Jordan Mechner's second act

Prince of Persia creator resurfaces...on PBS? Documentary on chapter in LA's history latest work from celebrated game maker.


Game industry greats seldom stray too far from the business that made them famous. Sid Meier? Somewhere in Virginia building another game. Shigeru Miyamoto? Tending his Kyoto garden, sure, but still the lead voice of the creative camp at Nintendo. Will Wright? Building yet another complex digital dollhouse.

And then there is Jordan Mechner.

The diminutive game creator has slipped in and out of the video game limelight ever since his 1986 game Karateka. His hiatus after that game was broken by a return in 1989 with the original PC version of Prince of Persia, then in 1997 with The Last Express, and then again, most notably, in 2003 with Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.

But then he was gone again.

Tonight, starting in his new hometown of Los Angeles, Mechner makes a subtle return, but in a form unrelated to games.

Begun during the final months of production on The Sands of Time, a film documenting the rise and fall of a Los Angeles neighborhood known as Chavez Ravine was being helmed by Mechner.

The film, Chavez Ravine: A Los Angeles Story, documents events leading up to the destruction of an enclave of Mexican families prompted first by the city's intent to build public housing units on the cleared property. But what eventually happens to the land--its sale to Los Angeles Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley and its eventual conversion to what would become home to Dodger Stadium--forms the basis of the short film.

The PBS and ITVS Web sites both have detailed descriptions of the history of Chavez Ravine (including airtimes for the film, which kicked off on LA's PBS affiliate, KCET), but only GameSpot has an interview with Mechner.

GameSpot: Certainly, this a very personal story, the one the former Chavez Ravine residents tell. How were you drawn in to the Chavez Ravine story?

Jordan Mechner: I discovered Don Normark's book (Chavez Ravine: A Los Angeles Story, Chronicle Books) shortly after moving to Los Angeles in 2000. As a New Yorker, I knew that the Brooklyn Dodgers had ended up in LA, but I had no idea of the story behind it. I thought Don's photographs of the vanished neighborhood were amazing and evocative, and it was actually his idea to make a film on the subject.

GS: How much of a personal investment, yours, is behind the telling of this history? Or was it just a bit of LA history worth uncovering and nothing more?

JM: I think the experience of going back to the places of our childhood and finding that they no longer exist, or at least that they no longer exist in the way we remember, is fairly universal. I saw the Chavez Ravine story as a chance to tap into that emotion with a specific instance that is unusually dramatic. I mean, my hometown is pretty much changed beyond recognition too, but they didn't raze it to the ground and build a stadium.

GS: Where does this film stand in your filmmaking career? The first? Second? One of many? Those of us in the game industry know little of your filmmaking skills.

JM: I've always been interested in filmmaking, as you can guess from my early games like Karateka, which was basically an attempt to take silent film language, crosscutting, and visual storytelling and so forth, and apply it to a computer game. I made just one other short film before Chavez Ravine, Waiting for Dark, filmed in Havana, Cuba. It did pretty well on the international festival circuit but hasn't been shown on TV in this country.

GS: Any way to compare the feeling of accomplishment that comes at the end of making a short film to that of completing an epic game?

JM: Chavez Ravine took as long as a video game (two and a half years), but it wasn't nearly as intense. Everyone involved, including me, had to fit it in alongside their real, paying jobs (which, in my case, was Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time). By comparison, a feature film shoot is as intense as a video game production...only most of the effort is concentrated into a period of months, not years. The combination of intense effort and marathon endurance that is characteristic of video game productions is pretty rare in filmmaking. Maybe you'd find it on a TV series or an unusually ambitious film, like James Cameron's Titanic.

GS: Some people lament the absence of depth, the lack of educational value, and just plain superficiality of games, as opposed to the mark of intellectualism that is often affixed to filmmaking, especially documentary filmmaking. Do you see any future where the two creations can coexist, can share the same audience, or have any traction with each other?

JM: Sure, I'm hoping a lot of GameSpot readers will read this and tune in to PBS tonight. Actually, I think games are a fantastic vehicle for conveying information and immersing players in a realistic re-creation of another time and place. You can be historically accurate in a military war game or a period adventure game, like The Last Express, in ways you can't in a two-hour movie. Assuming game makers care and take the trouble to do that.

GS: Are there other Los Angeles stories waiting to be told? Do you plan on being the one to tell them?

JM: There are 8 million stories in the naked city, but my current film project has me back in 9th century Persia.

GS: Ah yes, the Bruckheimer movie adaptation of Prince of Persia. What's the status of that project?

JM: It's being produced by Jerry Bruckheimer for Walt Disney Pictures; John August and I are executive-producing with Chad Oman and Mike Stenson (the team responsible for the Pirates of the Caribbean movies); and I'm writing the screenplay. John and I also have a TV pilot at Fox about two guys who start their own private military company. That's "international security" or "mercenaries" depending on your point of view.

GS: Have you forgone game making for good?

JM: I'm also collaborating on a graphic novel project. So, no time to do a new video game this year.

GS: Thanks, Jordan.

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