Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Replaying the Survival Game

A new graphic novel by game designer Jordan Mechner layers one man’s search for personal connection and redemption against the background of his father’s childhood as a Jewish refugee in Vichy France and his grandfather’s survival of the destruction of the Austro-Hungarian Empire

Raz Greenberg
May 22, 2024
A panel from ‘Replay’

Jordan Mechner/First Second

A panel from ‘Replay’

Jordan Mechner/First Second

Despite regularly appearing on critics’ lists of Best Games You Never Played, the 1997 computer game The Last Express remains a hidden gem in designer Jordan Mechner’s career. The game’s protagonist, Robert Cath, is an American physician and a fugitive from British law, who accepts his friend’s invitation to join him on the Orient Express train ride to Constantinople. After boarding the train, Cath discovers his friend was brutally murdered. As he starts investigating, he finds himself deep within a web of conspiracies, all leading to the storm that is about to sink Europe in fire and blood with the outbreak of World War I.

One particularly memorable scene in the game struck me while playing: Toward the end of the game, after revealing to Anna—the mystery woman who Cath both suspects and falls for—that she was nothing more than a pawn in a bigger German-Austrian scheme to drag the continent into violence, he confronts her about her actions. Anna insists that she was serving her country, Austria.

“What country?” Cath asks. “You’re Jewish; you speak German; you come from Hungary. What is your country?”

When I played the The Last Express, I realized that, after many years of being a gamer, this was the first game I played that featured a Jewish character, and an impressive character at that: a tragic figure, determined to prove her loyalty to her homeland, even if her homeland does not deserve her loyalty.

I was reminded of Anna’s character when reading Mechner’s new graphic memoir, Replay, which interweaves his own biography as a successful game designer with the story of the hardships his family went through in Europe during both world wars. In one of the book’s chapters, Mechner’s grandfather attempts to apply for a visa to the United States following Austria’s annexation to Nazi Germany. To his great frustration, he discovers that his application is very likely to be rejected, since the town he was born in, which was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is now Romanian territory. The United States had limited quotas for Jewish immigrants from Austria in 1938; it had even smaller quotas for Romanian Jews. Beyond the immediate danger to himself and his family, Mechner’s grandfather—like Anna in The Last Express—discovers that nationalities and loyalties can be fragile things, but his Jewish identity will always remain.

But is the same also true of Jordan Mechner? This seems to be the big question that Replay asks. The core plot of the graphic memoir follows him, an American man in his mid-40s, who plans to move to France when he is offered work on a new entry in his hit game franchise Prince of Persia. The move is met with an unenthusiastic response by both Mechner’s wife, Whitney, and his estranged son and daughter. As he struggles to get the game off the ground, save his failing marriage, and reconnect with his children, Mechner is also busy trying to document his father’s story of survival during World War II for an online website.

Contrasting the lives of Jewish authors with their Holocaust-surviving parents in comics form is nothing new, of course—from Art Spiegelman’s Maus to Michel Kichka’s The Second Generation. Previous graphic memoirs on the subject, however, tended to emphasize the great, unbridgeable generation gap between Holocaust survivors and their children. Mechner, on the other hand, is eager to show parallels between his father’s experiences and his own.

Jordan Mechner/First Second

The memoir’s narrative jumps without warning between different periods—the present, when Jordan moves to France, his memories from his childhood, college and early days as a young game designer, his father’s childhood as a refugee in Vichy France and his grandfather’s experiences as a soldier in the trenches of World War I.

Yet, there are always links between Mechner’s life and his family’s past. Mechner’s life as a game designer in France are, of course, nothing like his father’s constant moving from town to town in an attempt to avoid the German occupation forces. Nevertheless, there are similarities between his father’s and his family’s (and indeed, the whole Jewish community in Vichy) attempts at maintaining something that resembles normal life to Mechner’s own attempts to do the same while facing one crisis after another in his personal life.

Moreover, reading Replay shows how Mechner has undoubtedly inherited a lot of his father’s personal characteristics and traits, chief among them his creativity. Mechner’s father’s talent for drawing was more than mere means of escapism during the hard years of his attempts to survive in Vichy; it is a reflection of a very Jewish ability to observe and capture ever-changing surroundings in order to learn how to survive in them. In several instances, this skill favorably impresses both Jews and non-Jews—which also contributes to his survival.

It is perhaps more than symbolic that while Replay is not the first work of graphic storytelling Mechner was involved in, it is the first to feature his own drawing, showing that like his father, he is a highly skilled artist. An admirer of artist and scholar Scott McCloud, Mechner uses what McCloud described as “the masking effect”—characters drawn in a simple, cartoony manner against backdrops drawn in realistic high detail—with great skill. He draws himself and the characters that surround him as expressive and easy to identify with, while his background drawings feature impressive realistic recreation of both current and well-researched historical sites. Mechner’s use of colors is also notable, with present-day scenes featuring him and his family usually painted in bright, sunny colors, whereas stories of his father and grandfather are usually portrayed in darker, more serious colors.

Jordan Mechner/First Second

Replay also shows how the voyages throughout Europe and all over France that Mechner’s father was forced to go through as a refugee turned into something of a chronic wanderlust. His father considers his heritage to be Viennese, but he spent a large part of his childhood in France, first in Paris and then in Vichy territory (and, in one of Replay‘s bittersweet scenes, his father is mocked by kids from one of the Vichy regions—not for being Jewish, but rather for having a “Parisian” attitude).

Mechner, an American, moves to France, which his father had to escape—not because of a threat to his life, but because he hopes to start over, and to overcome his personal and professional hardships. Like his father, he is quick to fit in wherever he goes, And like his father, he is eager for more: At one point, he tells his father of his plans to visit Iran and see the real Persia—of which he presented a fairy-tale version of in his Prince of Persia franchise. His father, alarmed, reminds Mechner of the potential dangers that await a Jewish traveler, especially one who achieved some measure of publicity, in a country like Iran. Mechner assures his father that it will not be a problem. He may have inherited the talents that guided his father and helped him survive, but he did so outside the life-or-death context that made his father develop them.

In the context of gaming, the title of Replay refers to something that does not exist: As Mechner’s French colleague reminds him early in the story, when Mechner questions the choices he made in life, life is not a game in which one can go back and “replay” his choices. But the title also refers to the manner in which Mechner “replays” his family’s past as well as his own, coming to terms with both in a way that makes him appreciate his heritage, as evident in one of the later chapters when he holds a festive Passover Seder for both his Jewish and gentile friends. It is this ongoing, and eventually successful, quest for identity, leading from the Jewish past to the present, that makes Replay a milestone in graphic Jewish literature.

Raz Greenberg, an animation researcher, is the author of Hayao Miyazaki: Exploring the Early Work of Japan’s Greatest Animator.