Daily Archives: March 27, 2011

On the Trail of the Oregon Trail, Part 1

I recently got a copy of 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die. It’s not really a very good book, for reasons that are interesting on their own and that I hope to talk about in another post very soon. Right now, though, I want to talk about the very first entry in the book, on The Oregon Trail, because that entry sent me down a rabbit hole from which I have only just emerged, blinking and reconsidering the history of interactive narrative.

If you’re of a certain age and nationality (i.e., mine), you almost certainly know The Oregon Trail. From the early 1980s until well into the 1990s virtually every public school in America seemed to have at least a few Apple IIs off in a corner somewhere, and one of the titles available on them was guaranteed to be this little educational game which placed the player in the role of a would-be settler setting off from Missouri on the long journey to the Oregon Territory. Those versions communicated mostly in text, but they spiced up their presentation with lots of colorful graphics, and were appealing enough to become favorites among students then and to still be nostalgically remembered by millions today. In fact, I just learned that there is now a Facebook app of the game.

What’s not often realized is that even when it first arrived on the Apple II The Oregon Trail was already a very old game. That’s why it’s the first entry in the chronologically arranged 1001 Video Games. (Actually, the fact that they got this date right is kind of surprising, because there are a heck of a lot of others that they got wrong. But I promised not to kvetch about the book right now…) It was in fact first written in 1971 by three educators at Carleton College, a small liberal arts college in Northfield, Minnesota. Don Rawitsch, Bill Heinemann — no relation to the “Burger Bill” Heineman who worked on The Bard’s Tale series among other games — and Paul Dillenberger wrote the game in BASIC on an HP-2100 series minicomputer.

When I was writing my history of IF, I named two programs as the most important predecessors to the landmark Adventure (1976-77): Joseph Weizenbaum’s Eliza (1966), which first deployed the basic system of IF interaction (albeit in the context of an elaborate parlor trick rather than a game) and Gregory Yob’s Hunt the Wumpus, a simple game in which the player moves from room to room in a maze while attempting to avoid and eventually kill the eponymous Wumpus. The Oregon Trail makes me think that there should be a third entry on that list.

Let’s consider the state, such as it was, of interactive narrative in 1971. While there had been experiments with interactive storytelling before in the mystery genre, examples of the form were pretty thin on the ground. Edward Packard had already tried to get the first of what would become the Choose Your Own Adventure line of books published, but had been rejected by every publisher he had turned to, and would have to wait years more to see his idea in print. A group of scruffy wargamers in Wisconsin were toying around with the systems that would become Dungeons and Dragons, but, again, their work was years from publication. Wargames and other simulation games certainly had an experiential component, implicitly inviting their players to imagine the events they simulated unfolding in their imagination, but said events unfolded from the perspective of a god on high rather than that of an individual player in storyworld. In the world of computers, there was some ongoing work into computer-generated narrative among artificial intelligence researchers, but these were not really interactive narrative, but rather self-contained stories that the computer generated beforehand based on a set of input data and played out for an audience.

Yet The Oregon Trail opens by telling us, “Your family of five will cover the 2040 mile Oregon Trail in 5-6 months – if you make it alive. You had saved $900 to spend for the trip, and you’ve just paid $200 for a wagon.” It’s dropping us into a storyworld, and inviting us to take a role there and decide what happens next. Was there a computer program before this that so obviously wanted to make a story with (as opposed to for) us? I don’t know of it if there was.

So, I set off on a quixotic quest to experience The Oregon Trail in as close to its original form as I could manage. More on that next time.


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