that was how to translate that as a movie while keeping the DNA and yet making it a fully satisfying movie.
But in between there are other "Prince of Persia" works I didn't write, some of which I really love. Part of the joy of this for me is so many talented, creative people are bringing their own vision to it.
Before being contacted by First Second, had you ever considered a "Prince of Persia" comic?
I went back recently when I was writing the afterword [to the graphic novel] and looked at the game story I wrote in 1985, and it actually reads like a comic book script. A lot of that didn't make it in. Actually, it's very similar to Disney's "Aladdin." I remember when "Aladdin" came out my jaw just dropped. It was so similar. I thought, "This is the end of the "Prince of Persia" franchise. There's no way to compete with Disney." Now, Disneys' making the "Prince of Persia" movie. There's some kind of destiny at work.
How did the connection with First Second come about?
When Mark [Siegel] called me, I was just focused on getting the "Prince of Persia" movie made. I wasn't thinking about comics at all. I think part of what really charmed me about Mark's approach was he was talking about the old game. He wasn't looking at a licensing opportunity. I thought, "OK, here's a chance to do something unexpected, something pure."
Had you kept up much interest in comics over the years?
After I sort of got into sucked into programming, there was probably about a decade I wasn't really keeping up. Then in the '90s, I got back into it and discovered "Love and Rockets," and European comics. I discovered all those great French artists. I was living in France, so that's how I found them. You walk into a big store there and they have a huge comics section. It's not a subculture the way it is here. It felt like every guy in their 20s or 30s had shelves full of these hardcover comics. I started reading all this stuff. It was a revelation. So those comics were a big inspiration.
So, because my taste in comics even now leans toward European, because Mark and First Second wanted to bring that type of a feel, I said "OK, I have to do this."
Why was it so important to you and the editors to take the book in such a fresh direction, as opposed to directly adapting the games or film?
I wanted the book to be different. My feeling is, if some fans of the game don't like the book, that's fine. The game still exists. And there's an Ubisoft game coming out, and I think game fans are going to love that. My hope for the graphic novel is, some game fans who don't usually read graphic novels, that because of "Prince of Persia" they might be curious, and a few of them [will] actually get interested in graphic novels if they weren't before. That's kind of my thinking.
Also, I wanted "Prince of Persia" to be innovative as a graphic novel, because it had been innovative as a game. You don't get that by directly translating it. I hoped A.B. would take the basic elements and just run with it, and he did. My role was to encourage him. He was actually more worried than I was. He'd say, "Is it really OK to go this far away from the game?" And I'd say, "Oh yeah." My role was basically an editor. The idea and characters and plot, that was all there. So I just said, "Yeah, write it."
Has the growth of the game over the years increased your interest in the Middle East?
I've always been fascinated by the Middle East, since I was a kid hearing "1001 Nights" stories. But through "Prince of Persia," the various projects, starting with "Sands of Time," that was when I first really went back and got what I would consider a solid grounding and read the original "1001 Nights" and "Book of Kings." I'm fascinated by that world, both the real history and the mythical aspects.
What are some of your favorite pages/panels of art from the graphic novel?
The skeleton attack jumps to mind. I thought that was awesome, and that's something that connects back to the first game in a fun way. But really my favorite is the Persian miniatures in the flashbacks. They really captured the style. That was among the earliest comics, in a sense. And it's really about storytelling, the past telling stories to the future. That's something you could only do that way, in a graphic novel.
How is the movie coming along?
Great. Shooting has begun in Morocco. They have a great cast. Mike Nolan's a great director. It's going to be on a spectacular scale.
Are you going to the set?
Absolutely, you think I'd miss that? And the game is going to be released in the holiday season, and that's looking really cool. It's kind of interesting, with the game and the movie and the graphic novel all hitting separately, but at around the same time. This is not something I could have foreseen 20 years ago!