9 myths about the Oregon Trail

March 16th, 2015 10:15 AM
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At a recent PAX East 2015 panel on empathy games, I asked: "Since empathy games are often based in reality, do developers of such games hold themselves to a higher standard in terms of being authentic — as opposed to a more fictional game world, which doesn't purport to represent a real-life situation?"

Perhaps it was unfair of me to suggest empathy games are alone in this higher standard, as games have been founded in reality for as long as there have been games. Oregon Trail was based on a 2,200-mile route travelled by 400,000 settlers in 1846–1869. No work of fiction, the game is the product of some serious research and was widely used in classrooms as an early form of edutainment.

But, like many grade-school history lessons, some of the details weren't quite right. Phil Edwards recently did some historical research of his own and determined 9 myths you learned from playing Oregon Trail. The article is a fun and fascinating read, with far more details than these succinct headlines:

  1. Not everyone used oxen. Some people used handcarts.
  2. Traveling at a "grueling" pace was less fun than it sounds
  3. You wouldn't have randomly forded a 40-foot-deep river
  4. You couldn't kill thousands of pounds of buffalo
  5. Dysentery was much, much worse than a punchline
  6. No one got a funny headstone with curse words when they died
  7. Native Americans didn't really want your sweaters
  8. The rafting trip at the end of the game was insane
  9. Starting out as a banker was even better than you realized

References to a rafting trip don't ring a bell for me, so I suspect the article is based on a version of the game that didn't appear on the Apple II — likely the 1990 MS-DOS edition. Still, it's fun to see where fiction diverges from fact.

But what if it went the other way, and instead of a game or book based on reality, we had reality based on a game? It'd probably end up looking like the Oregon Trail movie trailer (Oregon Trailer?), which I originally shared on this blog five (!) years ago:

Fortunately, fan films aren't the only media we have to rely on. Any armchair historian can learn more about this unique expansion of early American settlements in The California and Oregon trail, a 1901 book by Trail veteran Francis Parkman.

Or you can just play the game.

(Hat tip to Inside.com via VideoGames)

Trekking the Orion Trail

February 16th, 2015 10:20 AM
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I could do an entire blog — not just a blog post, but a blog — on the many Kickstarter campaigns influenced by the 8-bit era of computers. We've seen the return of games, franchises, and styles such as Maniac Mansion, Ultima, Shadowgate, Leisure Suit Larry, Wasteland, and interactive fiction; documentaries on Sierra On-Line and the 6502; and concerts including 8 bit Weapon's.

Oregon Trail alone has prompted several Kickstarters, from the successful Organ Trail to the failed Dead Man's Trail. The latest game likely to join the camp of successful projects is Orion Trail, which combines the gameplay of Oregon Trail with the humor of Space Quest and Galaxy Quest.

The best Kickstarters are those that come to the table with not just a concept, but a prototype — and Orion Trail delivers. If you have the Unity browser plugin installed, you can play an early version of Orion Trail today. I went a few rounds and enjoyed the graphics and humor, but I was demoralized by some of the scenarios my crew encountered. Whether I was being boarded by aliens, encountering space merchants, analyzing an asteroid, or attacking a doomsday machine, I always had three choices, and each seemed equally likely to produce a satisfying solution. No matter my choice, the game spun a random number wheel that somehow determined the result. Perhaps it was this peek at the game's inner workings, but I didn't feet like it mattered what choice I made.

On the bright side, you'll notice some obvious homages to classic computing. "The music was made with the SID emulation engine on an Elektron Monomachine," says the project page. "You'll recognize the SID's distinctive sound from your fondest memories of gaming on a C64 back in the day." Wrong computer for the Apple II community, but admirable nonetheless!

Developer Schell Games looks to release Orion Trail for Mac, Windows, and Linux in December 2015. The game has been Greenlit on Steam, which means when and if Orion Trail is published, it has been approved for distribution on the Steam game platform. Early Access will occur around August.

Before all that happens, the project must obtain a minimum of $90,000 in crowdfunding by March 12. It's currently a third of the way there, which bodes well: in Kickstarter's history, 79% of projects that raised more than 20% of their goal were successfully funded. It's likely we will all be making a star trek along the Orion Trail later this year.

Orion Trail

I have died.

UPDATE (13-Mar-15): This crowdfunding campaign successfully concluded with $97,801 — 108% of the minimum.

(Hat tip to Jenna Hoffstein)

Oregon Trail Live

November 10th, 2014 9:42 AM
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At KansasFest 2014, I brought a text adventure to life, courtesy Parsely. It was an interactive, real-world, technology-free experience based on Apple II games of the 1970s — and it wasn't the first or only such game to get such a treatment.

Oregon Trail, that classic edutainment title of frontier survival, has since 2012 been leaping off the screen to educate us about the hardship of early America. Adapted by Kelly Williams Brown, Oregon Trail Live is played not in schools, but by visitors to the Willamette Heritage Center of Salem, Oregon. Emily Grosvenor writes for The Atlantic:

Oregon Trail LiveOn the trail, as in the game, if you killed a bison, you could only carry 200 pounds of meat with you. In the live-action game, participants face the task of pushing 200 pounds of meat up a hill—in this case, a 200 pound man in a wagon regaling the crowd with meat facts. In our case, it was a local butcher dressed like a cow, who later tested us on the names of cuts of a side of beef.

At every turn the live action game converts the computerized saga into a real life obstacle. Die on the real trail—and 50 percent of travelers did in the trail's first years—and you're good ole dead. Perish in the computer game—of dysentery, cannibalism, drowning, cholera, typhoid, measles, or snakebite—and you get to see your own epitaph. Kick it in the live—action game and your friends must compose a dirge to sing at your funeral.

Grosvenor's additional photos from the event make it look like a ton of fun, with players creating characters, inhabiting roles, and working toward a common goal. Although she doesn't use the term, this take on Oregon Trail could be considered a LARP — a Live-Action Role-Playing Game. LARPs are normally associate with Dungeons & Dragons-style settings, as most humorously demonstrated in the film Knights of Badassdom, but it's not a stretch to see similar characteristics manifesting itself in Oregon Trail. What's next — a reality TV series, equipping contestants with little more than a covered wagon and some mules with which to survive a cross-country trek?

Grosvenor's coverage is of the most recent Oregon Trail Live, an annual event, with the fourth OTL to be held Saturday, September 19, 2015. Can't wait until then? Other Oregon Trail adaptations abound, including a trailer for a feature-length movie. Sadly, a full movie was never intended to be completed, but The Homesman, opening in theaters November 14 and starring Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones, looks to come close to the idea:

(Hat tip to Christopher Curley)

The evolution of classroom tech

June 9th, 2014 8:53 AM
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The Apple II long had a role in education, with a library of edutainment software that included Oregon Trail, Number Munchers, and Scholastic Microzine. So it's only fitting that it features prominently in the first decade of the Washington Post's reflection on the evolution of classroom technology:

From the article:

1977
The Apple II computer—in all its gray boxiness—was introduced. Aggressive marketing and volume discounts made it popular in schools. The landmark, garage-built computers, which retailed for $1,295, were the first Apples to use full color graphics—for a simple reason: Designer Steve Wozniak wanted to be able to play Breakout on the machine, and that original game ran in color.

1985–87
The mid-‘80s ushered in an era of educational computer games. Oregon Trail taught kids about the harsh realities of life as a 19th century pioneer, dysentery and all (and it’s still around today, though children of the ’80s and ’90s would hardly recognize it). Mavis Beacon taught typing—fast. Carmen Sandiego tried to pique kids’ interest in geography. And Number Munchers aimed to get children excited about multiplication and division.

From the video, you might think the Apple II was obsolete by the time the 1990s rolled around. But this early computer continues to educate today's youth, whether as a programming tool, a museum piece, or a study in game design.

Let's Play Death in the Caribbean

April 7th, 2014 11:39 AM
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This winter, I launched a Google+ page for my YouTube gaming channel. As I began exploring the gaming communities on this social network, I discovered Leigh Alexander, a Gamasutra editor with a large following. She is an accomplished fiction author and columnist, and I've now enjoyed her writing for some time. But when she chose to expand into video, I was pleasantly surprised by the subject that a journalist on the cutting edge of technology would choose for her YouTube debut.

Alexander's first foray into video is a Let's Play of the Apple II game, Death in the Caribbean:

A "Let's Play" is a video game walkthrough with commentary that focuses on the player's experience, instead being a tutorial that provides strategy (though it can do that, too). Alexander follows through with that promise, having grown up playing this game with her father. On a recent return to her parents' home in Massachusetts (hey, that's where I live!), she recorded this video that reflects not only on how the game expanded her vocabulary with words such as "crevasse" and "brazier", but on other lessons: "[Death in the Caribbean] taught me from an early age that disaster can happen anywhere, at anytime. Even if the whole world sprawls out in front of you like a beautiful place ready to be explored — you can die, just by being a little bit wrong" — something you're never too young to learn.

The launch of Apple II Bits in 2010 coincided with my discovery of Let's Plays, at which time the genre was relatively unknown. I imagined myself being one of the first to bring this video format to the Apple II. While I've since recorded dozens of Let's Play videos of Nintendo games, I've never executed on the idea to apply that experience to my favorite retrocomputer.

Four years later, Let's Plays are booming, with no less prestigious an outlet than The Atlantic giving the issue coverage, detailing how PewDiePie, the most popular channel on YouTube, makes millions of dollars a year producing Let's Play videos. If you're baffled why Let's Plays are so popular, Jamin Warren of PBS Digital Studios explains the appeal of Let's Play videos:

Between the proliferation of Let's Plays and the age of the Apple II, you might think, what more remains to be said about our favorite games? Plenty, reminded one of my YouTube followers. "I hate it when people who LP an older game and say 'I have nothing original to contribute'," commented Gaming Media. "YES YOU DO! If you grew up with the game, you have stories about the game that no one else has."

Even those who didn't grow up with a game can still provide unique commentary. As Alexander did, Gaming Media recently turned to Virtual Apple ][ and recorded a Let's Play of Oregon Trail, a game that came out decades before he did:

(Skip to 4:52 into the first video for a fun blatant plug!)

Neither of these recent videos is the first Let's Play to come from the Apple II: Jesse Hamm recorded his own playthrough of Death in the Caribbean three years ago; Brian Picchi has recorded reviews of games like Gold Rush! that could be considered Let's Plays; and I in turn recorded a similar hybrid video of Picchi's Retro Fever, a year after unboxing and playing Zéphyr.

There indeed remains much to be preserved, shared, and experienced of the Apple II on YouTube. I hope that Alexander, Gaming Media, Picchi, and I continue to find the time and enthusiasm to explore this fun intersection of old and new media. What games would you like to see us play next?

Dead Man's Oregon Trail

March 24th, 2014 11:53 AM
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The gaming industry is currently experiencing the popularity of three trends: indie studios, retrogaming, and zombies. All three converge in in an upcoming remake of Oregon Trail in which you travel across the country through hordes of undead.

Wait — didn't I already write that blog post? Three years ago, I was playing Organ Trail, a free browser game that later held a successful Kickstarter to release a director's cut edition on Mac, Windows, Linux, iOS, Android, and Ouya.

So what's new in 2014? Dead Man's Trail, a modern action/resource management game inpsired by Oregon Trail. Development studio E4 Software is aware of the precedent of Organ Trail and is taking their game in a different direction:

We're very aware of the existence of Organ Trail and are actually very big fans of the game. We were in early planning stages when Director's Cut came out but decided to move ahead with DMT anyway because we had ideas for things that differentiated us from Organ Trail, such as giving each party member a specific role, having procedurally generated 3D looting levels, having one resource perform several different functions (bullets are ammo and currency), etc.

Where Organ Trail elicits its charm from using mechanics and presentation elements from the original, think of ours as an expanded follow up that wants to go beyond the original Oregon Trail to create a Walking Dead/World War Z atmosphere. We're hoping that several years on from the release of Organ Trail, fans of that project will see our game and want to play it as a next step.

I'm excited to see a game that offers more customization than the traditional Oregon Trail format — most notably, characters with unique skills, such as firearms expert, paramedic, and mechanic (think Left 4 Dead); and different vehicles. If you had to plow through a sea of zombies, would you do so in a station wagon? No way! Give me a school bus or 18-wheeler… and leave me to be concerned about fuel economy after we break down in the middle of nowhere.

The looting element of the game is where Dead Man's Trail most notably diverges from the Oregon Trail formula. Although inspired by the original game's hunting sequences, looting occurs in urban settings from a 3D, isometric perspective. It's not an experience I looking forward to grappling with on a mobile device's tiny screen.

Whereas Organ Trail kept much of Oregon Trail's gameplay and aesthetic, Dead Man's Trail is potentially much more ambitious. Correspondingly, Organ Trail needed only the realistic sum of $3,000 in crowdfunding, whereas DMT is asking for $50,000 on Kickstarter.

Dead Man's Trail is halfway through its one-month crowdfunding campaign and has raised less than 5% of its goal. The game is far enough along that it will likely see release one way or another, but Kickstarter will help ensure the final product is timely and true to the creators' vision. If all goes well, we'll see Dead Man's Trail hit Windows, Mac, Linux, Android, and iOS this October.