16 Apr 2024

Replay — Jordan Mechner’s book

I finished reading Jordan Mechner’s graphic novel memoir in just three days… and I’m still thinking about it two weeks later.

I got kinda nervous after reading the 3-point summary on the back cover. The last of these talks about recent problems in the author’s marriage, and I felt this could be one of those “my version of events” books. Thankfully, it’s very much not that. It situates its author’s life into a bigger story across three generations of his family (well, mostly men in his family). There’s a huge backdrop of the two World Wars that pushes the book’s characters into difficult situations and decisions — from the east of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to California. The countries shift around as the family tries to move into safety across the globe.

Thanks to its view through several members of a single family, the book never loses focus on the humanity of its characters. They aren’t just people on the run from danger. They are always doing something — be it building relationships or creating art. This roots Mechner’s creative practice into something more than just processing his own life experience.

However, what stayed with me was his thinking about a person’s connection to their family history, the closest people, and also the things they own and the places they inhabit. All these provide a ground to stand on while creating bonds that make everything so much more complex and filled with tensions. There’s so much change, movement, meeting friends and family, but also feelings of being stuck and lonely. Mechner focuses on these tangled strings that power all stories, true or fictional. The book looks ever closer and sees the author getting just a bit more at peace with it all — or so I felt (or perhaps hoped) while reading it.

Jordan Mechner’s pen-and-ink drawing of him and his brother playing on Apple II in 1979

I discovered this memoir thanks to my connection to Mechner’s games, mainly the original Prince of Persia. Its DOS port was the first-ever game my uncle brought home — on the first 3.5” floppy he ever bought (yeah, our copy was pirated — I’m not sure there even was any official distribution here back then). We played it a lot when I was a kid, and we still have a lot of shared memories thanks to that. Seeing a broader context of its author’s life (even after reading his published diaries that unsurprisingly focus much more on his day-to-day thinking) makes me appreciate it all even more.

However, there’s much more resonance for me. The current world events are the obvious first layer — reading about wars in the book and hearing the very bad news from a few hundred kilometers away on the same day is so heavy and dark. At the same time, I currently role-play as a game dev, so my relationship with the story is deepened by that, too. But there’s one other thing that made it all very relatable.

Two full shelves of memories written on a typewriter

These stacks are my great-grandpa’s writings. He wrote a lot in the 90s — the ten years before his passing. He was born in 1914, and just 3 months later, his father went to the war. After serving in Vienna and Kraków, he was deployed as a sanitary officer at the Italian front. I remember his photo in a uniform on the wall above the typewriter. A large part of the book is based on Mechner’s grandfather’s memories he wrote down for his family. He’s pictured there in that same uniform, walking along a similar path as my great-grandpa’s father did.

I was fourteen when my great-grandpa died, and all these folders still remain unscanned and mostly unread. I moved them with me when moving to Prague and back. I started scanning them back in 2015, but I didn’t endure for long. Perhaps I’ll get back to them soon.