Teens play Oregon Trail

November 27th, 2017 3:35 PM
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Last month, 1990s kids played Oregon Trail. They had nostalgia going for them when they set out from Independence, Missouri. Would a new generation of travelers, untested on the Oregon Trail, find a similar appeal on the road to Williamette Valley?

A year after shooting the original video, Buzzfeed returned to the Oregon Trail with that question by inviting three pairs of teens to play Oregon Trail.

"I have trouble believing this is from the 1990s," said one kid; "it looks prehistoric." Well, sure: the original version was released in 1971, and the Apple II edition from 1985 remained largely unchanged for the 1990 MS-DOS port played here. By that point, the game had nearly 20 years of history behind it. But kids who are teens now likely weren't alive in the 1990s, so in that sense, the game is "prehistoric".

Even though today's gamers may be accustomed to more action and less information, I'm still surprised by the response of one teen who survived all the way to Williamette Valley: "It's pretty underwhelming." Oregon Trail's graphics aren't significantly different from the variety of pixel-art retrogames available today, such as VVVVVV, or the reading required by gamebooks, such as The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. Given that many of these kids had never heard of Oregon Trail, I'd be very curious to know if their impressions would've changed had Oregon Trail been presented as a modern game designed with a retro aesthetic.

1990s kids play Oregon Trail

October 30th, 2017 10:38 AM
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Many of us in the Apple II community were first introduced to the computer in its heyday. And for some younger members, that introduction occurred in the classroom, playing Oregon Trail.

If that wasn't our last encounter with the Apple II, then we wouldn't be surprised if we booted Oregon Trail today and saw blocky graphics and heard rudimentary music — that's typical of an early 8-bit computer. But if we graduated from that classroom and never looked back, then we might be surprised that Oregon Trail isn't quite what we remember — if we remember it at all.

That's what Buzzfeed set out to test in a react-style video: it recruited adults who grew up in the 1990s (a bit after the Apple II's height of popularity) — adults who have apparently never played modern adaptations of Oregon Trail, such as Organ Trail — and asked them to play Oregon Trail.

Despite the hardware and software being from their youth, both seem absolutely foreign to these players. They expect mouse input where there is none; they're surprised by the amount of text and lack of real-time interactivity; the keyboard controls for hunting are indecipherable (I'm guessing it's IJKM); and one couldn't remember where the Oregon Trail led. (Hint: it's in the title.)

Even if this video is a rough reintroduction, the gamers nonetheless seemed to enjoy themselves. Their exasperation at the various maladies that befall their parties has an undercurrent of amusement. One test subject even says he might go home and play Oregon Trail. Now that would be a win!

In the end, these players congratulated themselves — not on making it from Independence to Willamette Valley, but on playing the game at all. They commented, "Kids these days would hate this game… They wouldn't have the patience." Is that true? Stay tuned…

A literary Oregon Trail

June 27th, 2016 11:07 PM
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Oregon Trail has been adapted, reimagined, and rebooted more times than we can count. It's become a live-action role-playing game, a movie trailer, and a zombie apocalypse. But at no point has the real-life journey of American pioneers circa 1836 been recreated — until now.

The Oregon Trail is a hardcover book released last summer, with the paperback hitting just this month on June 7. With a title like that, I assumed it to be an ode to the computer game that introduced a generation of students to personal computers. But this book — the fifth from Rinker Buck, born in 1950 — is something far more daring. Here's an Amazon.com synopsis from Jon Foro:

Well into middle-age, Rinker Buck found himself divorced, at the edge of bankruptcy, and growing blunt through the twin demons of ennui and alcohol … On a whim, he found himself in a museum at the head of the Oregon Trail, realizing that even as a fairly serious American history buff, he knew virtually nothing about the pivotal era when 400,000 pioneers made their way West in quests for land, gold, and new lives. On a much bigger whim, Buck decided to travel the 2,000 miles of ruts and superseding highways in a mule-driven wagon on his own “crazyass” quest for a new beginning. The result is a dense-yet-entertaining mix of memoir, history and adventure, as Buck– joined by another brother, Nick, and his “incurably filthy” dog, Olive Oyl–struggle with the mechanical, environmental, and existential challenges posed by such an unusually grueling journey. Buck is an engaging writer, and while the book pushes 500 pages, the story never lags. By the end, you’ll know more about mules than you ever thought you would (just enough, actually), and you’ll have a better perspective on the Trail, its travelers, and the role it played in shaping the modern United States. (And is Rinker Buck not a pioneer-worthy name for an tale such as this?)

The book is available now on Amazon.com. Here's an excerpt of the author reading from the audiobook:

I'm not a huge fan of history, but The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey hits a sweet spot by intersecting with real and digital history. Even if the book never once mentions the game, I may need to pick it up to see what Buck's experience was and how it compares to that of the early settlers after two hundred years.

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)

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)

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.