Book Review: The Making of Prince of Persia

As a rule, autobiographies are horrid.

People should not be trusted with writing their own legacy. Certainly, not after they’ve aged into has-beens reminiscing on the glories of their youth. [1]

Jordan Mechner’s The Making of Prince of Persia avoids this trap by being written in real time. It is not a polished accounting, but merely his diary from the time he spent working on Prince of Persia, starting with his college graduation, and concluding 4 years later.

It’s also flat out the best biography I’ve ever read. I started at 10pm last night, stayed up until 2am to finish it, then until 4am to play Prince of Persia on an emulator, went to bed, woke up, and then immediately read the book a second time to write this review.

Least I sound like a rube for lionizing a video game designer’s diary, I promise I have read the “good” biographies too. Under lockdown alone, I’ve gotten through The Power Broker (Pulitzer), Isaacson on DaVinci (#1 NYT) and American Prometheus (Pulitzer). With apologies to Kevin Kwok, they are all drastically inferior.


Mechner begins the saga as an unlikely hero. He already made a best selling video game in college, but is now filled with doubt, living with his parents, and trying to write a screenplay. He writes incessantly about how the games business is “dying up”. How the Apple II is a “dying format”. How “nobody knows how long the games market will be around”. He’s like a self-destructive Jeff Bezos, fully prescient, but choosing to pursuing the worst possible market at the worst possible time. The fact that Mechner turns out to be deeply wrong about all this does nothing to diminish the death knell-quality of this whole project. It’s not a career. It’s a dying shriek fading into darkness.

It’s not so much romantic as absurd. In the course of making Prince of Persia, Mechner:

  • Takes 6 months off to write a screenplay.
  • Drives out to Skywalker Ranch, meets George Lucas, fails to get his script acquired.
  • Applies to NYU film school, gets rejected.

It would be crazy enough if this was a backwater origin story, but it’s happening in parallel with all of his greatest technical accomplishments. It’s like if Brian Armstrong took a year off from founding Coinbase to pursue acting, while Coinbase was already taking off.

Even once the game finally ships, Mechner worries it will flop, and continues to mope around. A full year after initial release, Mechner is at NYU. He’s already been rejected, but he’s hoping he can hang out around film students and learn something anyway. So it’s September 1990 and he’s playing gofer on a student film set fetching coffee. Meanwhile, Prince of Persia will go on to sell 2 million units and receive praise as “the first cinematic platformer” and “one of the greatest video games of all time”.

The whole time, Mechner is aware that he’s strangling the golden goose. This is how he operates:

I have no excuse for slacking off. As Adam Derman once told me in a letter (about Karateka): “You dumb shit. You’ve dug your way deep into an active gold mine and are holding off from digging the last two feet because you’re too dumb to appreciate what you’ve got and too lazy to finish what you’ve started.

There could be a certain delight in watching Mechner stumble about. We might, as readers, indulge in the secret knowledge that he will succeed, and take a kind of perverse joy in knowing that all his struggles will pay off in the end. But the weird thing is, Mechner already seems to be experiencing that same effect in real time. In some episodes, he doesn’t take his game seriously and flies off to LA for weeks to meet with agents. And then he’ll come back and say “this will be one of the greatest video games of all time”. Or a few pages later: “This is going to be the greatest game of all time.” And later: “There’s no other game that even remotely approaches this.”

It’s not quite a mantra, but it’s not arrogance either. He’s just manic-depressive. As he writes only shortly afterwards: “Have I ever had what it takes? Am I losing it? Give me a signal; show me a sign. Where’s the meaning in all this? Nobody cares about the fucking game, not even me. Why am I doing this?”


In the past couple months, I’ve been writing about innovation from an organizational level, asking what kinds of structures allow breakthroughs to happen. The Making of Prince of Persia casts serious doubt on that entire agenda. It doesn’t seem to matter one bit what structures exist around Mechner. He is a force of nature. A host unto himself. As long as he has his Apple II, a surge suppressor and his notebook, he can design this game.

The book is deeply solipsistic, as most diaries are. When other people are mentioned, it’s mostly because they’re getting in the way: “It’s not that I insist on doing everything my own way. I’m always hoping someone else will come up with something better than I would have done myself. But when they don’t…?”

He does work at an office, and there are people who technically employ him, but they’re in the background, irrelevant if not annoying. Eventually he has to hire more programmers to work on ports for other systems. Some of them are competent, others less so: “Jim’s work is dismayingly bad. I’m not sure he’s saved us any time at all. I’ve got no choice but to redo it.”

At one point Mechner is assigned a new product manager, and seems to like him: “The meeting erased any doubts I might have had about Brian’s effectiveness as a product manager. This is what I needed all along: someone to push me.” This is fine, but Brian’s role in the rest of the book seems limited to helping Mechner avoid contact with other people: “Another nightmare is the box copy. The art department’s new draft sucks. I asked Brian if he could throw a fit and insist they use my draft? He seemed willing to try.” and “Prince has no better champion than Brian. He’s been fighting for a year. He’s powerless, that’s all.”

I don’t know if innovation tends to happen in isolation, but Mechner certainly makes the case that it can.


The other horrid aspect of autobiographies is the vicariousness of it all. You read about someone’s success. You hear about their life. You’re never really there.

The Making of Prince of Persia avoids this trap too. It’s not that we get unusually close to the action, so much as Mechner gets unusually far away from himself. As he writes on June 13, 1989, a few months before the release of Prince of Persia:

Everyone has their own particular form of self-destruction. Mine, I’m starting to think, is standing outside myself, watching myself live my life, turning my face so as to give the cameras a better angle, and thus missing the whole thing.

The book, again, is fantastic. I read it on Kindle, but the physical Stripe Press copy has nice illustrations. You can watch some behind the scenes shots on Youtube, read the source code on Github, or play the game online in MS DOS emulators.

Jordan Mechner, 1898. From the author’s website.


Endnotes
[1] Richard Feynman is honored for his Nobel Prize in Physics, but he’s famous for Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! As fellow Nobel winner Murray Gell-Mann repeatedly grumbled, the stories were only interesting because Feynman “spent a huge amount of energy generating anecdotes about himself.

My Fantasy Intellectual Draft Picks

Sorry for yet another low-effort post. I’ve been working on 30 pages on Very Serious Writing in the background, which I hope is ready to share soon. If you’re especially eager for more content, email me and I’ll be happy to share a draft.

In the meantime, I’m shocked and excited to have been selected as part of the Fantasy Intellectual Draft.

Here is the announcement post, and here is a site where you can view the current scores. This runs from now through June 30th.

As a participant, I’m not supposed to complete, but I’m going to anyway. The rules are:

  • You must pick thinkers in different “positions” as described here
  • Points are awarded based on Bets, Steelmanning and Memes as described here

Since I did not get to participate in the actual draft, my self-imposed rules are:

  • You can only pick one intellectual from each section of 10-ranks (i.e. one from ranks 1-10, one from ranks 11-20, etc)
  • You can substitute any pick for any other pick at a lower rank
  • I’ll accept the scores listed on this site
  • As I understand it, Utility means it can be filled by anyone
  • You cannot pick yourself or your friends
  • You can’t self-sabotage to gain points over the team that drafted you

If you would like to participate in this informal draft, I suggest doing so quickly before scores start coming out and you can gain advantage.

Because the picks were already conducted by the actual teams, this is already a bit unfair. I also did not have to “reserve” intellectuals and knew the rankings ahead of time. To balance things out, 5 of my picks will be conducted at random.

Okay, here are my non-random picks:

  1. Scott Alexander (4, blogger)
  2. Donald Trump (27, business)
  3. Julia Galef (29, podcaster)
  4. Ezra Klein (36, columnist)
  5. Nate Silver (55, utility)
  6. Vitalik Buterin (81, utility)
  7. Agnes Callard (105, academic non-economist)
  8. Zvi Mowshowitz (106, utility)
  9. Zeynep Tufekci (109, academic non-economist)
  10. Tanner Greer (118, utility)

I am picking many rationalists and rationalist-adjacent people. Tyler Cowen might accuse me of mood afiliation, but I am merely playing the meta-game. Rationalists are much more excited about steelmanning and bets than pretty much any other group of people.

That leaves 4 academic economists, 2 academic non-economists, one think tank person and another utility. The slots to fill are the 40s, 110s, 120s, 130s and 140s. I could have gotten a 60th-rank and 70th-rank intellectual, but I used up those spots on Zvi and Zeynep.

My “random” picks will be the first person from the appropriate tier who fulfils an open position. They are:

  1. Scott Sumner (41, academic economist)
  2. Peggy Noonan (111, utility)
  3. Michael Levine (125, academic non-economist)
  4. Christopher Balding (133, academic economist)
  5. Todd Zywicki (143, academic economist)

Additionally, as a thanks to The Definite Optimists for drafting me, here are a few free points:

  *   I predict with 20% confidence that my picks will win the FIT
  *   I predict with 50% confidence that my picks will land in the top 3
  *   I predict with 80% confidence that my picks will land in the top 5

Maybe I don’t know the other intellectuals well enough and I’m being wildly overconfident, but this seems reasonably easy to win:

  • Scott Alexander will, as Kling describes it “be a monster in the S and B categories”
  • Trump will rack up a ton of meme points
  • Other rationalists (Julia, Zvi, Tanner) will dominate the Steelman category. I also expect “Scout Mindset” to show up a lot. Don’t underestimate the boost of going on a book tour.
  • Nate makes bets as his full time job.
  • I snuck Ezra in under columnist since he regularly contributes to the NYT, but I expect his sheer throughput as a podcaster to win many points.
  • Vitalik is a master of the steelman technique. As mentioned in his podcast with Julia Galef repeatedly: “trying to see the best arguments from both sides, like steel-manning people instead of straw manning people”, “You don’t even need me here at all, you can just do both sides of the conversation!”. Depending on how broadly you construe memes, expect to see Concave/Convex, Quadratic Funding and “Legitimacy” everywhere. The only downside is his relatively low output.
  • Agnes is a philosopher by trade and steelmans constantly.
  • I don’t know the random picks very well, but expect great things from Sumner and Balding.

Had she been available, I would have drafted Kelsey Piper. Under scoring criteria that included research summaries, I would have even more aggressively jumped on Scott Alexander, and eagerly drafted Emily Oster. I would have picked Bernie Sanders as well, his meme potential is underrated.

Some complaints about the rules:

  • Bloggers should be separate from podcasters, another spot should open for columnists and think tank people.
  • Journalists and op-ed writers should be separate positions.
  • Bets should only win points if they’re correct and lose points if they’re wrong, proportional to confidence.
  • You should have to pick at least 3 intellectuals for each point category.
  • To better balance the benefits of choosing wildly prolific intellectuals, there ought to be opportunities for negative points. I suggest strawmanning and tweeting (anything).
  • Balanced research surveys should win points, as should debunkings. Getting debunked by another author on the list should lose you a point. Admitting to a mistake wins you a point.
  • I don’t see the purpose of having 4 positions dedicated to academic economists.

May whoever programmatically generates a gigantic post of trivial bets win!

–––

Endnote

In one of the FIT-related posts, Kling mentions “three well-intentioned changes in higher education” that he believes have caused problems. These include GI-Bill driven expansion of college access, opening opportunities to women, and attempting to give Black Americans fair representation. He also notes:

In principle, all of these could have been handled without harm to intellectual culture. But I believe that indirectly and unintentionally they produced intellectual status inversion. I will have to spell out my argument in future posts. I predict that no matter how carefully I make the argument, these posts will be cancel-bait. I expect to be accused of being anti-democratic, misogynist, and racist.

I haven’t read any future posts, and I don’t know what his argument will be. But for the record, I am personally strongly in favor of opening opportunities to women and giving Black Americans fair representation.

I am against college entirely for the reasons laid out in Caplan’s The Case Against Education, but so long as college remains a fixture in the American socio-economic ladder, it could be open to everyone.

I don’t mean to set a precedent of decrying every view of every blogger I mention, but this is a particular case where the post is directly related to the FIT, and it seems worth mentioning. And I know, I’m not winning any points for steelmanning.

As long as I’m at it: I don’t agree with all the views of the people on my draft. That is not the point of this game.

A List of Very Bad Things

[trigger warning: everything]

What’s the point of any of this?

This is not for the purpose of cause prioritization. Unfortunately, the severity of a problem is not necessarily related to its tractability, especially for lay people looking to donate money or time. If that’s your interest, check out the 80,000 hours problem profiles.

This is also an explicitly short-termist list. There’s no mention of climate change or existential risks. There’s no mention of abstract causes like “failures of international cooperation”, even if these may be the “underlying cause”.

The point is:

  • Gain perspective to avoid being distracted by relatively minor heat-of-the-moment crises.
  • Provide a corrective against the optimistic Steven Pinker / Our World in Data style worldview
  • Motivate myself to work on problems that actually matter

There’s a bit of a tension here. I both believe in the severity of current problems, and the Against Empathy-style argument that we ought to avoid reasoning too much from passions in our attempts to alleviate suffering. Since most of my work is abstract and future-oriented, the severity of concrete and short-term problems forces me to more seriously justify this stance to myself. Maybe that’s a distraction, but I think it’s a worthwhile one.

But aren’t things getting better?

Our World in Data shows decreasing famine mortality, decreasing deaths from genocide, and decreasing deaths from armed conflict.

These are good trends, but they’re no guarantee. Things can always become arbitrarily bad.

There’s also a Omelas-style argument to be made here. The more technologically advanced and glorious human civilization becomes, the worse it is that we allow any level of tragedy to persist. As Scott Alexander put it: “It is glorious that we can create something like this. It is shameful that we did.”

The List

Uyghur genocide
Scale: ~1,000,000+ detained
Type: “Forced abortion, forced sterilization, forced birth control, rape (including gang rape), forced labor, torture, internment, brainwashing, organ harvesting, killings”

Famine in Yemen and Blockade of Yemen
Scale: 85,000 children dead of starvation, 2 million children acutely malnourished, estimated 50,000 new child deaths per year, adults unknown, 24,000,000 people “in need of humanitarian assistance”, 500,000 cases of cholera
Notes: “U.S. is regarded as an indirect partner for Saudi Arabia in the war and blockade on Yemen.”, “UK government has officially supported the Saudi-led coalition”

Rohingya genocide
Scale: 24,000+ dead, 18,000+ rapes, 116,000 beaten, 700,000 – 1,000,000+ refugees
Type: Ethnic and religious persecution, Genocide

COVID-19 pandemic
Scale: ~2,700,000 deaths. 126 million confirmed cases, 780 million estimated cases (October 2020)

Syrian civil war
Scale: 388,652–594,000 deaths, 117,388 civilian deaths, 7,600,000+ internally displaced, 5,116,097+ refugees
See also: Refugees of the Syrian civil war, European migrant crisis

Tigray War and Mai Kadra massacre
Scale: 1000 – 100,000 deaths, ~2,500,000 displaced
Type: Mass killing, Ethnic cleansing

Other
Sinicization of Tibet
Central African Republic Civil War
Democratic Republic of Congo Humanitarian Crisis

Long Lasting (> 10 years)
Crisis in Venezuela
Lord’s Resistance Army insurgency
Colombian conflict
War in Darfur
Papua conflict
Moro conflict
Arab–Israeli conflict
Mexican drug war
Kurdish rebellions in Turkey
Kivu conflict
Kashmir conflict

US Specific
Incarceration in the United States
Scale: 2,200,000 incarcerated, 4,751,400 on probation or parole

Opioid epidemic in the United States
Scale: 399,000 deaths

Intensive animal farming
Annual Scale: 9.2 billion chickens, 124 million pigs, 34 million cows, 3.8 billion finned fish, 43.1 billion shellfish, 23 billion bycatch deaths, 68 billion feed fish
Notes: Non-wikipedia source
See Also: Wild Animal Welfare

Human rights in the United States
Type:systemic racism,[15][16][17] weaker labor protections than most western countries,[18] imprisonment of debtors,[19] criminalization of homelessness and poverty,[20][21][22] invasion of its citizens’ privacy through mass surveillance programs,[23] police brutality,[24][25] police impunity and corruption,[26][27] incarceration of citizens for profit, mistreatment of prisoners, the highest number of juveniles in the prison system of any country, some of the longest prison sentences in the world, continued use of the death penalty despite its abolition in nearly all other western countries,[28] abuse of both legal and illegal immigrants[29][30][31] (including children),[32][33][34] the facilitation of state terrorism,[35] a health care system favoring profit via privatization over the wellbeing of citizens,[36][37] the lack of a universal health care program unlike most other developed countries,[38] one of the most expensive and worst-performing health care systems of any developed country,[39] continued support for foreign dictators (even when genocide has been committed),[40][41] forced disappearances, extraordinary renditions, extrajudicial detentions, the torture of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and black sites, and extrajudicial targeted killings (e.g. the Disposition Matrix).[23][42][43][44]
See also: Immigration detention in the United States, Human rights violations by the CIA

FAQ

You left out X / You shouldn’t include Y.
Feel free to let me know if I’m missing something, and I’ll consider adding it. The initial list was off the top of my head, so I am probably missing many things.

The (very rough) inclusion criteria is 100,000+ dead, or 1,000,000+ displaced, or an immediate threat of genoicide.

I would like to limit links to Wikipedia or Our World in Data.