I love being scared. Movies, games – if it’ll terrify me, I’m in. And while I enjoy some of the cheap startles and shocks scattered throughout a lot of so-called scary stuff, nothing keeps me on the edge of my seat (and my nerves) quite like good survival horror. The tension, the slowly-creeping dread, that feeling of being on the razor-thin edge between life and death … there’s nothing better.
At its core, The Oregon Trail is about fear, doubt, desperation – it’s about survival.
It’s a little disappointing how long it’s been since I’ve gotten that from a game. Not for lack of trying – Dead Island, Dead Rising, Dead Space: Nothing has really delivered on the promise of its title. Despite our repeated efforts, survival horror itself seems to be in, well, a bit of a dead spot.
Oddly, the way out is backwards. While Resident Evil is credited with originating the “survival horror” label, I’m talking even further back. We’ve had a stellar example of simple, but compelling survival horror staring us in the face for over 25 years now: MECC’s The Oregon Trail. On its surface, the game is a quasi-historical dramatization of the trials and tribulations of settlers in the mid-1800’s, but at its core, this game is about fear, doubt, desperation – it’s about survival.
What can this dated educational game teach us about survival horror? The answers are in a few basics The Oregon Trail got exactly right (which we’re largely getting wrong, or only half-right, now):
We’re Focusing on the Wrong Enemy
Most games share a basic structure: Introduce an enemy, equip you to face that enemy, and set you on your path to or through that enemy. Lately, we’ve been bombarded with zombies, mutants, robots, and all manner of monsters in the quest to (unsuccessfully) create horror in games. Opposition creates conflict, but we’re given the wrong kind of both.
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.
These two forces drive all of our most basic impulses. Eventually, everything runs out and everything breaks – including us. Scarcity and Entropy are the world’s timekeepers, and survival is our (ultimately losing) battle to cram just a bit more sand in the hourglass.
In The Oregon Trail, these two insidious fiends lurk behind your back from the very beginning. You start the game with $1600 (don’t pretend you played as anything but the “banker”) for supplies. You’ve got to ration that for food, clothing, bullets, oxen, and repair supplies for the entire journey.
Once you’ve played a few times, you learn (through painful experience) that axles can break, food can spoil, oxen can die, thieves can pilfer, and rivers can sweep away any of these few, prized possessions on a whim. There is nothing you can do about it and almost no way to resupply.
Scarcity and Entropy are harrowing forces, able to reach in and wake our most primitive fears. They make us feel powerless. They use our own needs as their weapons. They cannot be defeated. They also conveniently require very little in the way of art resources or dialogue, but when properly used, they can create more tension and drama than any monster, robot, Elder God, or zombie out there.
Contrast this with a game like Dead Rising, which features Entropy (stuff breaks) but not Scarcity (just go get another katana). The game has some great moments of tension, but it becomes easy to plan ahead to avoid them. When one of our two “villains” is missing, we often find ways to work around the other. Together, though, they’re an unstoppable team.
We’re Not Keeping the Player Hungry
In much of the modern world, most of us don’t spend our days living in fear of injury or starvation. Why? Because we’re prepared to handle them. They no longer pose an immediate threat. We’re not scared, because we’re just too ready.
The Oregon Trail uses some of the most fertile soil there is: desperation.
Games are often about fulfilling power fantasies, so we tend to start off at least a little heroic and get even more heroic as we go. This can erode the challenge, so we usually increase the opposition (in numbers, in strength, or both) to match. This leads to an “arms race” that turns a lot of survival horror into yet-another-run-and-gun. We’re no longer truly fighting to survive; it’s just monster hunting, which isn’t scary. When we remove the survival, we undermine the horror.
In The Oregon Trail, you’re not a hero. You’re just some “banker from Boston” (or carpenter or farmer, if you’re still pretending). Right from the start, there are already limitations that make you wince. Wagons have four wheels, but you can only bring three spares. Subtle, perhaps, but this math faces you with dark knowledge: You can’t be ready for everything.
You never set out feeling you have “enough,” and it only gets worse from there. You might take down a half-ton buffalo, but you can only carry back 100 lbs. at a time, making it hard to stockpile. (The Resident Evil series has always used similar Can’t-Have-It-All tactics that force players to make tough choices and leave things behind.) This continues to ensure you’re never over-prepared, and it also keeps you constantly aware of this fact. That leads us to the final lesson we learn from the Trail –
We’re Not Targeting the Right Emotions
There’s a reason many of us remember The Oregon Trail so well – we tend to remember things that elicit strong emotions. Sometimes, it’s not so much about what an experience makes us feel, but about whether and how much it makes us feel that cements it in our memories. The ability to stir an emotional response is essential, and survival horror games look to stir one in particular: fear.
The greatest mistake in horror is trying to elicit fear by “doing something scary.” Even worse, we assume that something that scares the character will automatically scare the player, as if by some voodoo doll connection. An emotion can’t be imposed, in the same way a farmer can’t force something to grow. He can prepare the ground, plant the seeds, and maintain the right conditions for growth, but nature does the rest. If we expect to “harvest” fear, we first have to find the right soil in which to “plant” it.
The Oregon Trail uses some of the most fertile soil there is: desperation. Fear itself is too elevated an emotional state to keep up for very long, but desperation is more subtle and more sustainable. An added benefit is that when we’re desperate, every emotional response is amplified – stretch a rubber band to its limit, and even a tiny scrape will snap it. This is the place where small problems (a snakebite) become heartbreaks, small victories (fording a river) become triumphs, a little humor (finding another player’s tombstone) becomes an oasis in the desert, and a little fear finally becomes horror.
This sense of desperation creates interesting emotional conflicts, as 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.
When it comes to stirring emotions, The Oregon Trail gets results. And what flies in the face of current logic is that there are no “relatable characters” and no “compelling storyline.” There’s no leveling system or equipment upgrades. You can’t really win, as much as you can just hope to finish. There aren’t even any monsters.
Instead, the game uses its mechanics and tone to target the player’s emotional state directly. Using the elements of scarcity and entropy, placing palpable limitations on preparedness, and creating an atmosphere that invites (rather than imposes) emotional response, The Oregon Trail reaches into our minds and taps into the basis of all human terror – the idea that we might not make it.
If we can craft core experiences that grip us like this one, it’s a small thing to add in the robots, zombies, mutants, or even that damnable dysentery – not necessarily as enemies, but as obstacles to our survival. They are no longer the main course, but rather seasoning in the entrée that will finally satisfy that unyielding hunger for compelling survival horror.
Brian Campbell is a musician and teacher in NC, where he puts brains into kids so the inevitable zombie horde will have something to eat. If you pass his tombstone along the Trail, it will forever read, “Cheese and Pepperoni.”