Trail of Fears

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Trail of Fears

The Oregon Trail is terrifying.

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Now I kind of want Yahtzee to review The Oregon Trail to see if he agrees with this.

The Banner Saga sounds like it might get into this: it's post-Ragnarok, and your goal is to not die in the harsh winter. Also there are monsters.

piclemaniscool:
Now I kind of want Yahtzee to review The Oregon Trail to see if he agrees with this.

Actually, this brought to mind his ruminations on "what if we levelled backwards", because come to think of it, OT is a bit like this. You don't really get extra stuff once you're on the trail, for the most part, and especially if you didn't play as the banker (I tried, it was rough), once you get close to the end, your stockpiles are low, you may be running up against winter, and you're scraping the bottom of the barrel. You finish weaker than you started. Maybe there's something there?

You have died of dysentery.

...That's terrifying right there.

Go play Amnesia: The decent ... it has what you described and is scary ( for most ).
You have limited supplies of tinderboxes and oil for your lantern, and your character cannot fight the creatures in the game... you can only run and hide, and battle to keep insanity at bay.
Its really at its best when you let the game have a chance, and dont go in with the " LOL wtf is with those graphics, oh look the door open I is scared ...not " attitude. Try get into the characters shoes, and let the brilliant sounds take you to dark places.
Lights off, heaphones on... and possibly some diapers :p

hey i'm not even pretending, i played the carpenter... once. the first time i played it... we all died before chimney rock... and i only played the banker from then on... but i played something else... once...

I laughed at first, but this article makes a pretty compelling argument. The question is, can such mechanics (relying on entropy and scarcity) really work without introducing a large amount of random chance into the survival equation? I don't think so - and there are plenty of young players (under 30) who would freak out if there success in the game was endangered by random chance that couldn't be overcome with skill. Add into the fact that these mechanics are slow killers - meaning it might not be good enough to go back to the last check point or saved game - and I can imagine some serious backlash from mainstream players who never encountered a cheap death in a game that was intended by the designer.

craddoke:
I laughed at first, but this article makes a pretty compelling argument. The question is, can such mechanics (relying on entropy and scarcity) really work without introducing a large amount of random chance into the survival equation? I don't think so - and there are plenty of young players (under 30) who would freak out if there success in the game was endangered by random chance that couldn't be overcome with skill. Add into the fact that these mechanics are slow killers - meaning it might not be good enough to go back to the last check point or saved game - and I can imagine some serious backlash from mainstream players who never encountered a cheap death in a game that was intended by the designer.

Fair point! No one likes feeling that their success comes down to a coin flip (see: some Mario Party games). At the same time, I think random chance must play a part. Tension and fear are, at least in part, about uncertainty. While most games are about making the player feel powerful (thus favoring chance over skill is a huge no-no), I don't think most people come to survival horror for that. They come to be scared, or at least shaken up.

A little bit of chance ensures the player is never totally sure what to expect next. It changes how we think and what we bring. Oregon Trail doesn't really have any "min/max" options, where players can put all their eggs in one basket or another and manage to coast through. You have to be at least a little prepared for everything... which also means you're always a little unprepared, too.

What's more, good survival games (just like real survival situations) should be as much (or more) about preparation as they are about skill. We decide a lot by how we prepare for the challenge, and the game itself is mostly finding out how well we prepared. Our in-the-moment skill plays a different part than it usually does: How well are you able to recover from a mistake, or how quickly can you bounce back from an unexpected setback?

Luck makes us feel powerless. We even speak about Luck as though it is some force beyond our control or comprehension. "Powerless" is exactly what we need, too. The player should almost always feel like they're three steps behind where they want to be -- not so far that it's hopeless, but not so close that it's comfortable.

I think there's a lot of room to debate how much Luck should influence the game, but I really don't think there's any way to get the right emotional tone without having it in there.

Great article. Good to keep this in mind for games played and games run. My group now knows, and knowing is half the battle.

All true. I never thought about it much before but my childhood memories of Oregon Trail are sharp and clear where so many fancy horror games have faded into foggy meh.

^_^ Thank you Brian Campbell. That was enlightening.

You conclude that The Oregon Trail targets our inner fear of not making it.

It reminds me of Dwarf Fortress, which generally doesn't have scarcity (or entropy, if you play well), but there's always the underrunning current that if you do something wrong, you will die. I wonder if people are freaked out by that aspect of DF. I'm not, but then, the Oregon Trail doesn't freak me out either.

I played this game a lot (enough that I could win as a butcher) and I never realized this alternate classification until now. Presents a good argument of how the monsters you face in a horror game are scarier when intangible.

Dastardly:
Oregon Trail doesn't really have any "min/max" options, where players can put all their eggs in one basket or another and manage to coast through.

For most elementary-schoolers at the time, there was a min/max option. It was called guns, ammo and everything else. Won't say you could coast through, but I can't have been the only one who ended the game with a party that lost almost all its members but still had 5 tons of buffalo meat.

I have this strange sense that I must have been some kind of wunderkind at this game. I remember playing as the carpenter and regularly bringing my entire family in safe and sound.

I've heard this kind of argument before, and honestly, I'm not entirely sure I buy it. There's a fine line between "desperation" and "frustration". It's very easy and not all that uncommon for games that would identify as survival horror to provide insufficient weaponry and fail to offer viable alternatives to gunning the enemies down... The same might be said of some "stealth games". Being trapped in a corner slashing away desperately with a knife might be scary the first time; the fifth time it happens (god help you, the fifth time it happens in the same area) it's less scary and more "who designed this crap?"

I think this increasingly common focus on the desperation/scarcity angle is hindering the genre. Instead of using the entire toolbox, we're trying to get the entire job done with the hammer. There are other ways to scare a player than making them fight with inadequate weaponry; indeed, there are other ways to frighten a player than threatening them with (gasp!) having to reload. I think some of the most memorable scenes in scary games aren't the "I could beat these guys if I just had five more bullets!" type, but the ones where you face things you can't fight at all. Sometimes it's something that can't be killed by conventional means (an old C-64 game called Project Firestart had a late-occurring enemy that had to be brought to a high-oxygen environment to kill, and chased you at high speed all the way.) Sometimes it's things you just have to avoid at all costs (The screen-shaking vortex of evil in the original Alone in the Dark that appeared if you bumped into one of the ghosts is one of the most memorable encounters in all my game-playing.) Sometimes its a sense that your real tormentor is something alien to your understanding and forever beyond your reach (as in most of the better Silent Hill games.)

Dastardly:
A little bit of chance ensures the player is never totally sure what to expect next. It changes how we think and what we bring. Oregon Trail doesn't really have any "min/max" options, where players can put all their eggs in one basket or another and manage to coast through. You have to be at least a little prepared for everything... which also means you're always a little unprepared, too.

Absolutely correct - but that means there's always a chance that a player will do the right thing (be a little prepared for everything) but still lose (three random events involving a broken axle and she only had two spares). Entropy/scarcity only works as a horror mechanic if there's also uncertainty about what will break/run out - and you might not know the answer to this question until it's too late to reload and fix things.

As a gamer who started playing in the early 80s, I'm alright with the idea that sometimes losing has as much to do with luck as with skill. However, this is a type of game design that would be foreign to many players today. Perhaps the answer is a system that looks/feels like it is driven by entropy/scarcity but will dynamically provide a minimum of supplies for a player (i.e., if the player uses all their axles, they cannot break another axle until they have a chance to resupply). Of course, that makes the "horror" artificial and some players will see through the system and stop worrying.

Thanks for the thoughtful response!

Callate:
There's a fine line between "desperation" and "frustration". It's very easy and not all that uncommon for games that would identify as survival horror to provide insufficient weaponry and fail to offer viable alternatives to gunning the enemies down...

There are plenty of games that use it incorrectly, just as there are plenty that don't use it at all. A lot of it has to do with the design of the rest of the game -- does the game encourage you to play in a way that the mechanics support, or does it ask you to do something that doesn't make sense?

For instance, in a lot of games, the assumption is that we're supposed to "clear the map." If there's an enemy in an area, it should be dead by the time you leave. If a game then doesn't give you enough ammo to do that, there's a problem... but where? Is the problem that the game isn't giving you enough ammo, or is the problem that the player is pursuing combat rather than avoiding it? I tend to think it's the latter, but even that isn't always the player's fault.

When a game diverges from the "norm," it's up to the game to let the player know that. Some early experiences in which a player has to avoid combat, or some guided situations in which it's clear there isn't enough ammunition... or even something so simple as turning a player's remaining bullets into points/experience at the end of a map, or something.

I think this increasingly common focus on the desperation/scarcity angle is hindering the genre. Instead of using the entire toolbox, we're trying to get the entire job done with the hammer.

In some cases, yes. You don't want to create just one golden path. At the same time, part of survival is exactly what you describe: I usually have tons of tools at my disposal, but what do I do when all I have left is a hammer? Survival is about finding as many uses for that hammer as you can, even non-traditional ones.

Of course, moderation is the key. You don't want the player to have forty different weapons, but you can probably give them more than three options. Provide plenty of options to the player, whenever you can, and find other ways to impose limits. Maybe there are forty different weapons to choose from, but you can only carry one at a time, and you can only change weapons on rare occasions. Limits are critical to any sense of "survival," but that doesn't mean every limit has to be the same kind.

Sometimes it's things you just have to avoid at all costs (The screen-shaking vortex of evil in the original Alone in the Dark that appeared if you bumped into one of the ghosts is one of the most memorable encounters in all my game-playing.) Sometimes its a sense that your real tormentor is something alien to your understanding and forever beyond your reach (as in most of the better Silent Hill games.)

That's the kind of thing I'm getting at here. Powerlessness and desperation. One way to do that is by making resources scarce. There are, of course, other ways. By literally making the player powerless against an enemy, you take a bit of a shortcut... but, in the right setting, it can work very well.

"When one of your party members dies, part of you mourns the loss - perhaps of the points more than of the character - but another part of you realizes this means fewer mouths to feed ... and the chilling fact is that part of you is a little relieved."

More survival games need to be able to make you think about things deeper. Actually having to question your own beliefs during a game would make for a closer experience. I'm not really sure how to say it... but maybe we should put a little more thought into making games?

Well said. One thing I would note, though, regarding this:

Dastardly:
For instance, in a lot of games, the assumption is that we're supposed to "clear the map." If there's an enemy in an area, it should be dead by the time you leave. If a game then doesn't give you enough ammo to do that, there's a problem... but where? Is the problem that the game isn't giving you enough ammo, or is the problem that the player is pursuing combat rather than avoiding it? I tend to think it's the latter, but even that isn't always the player's fault.

When a game diverges from the "norm," it's up to the game to let the player know that. Some early experiences in which a player has to avoid combat, or some guided situations in which it's clear there isn't enough ammunition... or even something so simple as turning a player's remaining bullets into points/experience at the end of a map, or something.

The compliment is that sometimes game design aids and abets the player "thinking in the wrong way". If the player deals with a number of rooms in which the exit only opens if the last monster is killed, the player will probably continue to do so even if that condition of escape is removed. More subtly, if the game plays "aggression/fear" music, or causes the screen to redden or shake in the presence of the enemy, that leads the player to believe that there's something wrong that (based on earlier experience) they have the means and are being encouraged to set right.

Actually, this could be another interesting tool if it was used carefully. That what a player was doing before isn't working could lead to all sorts of uncertainty and distress, so long as the game was careful to make certain that the clues needed to succeed were within plain view. (The "shadow self" encounter in the original Prince of Persia comes to mind; I'd have to think for a while to come up with a good way of using the tactic in survival horror.)

Here's to hoping to see more games using the whole toolbox.

Very interesting article with a really great point to make, I loved Oregon Trail, but it is hard as hell to find the exact version I played back in the day. For me, I nicknamed characters, it seemed that Grandma died of dysentary, Joe-bob gets shot by every ricochet bullet and the gal in my group always got scurvy because I didn't know anything about vitamin C.

Side note: Anyone else disappointed that this article didn't include a modded Oregon Trail that had 150% more horror elements in it?

Captcha: know your rights, like my right to die of dysentary?

Edit: Thanks for the link and all that mess, man it seems like forever since I played, back when the candy colored macs came into my elementary school, they were neat as hell!

BishopofAges:
Very interesting article with a really great point to make, I loved Oregon Trail, but it is hard as hell to find the exact version I played back in the day. For me, I nicknamed characters, it seemed that Grandma died of dysentary, Joe-bob gets shot by every ricochet bullet and the gal in my group always got scurvy because I didn't know anything about vitamin C.

Side note: Anyone else disappointed that this article didn't include a modded Oregon Trail that had 150% more horror elements in it?

Captcha: know your rights, like my right to die of dysentary?

For a free (and legal) version of the original, check out VirtualApple.org. And as for the horror version, there is one! Do a search for Organ Trail.

I was just playing that on the iPad, the updated version is a lot more colorful than the one I played as a kid.

So who is the villain in The Oregon Trail? We could say there are none (with the notable exception of dysentery) but really the game just skips the more convenient and obvious "bad guys" in favor of two of mankind's oldest and deadliest foes: Scarcity and Entropy.

you forgot water and drowning. i dont think Ive ever played an Oregon Trail game without having someone drown when crossing a river.

emeraldrafael:

So who is the villain in The Oregon Trail? We could say there are none (with the notable exception of dysentery) but really the game just skips the more convenient and obvious "bad guys" in favor of two of mankind's oldest and deadliest foes: Scarcity and Entropy.

you forgot water and drowning. i dont think Ive ever played an Oregon Trail game without having someone drown when crossing a river.

Buy lots of clothes and hire guides!

There is one set of games you forgot about when mentioning entropy and scarcity:

ROGUELIKES.

Even though I kind of cheated by using the save trick on my first playthrough, very few games were as satisfying to beat as Ragnarok (not Ragnarok online. This one.) The amount of scary new ways the game had to kill you out of the blue when you had figured out how to become nigh-invulnerable in previous levels was astounding. The difficulty scaling was actually just about right for roguelike noobs, there was always a way or an item or a job that could enable you to kill or tame the creatures around you, and the game did NOT run out of ways to "oh shit what do I do now" scare you as you advanced. With new grating PC speaker sounds for each new enemy, of course.

"Saved the world" on that one really did feel like saving the world.

Amazing game. I just finally managed to completed Oregon Trail with no deaths! And I floated down the Columbia River and lost almost all my supplies to a wagon fire so I had to survive by hunting! Best I've managed before is 2 survivors.

Myrmecodon:
There is one set of games you forgot about when mentioning entropy and scarcity:

ROGUELIKES.

... "Saved the world" on that one really did feel like saving the world.

I think this really comes back to the idea of a game targeting the player rather than the character. It's easy to write a situation in which a character would be nervous or afraid, and it's easy to tell the player that is the case... and it's just as easy for the player to ignore that information. But if the mechanics behave in such a way that they make the player nervous, tense, or scared... well, you don't even need a "character" at all, really.

Game mechanics can create just as much emotion as a story. And if the mechanics don't back up the story, it's going to fall flat anyway. Make the game feel right, and most of your job is done!

ASnogarD:
Try get into the characters shoes, and let the brilliant sounds take you to dark places.
Lights off, heaphones on... and possibly some diapers :p

What I liked about Amnesia is that I didn't have to get into the character -- the atmosphere was spooky enough on its own. And I like that it didn't lead my around by the nose. Not only did that give me freedom, it also gave me ownership: I had to actually move toward the scary thing, because the game wasn't going to do it for me.

The folks behind that game avoided the assumption that scaring the character means scaring the player.

Y'know what you might really enjoy? Fatal Frame (XBox). The original. Play it in the dark.

Dastardly:
This leads to an "arms race" that turns a lot of survival horror into yet-another-run-and-gun.

Let's not forget those chest high walls in the cover-based survival horror!

what I want to know is why a Banker from boston would want to go on the Oregon Trail in the first place?

Dastardly:

emeraldrafael:

So who is the villain in The Oregon Trail? We could say there are none (with the notable exception of dysentery) but really the game just skips the more convenient and obvious "bad guys" in favor of two of mankind's oldest and deadliest foes: Scarcity and Entropy.

you forgot water and drowning. i dont think Ive ever played an Oregon Trail game without having someone drown when crossing a river.

Buy lots of clothes and hire guides!

Pfft thats the cowards way. the west wsnt made by the faint of heart. XD

Definitely an interesting article, and what some people brought up I really agree with.

Sabrestar:
Actually, this brought to mind his ruminations on "what if we levelled backwards", because come to think of it, OT is a bit like this. You don't really get extra stuff once you're on the trail, for the most part, and especially if you didn't play as the banker (I tried, it was rough), once you get close to the end, your stockpiles are low, you may be running up against winter, and you're scraping the bottom of the barrel. You finish weaker than you started. Maybe there's something there?

This especially. You lose the 'survival' aspect, and part of the 'horror' aspect, if you can actively fight against the thing trying to kill you, or if you get stronger than you were before or strong enough to fight the 'big bad'. In a true survival horror game, you either start with a lot of stuff that rapidly becomes really, really useless in the predicament you're stuck with, or you don't start out with a lot and nothing you get helps your situation, and the enemies in all situations should not be so easy to fend off that you can encounter even the most basic of grunts and not feel like your progress is about to come to a halt.

In a true survival horror fashion, 'stand and fight' should never, EVER be in the Top 5 list of available options.

I just played the game, but I must have been playing a watered-down version, because I was able to carry 200 lbs of food back from the hunt. But I beat it as the carpenter with 5 fellow survivors in 127 days, so I'm still chalking it down to a win.

Dastardly:
What I liked about Amnesia is that I didn't have to get into the character -- the atmosphere was spooky enough on its own. And I like that it didn't lead my around by the nose. Not only did that give me freedom, it also gave me ownership: I had to actually move toward the scary thing, because the game wasn't going to do it for me.

The folks behind that game avoided the assumption that scaring the character means scaring the player.

Y'know what you might really enjoy? Fatal Frame (XBox). The original. Play it in the dark.

That's true actually. The fact that you have to take photographs of the ghosts to win the game also meant that you had to move toward the [insert fear-inducing image]. One of the main complaints about the horror in Silent Hill Downpour has been that you can run from the monsters, which makes them less of a threat. Although I also like Yahtzee's argument that giving the player the ability to run from the monstrosities makes it more like survival.

Just my take on what's needed to make video games scary for today's audience:

http://caseygoddard.blogspot.jp/2011/12/surviving-horror.html

When I say the title and cover, I immediately thought "Woah, somebody made a zombie Oregon Trailer Game? I want to play!" And now I'm just as happy that I was wrong, because this was an excellent article that makes me want to play OT again. Well done, sir.

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