There exists a certain sense of security, of familiarity, when returning to a game from your childhood, years later. Though we are always keen to look around the corner at what will find its way into our consoles and hard drives in the coming years, our rose-tinted glasses are forever hanging on a chain around our neck, within easy reach the moment a familiar character hoves into view on our monitor.
For a lot of people, The Oregon Trail was a formative experience when it came to educational games that made you think. Released in 1971 and designed by three student teachers with the aim of teaching history to children, it was a method of showcasing the many challenges that went into surviving the journey from Missouri to Oregon in the 1800s, roleplaying one of the many settlers looking for a new life in the distance.
Given the recent retro-gaming revival and the omnipresence of the undead in videogames, it seems logical that a zombie-filled, post-apocalyptic version of the game is a possibility. Luckily it’s also a reality — The Men Who Wear Many Hats’ Organ Trail. I sat down (and exchanged emails) with one of The Men Who Wear Many Hats, Ryan Wiemeyer, to talk about the game’s Flash original and Kickstarted Director's Cut development, alongside its success with crowdfunding.
To be honest, it's not difficult to see where the motivation was for turning a historical edutainment property into The Walking Dead. “If you’re an indie,” stated Wiemeyer, “there is always a phase where you think ‘what could be better with zombies?’ The answer, for us, was [The Oregon Trail].” He explains that Organ Trail is a concept you can get right on board with, even having only seen the name — a theory that works in practice, given that I was curious without ever having played the original.
Evidently, that may have been the case for a fair few people alongside the nostalgics, given the game’s success on Kickstarter, having raised over $16k with a target of only three big ones. “I did my research before I started our Kickstarter campaign. I knew that most sucessful game projects at the time would easily double their asking price.
“We actually low-balled it. We asked for 3k but really needed 6k. The original costs were only going to go into getting a license for Unity. And from the start we planned for half of all profits to go to the awesome rewards. So in the end we expected to make 6k and spend half on the game and half on rewards. It was really a crazy ride to watch our campaign rise to 16k.”
However, the thing about crowdfunding an indie project is that, suddenly, you’ve got a crowd of what some would define as “investors” waiting for the product in the same way that a bunch of suits might be, and that’s a lot of pressure to heap on a team so small. “We originally promised the game about 4 months before we delivered it and said, ‘this month,’ every month when asked how long we would be. I don't regret the extra time. We made the game extra good. But I felt bad for our Kickstarters literally every day we were late. That's like 120 days of feeling bad.”
Organ Trail has given The Men Who Wear Many Hats a sense of independence that they revel in. But independence comes at the price of running your own show and learning how to make that work from scratch. “Right now I am finding that starting fresh is even harder. We originally started with the sort of attitude of ‘F*ck the industry we work for, who does not value our opinions. We want to do our own ideas.’”
When working on a game like Organ Trail, part of their motivation was doing the original justice. But given that retro gaming experiences often go hand-in-hand with hitting the brick wall of ancient mechanics and controls that no longer meet modern gaming standards, the team needed to modernise where they could and ensure that while the humour, look and overall mechanics remained intact, small tweaks ensured that the game wasn’t frustratingly old-fashioned.
“We had a lot of discussions about 'staying true' to Oregon Trail during the development of the Flash version. I learned from that; sticking closely wasn't worth it. Especially when design suffers. Once we decided we wanted to go beyond the source material with Director's Cut, there wasn't as much of a problem. We knew what would get people to recognize what we were doing and then we moved on from there. The game is a giant pun. But we worked really hard to make sure that when the puns, references and nostalgia wore off, there was a meaningful experience there for you to dig into.”
One of the aspects of Organ Trail that really struck me, as a gamer, is that it’s a game that simply asks you to survive as long as possible with no obvious guarantee of a positive ending. While this isn’t a new mechanic, by any means, it differs from Tetris, Geometry Wars and other endless marathon games, in that you have a named group of survivors and a sense of agency that allows you to tell your own story with those survivors. That uncertainty adds a considerable amount of fear, stress and anxiety.
“Most games are designed around fun, empowerment and escapism. Oregon Trail, purely because it was based on actually traveling the Oregon Trail ... was a game about dying slowly. Gamers are used to getting stronger the longer they play a game. So it was really fun to play with those mechanics. You start about as good as you are ever going to get and then you just do what you can to survive. I think you don't see that a lot because it's a game about losing. Games are about winning, these days.”
While you can reach Oregon in both the original and the indie remake, the sense of narrowly avoided loss and destruction is quite a powerful one, and it robs us of the sense of outright victory we’re so used to whenever we put the controller down as the credits roll. Organ Trail offers nothing but grim realism, and its source of inspiration was the same. Many zombie-themed storylines feature the endless struggle to survive, to see if that military outpost did survive the apocalyptic events that kick-started the story you’re experiencing. It’s an exciting and terrifying take on head-shotting the shuffling undead, and one that’s worth experiencing, even if it leaves you feeling slightly drained.
But where do you go from here? The Men Who Wear Many Hats, who assure me that the logic behind their name is their jack-of-all-trades approach to development, made necessary by their team size, want to reach beyond the realm of jovial reconstructions of classic games. "I don't want our team to be a one trick pony. But at the same time we have a fan base that likes what we've done. I'm sort of sick of zombies and I don't want to do something retro looking right away. I bet you we will make some extension of the Organ Trail series sooner or later ... but probably not sooner. There is a good chance our next game will look nothing like this one. That's probably a bad business move, but I hope to make the common thread among our game to be ‘well designed,’ and not something more shallow like, ‘parody games.’”
Thankfully, their first attempt at independence is a success, and they can now look to the future, and what it holds. But what drives someone once they’ve succeeded in sticking it to the Man? “I need to find something else to spite for motivation, I guess. Is it cool to hate birds? F*ck you, birds! I'm going to go make my OWN games. Try and stop me.”