I wouldn’t have thought it would be possible for food to be quantified numerically (I have 63 food) or for someone to dick around enough to ruin that food. Yet here we are, Ross. Our long slog of a journey has taken us through hordes of zombies, roving gangs of biker bandits and through sparsely populated hovels. We’re going to die because you can’t stop messing up our food supply. Don’t even get me started on your outburst of typhoid. We’re going to die on the Organ Trail.
Some of our older audience might remember a charming little game from yesteryear that took you on a journey through American folk history. Oregon Trail placed you as the head of a group of pioneers, traipsing from Missouri to Oregon, forcing you to deal with the harsh realities of such a journey: such as every bloody person getting dysentery. This is not that game. This is Organ Trail, from developers Men Who Wear Many Hats: a pastiche of the original, with a little bit of survival horror thrown in for good measure.
I’m going to address the zombified elephant in the room. Organ Trail has an inescapable ancestry of smartphone controls and sensibilities and the PC version is still informed by this fact. Fighting off the undead with a trusty rifle involves drawing a line between you and your undead nemesis and it’s finicky and inexact at times (though primarily if you take your time to aim). A lot of the difficulty of this mini-game (and the others that require firing, such as clearing a building of bandits or defending the station wagon from the zombies) stem from a control scheme that refuses to take its cues from the platform. This is compounded by the admittedly rare times where the splash screens ask you to tap your screen to continue, which has led to strange looks from those around me and a slightly grubbier monitor. I’m nothing if not obedient.
The main appeal of Organ Trail though is the capacity for personal story-telling it offers. If you name your fellow travellers after your friends and family, then the game becomes a narrative loom: you’ll weave stories of friends kidnapped by bandits, family members receiving the Ol’ Yeller treatment when they become infected and the noble (and usually unwilling) sacrifice of deities to the zombie horde. However, the travellers simply exist as a passive receiver of events, a cipher for a friend’s eccentric behaviour. There doesn’t seem to be any personality to each one, leaving them a vessel for the events and diseases around them, with no individuality apparent. There’s the crux of the issue. To really engage with the game, you need to bring already existing personalities into the world and role-play their reactions to dysentery and zombie attack and road wars. Failing to do this leaves you with little reason to care about what happens to travellers X, Y and Z beyond plain mechanical concerns and encourages a disconnect with the harsh reality of survival the game encourages.
When it works though, it really works. After visiting some iconic locations from zombie movies (the game comes soaked in the gory love of the zombie genre, with references to Day of the Dead, Zombieland and Left 4 Dead throughout), I found myself in the wilderness, deeply screwed. My station wagon had broken down, a few mere miles from civilisation and there was no scrap left to repair my flagging wagon. The three remaining travellers stood on the roadside, waiting for other pilgrims to trade with, but to no avail. Food was running low and my companions were beginning to mutate into giant cartoonish walking steaks. Ross was close to death and there wasn’t enough food left to last the three of us. His incapacitated state meant that he was using up more food than we could afford to each day and I was left with the murderous mathematics of the mercy-kill. I raised the gun.
Ross was no more.
Followed by myself actually, ambushed by a zombie dog and torn from limb to limb which really goes to show you that karma, in this case, was literally a bitch. When these stories evolve from the simple addition of a friend’s name, the game really zips with bombastic story-telling, but you’ve got to put in the work for this to become even close to compelling. It’s a good game. Don’t get me wrong. There’s a pure simplicity to the idea and execution and once it releases on Steam, it’s likely to become one of my go-to games for passing ten minutes or so. There’s a retro charm, an evident love of the genre and I’d feel comfortable recommending it to my friends. Except Ross. Sitting on my food, the bastard.
Organ Trail is currently going through the arduous process of Steam Greenlight, so if you’d like to support the developers in a non-monetary capacity, please vote for them on Greenlight.