In Why I Love, PC Gamer writers pick an aspect of PC gaming that they love and write about why it's brilliant. Today, Tom behaves himself for once in his virtual life in the opulent carriages of The Last Express.
Most story-driven games are all about the player. They're lovely narcissistic adventure playgrounds populated by supportive digital chums. Even that captain in Call of Duty who shouts at you is only doing it to make you feel powerful and important, and when you blow up the thing or kill the right man he'll shout something nice like “GOOD JOB MASON” or “OOARGH” because, y'know, you're the hero.
I love The Last Express because my fellow passengers don't give a damn I'm there. They tolerate me politely as I go up and down corridors knocking on every door and trying every handle. They keep their own times and schedules that have nothing to do with me. It's the only game I've played where I've sat in the corner and just watched people go about their business.
The dining car is the best place for this. The Orient express is full of interesting sorts, and while the rotoscoped figures initially seem primitive, they're more expressive than most NPCs you can hope to meet. In just a few frames they capture tiny humanising gestures that most games wouldn't bother to animate. A couple of women at lunch glance up and smile politely as I pass, then return to their conversation. Another passenger reading in her cabin tries to ignore me standing there for a while, before looking up meaningfully. The look says “your persistence has forced me to notice you and now this is weird”.
It might sound like I spent my entire time with The Last Express staring awkwardly at strangers, but that's not the whole truth, because after a while I stopped, and started observing my fellow passengers in short socially acceptable bursts instead. The cast of The Last Express tamed my videogame protaganist instinct to fuck with everything relentlessly until something breaks or explodes, all with a series of small but potent social cues. Proper manners are a powerful behaviour modifier.
Let's talk about the very best moment in The Last Express, and this isn't a spoiler, it happens regularly as you explore the carriages. Sometimes a guard or a passenger is going the other way, and there comes a point where they have to squeeze past you. There's the fleeting apologetic moment of eye contact before the necessary invasion of your personal space commences, a nod that says “I'm going in”, and then the waltz itself as you circle, bellies sucked in.
It's such a human moment, I'm amazed that more games don't use manners and social awkwardness to make their characters more relatable. I'm used to NPCs emoting with the grandiose gestures of a stage actor. The Last Express shows that it's the small things that make a character relatable, even if they're animated at two frames a second.