An unexpected storyline

In examining the different types of media we use to access information and entertain ourselves, video games aren’t what I’d think of first. But they are a form of story-telling that engages the user. While not on the level of a movie or novel, you can find a story in a video game. That was the assignment.

Obviously some games tell a better story than others. Mario Kart, while far and away my favorite console game is more about competition than a story really. But Oregon Trail; that is a journey my friend. I hadn’t played in years. I think the last version I played was actually Amazon Trail, its tropical cousin. So I downloaded a version compatible with current technology and got to trailin’.

Oregon Trail is not about arriving at your destination, it is about surviving the trail and the sacrifices you have to make to survive. You start the trail confident. You thinking its going to be an easy ride. The game helps convince you of this as other wagons nearby have trouble from the start while you sail ahead. At the first outpost, the game gives you an inventory of your supplies and makes suggestions as to what you might need. ┬áThe first half hour of the game proceeds like this, but then something happens. One of your family members gets sick, you break an axle or one of your oxen breaks his leg. And then, you’re up a creek. Literally, you may have to go up and around a creek because your oxen can’t take the current. In the conflict part of the story, you are forced to prioritize and make decisions that risk the health of your haul or the probability of your even making it to the next stop. This is when the fun begins.

In my case, I had to kill my own oxen, and unload some of my grain to hold the smoked meat from the kill. Of course that meant my wagon was heavier than it should be for my animals to pull, especially being one down. Later in the game, one of the kids on the wagon gets sick and I had to figure out a way to barter for her medicine. That was my story in the Oregon Trail today. But the beauty is, the story unfolds differently each time you play. There are different challenges, different routes and interactions. The outcome of the game is user-driven.

That is the beauty of the game and any game really. The story’s parameters are set, but the user decides how it will be told differently each time. That control and challenge brings the user back to play again. The intricacy of the graphics can change, but the idea is the same. A story, via a video game, but a story none the less.

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10 2011

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