Organ Trail must have started off as a joke – an idea that occurs to you at the pub, sitting around a table with your mates, one or two beers away from calling a cab. The kind of idea that starts with “wouldn’t it be hilarious if we..”. That particular breed of idea has led you to start countless businesses, bands, political campaigns – then forgotten all about them while your hangover set in as you slept.
Somebody must have said, “Wouldn’t it be hilarious if we remade Oregon Trail, but with zombies?” But then Organ Trail didn’t get forgotten. The Men Who Wear Many Hats seem to have gone home from the pub and launched right into it. Unlike the case of my punk band1 and your presidential campaign, we can be glad that they did – the result is one of the year’s most memorable games. As in Oregon Trail, your task is to cross the United States from east to west in search of a new home. In the original, you were a 19th-century pioneer striking out for the frontier – in this new take you are the survivor of a zombie holocaust, seeking out the rumoured Safe Haven where the undead have not reached.
Organ Trail takes the Oregon Trail send-up conceit and runs with it long and hard without the joke growing tired. The game nods frequently to the MECC original. Gravestones at the side of the trail mark the spot where previous pioneers fell – and then come crawling out of their graves to eat you. The riving-fording sequence that vexed you so badly in 1986 is restaged as a scene where your station wagon has to navigate through a horde of zombies without alerting them to your presence.
The game is wryly funny at times, mostly when it tugs at your nostalgia and it makes a twisted reference to the original. But it’s also quietly moving, like the developers forgot that it was all a gag and started to believe in their own story along the way. Sometimes you run into survivors on the trail who tell you of their tragedy. Sometimes you pull up to a landmark and look for people to talk to and find no one, and America feels bigger and emptier than ever.
The end product isn’t tonally consistent – Organ Trail tries to have it both ways too often, like Rodney Dangerfield narrating a documentary about Darfur. But it’s hard to give a damn about consistent tone in a game that’s so gripping. Like X-Com and Rebuild, Organ Trail doesn’t hog the narrative, leaving room for your to tell your own story. Chris got bit by a zombie yesterday, and it would save precious food and supplies to just shoot him now – get it over with before he turns – but you named the damn character after your best friend and it’s only 200 miles to Safe Haven. Maybe there’s a cure there. Maybe he’s still got a chance.
Looking past its narrative qualities, Organ Trail has some failings as an app. The chief reason that the Oregon Trail disk was so venerated in the computer lab was the shooting bit. Taking your pixelated pioneer out to forage for food and coming back with most of a bison you’d shot was the closest to good, old-fashioned video game violence you could get in grade school in the 1980s. Organ Trail replicates that experience note for note, then expands on it to fill six different minigames, gratifying the 4th-grader in you with a game that is about 50% shooting. The problem with this is the same one that afflicts all touchscreen real-time games – playing the game obscures your view of the action. This is a fundamental design quandary that could only have been resolved with on-screen controls or worse – gyroscopic ones. There’s no sense in affixing special blame to Organ Trail for a problem that no game designer has cracked yet.
One problem that can be pinned onto Organ Trail is that the game seems to have a bit of a memory leak. Playing for twenty minutes or so (which you’re very liable to do, engrossing as it is) causes the music to start stuttering and screen loading slow down. It’s not a show-stopper, but it there’s a touch of irony in Organ Trail being a memory hog, given that the game it seeks to emulate can probably be run on the hardware of a modern programmable egg timer.
It’s far from perfect. But it’s a lot more than a one-joke parody game, too. As you’re telling the story of how you got (or didn’t get) to Safe Haven, you forget that and just get drawn into the drama of it – maybe like the developers did. And no matter how it ends for you, it’s a hell of a good story.
4 out of 5
- iOS Universal: Organ Trail: Director’s Cut, $2.99
- Android: Organ Trail: Director’s Cut, $2.99
1 The Last Temptation of Chris.