The Oregon Trail is all about resource management. You start the game with $700, which will have to serve as your non-renewable bankroll for the entire trip. From this you must buy your oxen team as well as food, ammunition, clothing, and “miscellaneous supplies” (which basically comes down to medical supplies). Play then proceeds through a series of up to 18 turns, each representing two weeks on the trail. At the beginning of each you can choose whether to hunt or simply press onward. In addition, you pass by a fort every other turn, where you can purchase additional supplies if you like. And you have to decide if you want to eat poorly, moderately, or well during that period, balancing your food supplies with the risk of illness that comes from a poor diet and hard work. During the body of each turn, you are usually subjected to a randomly chosen event of some kind. Most of these are of the unfavorable variety. This serious of misfortunes and disasters is what most people remember best about the game:
“WAGON BREAKS DOWN — LOSE TIME AND SUPPLIES FIXING IT.”
“OX INJURES LEG — SLOWS YOU DOWN REST OF TRIP.”
“BAD LUCK — YOUR DAUGHTER BROKE HER ARM. YOU HAD TO STOP AND USE SUPPLIES TO MAKE A SLING.”
“WILD ANIMALS ATTACK!”
According to the City Pages article, these last were hostile Indians in the original version, which would certainly have been more exciting to imagine if less politically correct. Telltale signs of code modifications around line 2885 bear this out. (Interestingly, the immortal “YOUR WAGON BROKE AN AXLE!,” source of a long-running Internet meme, is not yet in this version.) This tragic litany is occasionally broken by “HELPFUL INDIANS SHOW YOU WHERE TO FIND MORE FOOD,” but most of the time it’s a hard life indeed on the trail — which I suppose is accurate enough.
Rawitsch strove mightily to make the program accurate in its simulation of the trip, even constrained as he was by the limitations of his computing hardware and HP BASIC. The likelihood of the various randomized events are based as much as possible upon historical reality. The terrain changes; the going gets slower and harder later in the trip, when you begin to pass through the Rocky Mountains. Even the weather changes, requiring more clothing. In fact, there is more going on below the surface than you might realize. A peculiarity that The Oregon Trail shares with many other BASIC games of this era is that it seems to expect — even to depend upon — the player having a look at the code in order to fully understand what’s going on in the game. For instance, I didn’t realize that stopping at a fort for supplies dramatically reduces the miles you can cover in a single turn until I read that in the code. Likewise, it is easy to miss the terrain changes and the effect they have on the game if you haven’t at least skimmed through the code.
As a narrative experience, The Oregon Trail is more compelling than it perhaps has any right to be. Its communications are terse indeed, but one really does get the sense of embarking upon a long and dangerous journey. As I limped ever close to my destination of Oregon City, with one of my oxen injured, low on food and supplies, with winter fast closing in, I felt real tension and concern for my little family. The “you are there” feeling is further enhanced by the occasional “action” sequences in which you are given a limited amount of time to type the word “BANG” in the hopes of success at hunting or at defending yourself from bandits or animals. The game is relentlessly unforgiving; failing to stockpile enough food for the coming turn, or enough medicine or bullets, leads to instant death. Unlike in more typical early adventures games, where instadeaths are rather comical in their unexpectedness and cruelty, these feel believable. It was a hardscrabble existence indeed on the trail, and I’m sure plenty of real would-be settlers died for exactly these reasons. There’s actually a consonance between gameplay and narrative that’s rather rare to find even in modern storygames.
My personal strategy is to buy little if any food, reserving my precious money for other things. I then hunt about every other turn, taking advantage of the fact that I know my way around a keyboard pretty well. I also try very hard not to carry too much stuff at any time, as I always seem to end up losing it for nothing in some disaster or other. Traveling light, however, means more stops at forts; my biggest problem is usually running out of time, being trapped on a mountain trail when winter arrives. If you develop a favorite strategy of your own, maybe one that works better than mine, feel free to tell about it in the comments.
The Oregon Trail story after 1978 has been much better documented than has its early years, so I won’t devote much space to that. By 1980 MECC had purchased 500 Apple IIs and installed them in classrooms all over Minnesota, where children used them to (among other things) play the freshly ported Apple II version of The Oregon Trail. There followed a version with accompanying full-color illustrations (1985), a CD-ROM extravaganza version (1996), and, eventually, that Facebook version (2011), just to hit some of the highlights. When you strip away all of the multimedia that encrusts them, it’s really quite surprising how closely these later versions hew to the model that Rawitsch designed back in 1971. It’s not the most sophisticated storygame in the world, but it really is better than it ought to be. I’m glad I took the time to get to know it better, and, again, happy to be able to offer the code to anyone else who’d like to dive in. I’d go so far as to place it alongside Eliza and Hunt the Wumpus as one of the three pre-Adventure computer games that anyone interested in the history of interactive narrative really ought to know.