You, the Undead and the Open Road: A Review of the Organ Trail

It’s finally here again, my favorite time of year.  Halloween is upon us and in the spirit of the season of tricks, treats, and NSFW Halloween costumes, here is a ghoulish review of the Organ Trail. The game is available as a free Flash-based game on the developer’s website as well as for download for Android and iOS.

Developed by The Men Who Wear Many Hats, the Organ Trail is a zombie-themed homage to The Oregon Trail, an educational game developed by MECC that was a computer game staple in elementary school computer labs across America during the 1980s and 1990s.  The objective of the original was to navigate five settlers in a Conestoga wagon from Missouri to the Willamette Valley (in an interesting coincidence, the final destination in Oregon Trail bears the same name as the mall from Dead Rising) across the eponymous frontier trail while facing disease and other mishaps along the way. Organ Trail tasks you with getting five survivors of the zombie apocalypse safely across the country, staving off hunger, disease, and zombies as you make your way across the infected continental United States.   Stylistically, the Organ Trail borrows much from its educational forebear, modeled after the Apple II version of the Oregon Trail.  Its controls also resemble its predecessor, using numbered commands entered on the keyboard.  However, observant players will also notice the games numerous references to other zombie-themed games and movies, such as Resident Evil and Zombieland.

It is really a challenge for a zombie game to stand out in an market already stuffed with other zombie games.  These days the sheer number of zombie-themed games (i.e. Left 4 Dead, Dead Island, The Walking Dead, etc., etc.), add-ons (i.e. Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare, Call of Duty’s Zombies/Nazi Zombies minigames), and mods (i.e. DayZ) is as numerous as the shambling undead hordes they depict.  Speaking for myself I have played countless zombie games over the course of my gaming career and dispatched necrified shamblers in every which way you can think of.  However, the Organ Trail is the first game I’ve played that really gave me the experience of what it would actually be like to be a survivor living through a zombie apocalypse.

Allow me to illustrate my point by giving you a brief synopsis of my experience playing the game.  I started in zombie-ravaged Washington, DC, just hours before the government planned to drop a nuclear weapon on the city a la Resident Evil 2.  I was accompanied by my fiance along with three other companions, who for the purposes of this playthrough are named Inky, Pinky, Blinky and Clyde.  We quickly gathered our supplies (gas, ammo, medical supplies, spare parts, and money), piled into our Griswold-style station wagon and hit the open road to seek our fate.  Along the way, we forded rivers of zombies, scrounged for food by seeking out shopping carts and grocery bags cast across fields taken by the undead, and shared stories with survivors we encountered in safe locations along the way.  To ensure adequate rest, we set camp at night and traveled by day, occasionally breaking that rule as supplies ran low or we came close to a destination.

Considering society was collapsing around us, we maintained a steady pace.  Until without warning, the first of many hardships befell our band when a zombie bit my beloved Inky.  At that point you have two options: you can keep going as normal, watching the victim’s health slowly but steadily deteriorate until the inevitable transformation into one of the legions of the dead; or you can opt to kill the infected before they turn the rest of the party into an all-you-can-eat buffet.  I’ve seen enough zombie movies to know the latter choice is the sensible one, but to hell with common sense, this is the woman I love, dammit.  I know what I should have done.  But I couldn’t do it.  I couldn’t just callously end it for my beloved Inky.  So I brought her along, knowing in the back of my mind I would have to face up to the inevitable sooner or later.  Later when her health deteriorated and I went through with it.  The fact that I waited until she showed symptoms did not make the inevitable any easier.  Nor did it make it any easier when I was forced to dispatch Blinky when he was bitten soon after, although I wasted no time this time around. Soon after, Pinky also died, although she fell victim not to the zombie plague but to a much older foe of man: the measles.

To make matters worse, food supplies rapidly dwindled, forcing me resort to desperate scavenging runs, attempting to brave the horde in the hopes of bringing enough food back to hold off starvation, enduring repeated attacks from the shambling hordes edging ever closer as I weigh the risks and rewards of making a break for that full shopping cart abandoned by a grocery patron who will never again get the chance to take advantage of double coupons.  You have a shotgun to defend yourself, but it is a slow reload between shots that leaves you vulnerable to attacks.  Plus these are the fast-moving zombies which means they will inevitably catch you in a footrace, leaving you vulnerable to injury.

In between foraging another zombie bite claimed Clyde.  After I took care of him, it left me alone.  Thus barely halfway through my cross-country journey I found myself utterly alone with dwindling supplies.   If there was a silver lining to be had it was in the fact that with one person left alive it meant food supplies would decline more slowly.  On the other hand, there remained the constant search for more gasoline to keep the station wagon going, sometimes across hundreds of miles of empty desert with no trading posts for long stretches of the journey.   What had started as a quest for survival had rapidly devolved into a grim death march across an unforgiving wasteland, battling hunger and loneliness to say nothing of an untold number of zombies.  The game’s simple music chimed like a funeral bell as the station wagon silently rolled across the screen as I wondered when I would finally succumb to the horrors as each rolling mile brought me closer to infection or starvation.

And yet despite being exhausted, half crazed, and hungry, against all odds I managed to make it to the end alive.  When you reach the final destination, you need to earn entry by completing a fetch quest to acquire gasoline cans to fuel a power generator in a reference to both a similar stage from Left 4 Dead 2 and the final minigame from the Oregon Trail.  As in the foraging for food mini game, you are forced to navigate the stage armed with a slowly-reloading shotgun while ever-increasing numbers of zombies chase you.  However, much like the rafting down the river minigame from the end of Oregon Trail, it seems a jarring departure from the rest of the game and breaks the flow of the rest of the experience up to that point.  The transition between the rest of the game and this minigame is especially jarring because during the search for gasoline you are protected by four survivors armed with shotguns firing from the station wagon.  If we are to assume this is your ride from the rest of the journey it would not make sense in my scenario, as I only had one survivor left.  It is a change of pace from the rest of the game and I feel undermines the tension that led up to it.  However, after some tense moments I managed to complete the task, bringing my journey to an end.  Truly, I was alive but at what cost?

All the previous paragraphs are is my attempt to convey that the Organ Trail is a grueling ordeal wrapped in a flash game.  The world it presents is a grim and cruel one, where your enemies are not merely those that hunger for your brains.  Just as important antagonists are loneliness and the ever-present decline of health and supplies.  It is a game of the struggle to survive in a bleak, unforgiving world.

And in doing so I feel The Men Who Wear Many Hats have done a great job of capturing the feeling of a zombie apocalypse and how it would likely play out for people if it ever actually happened.   In a world where society has collapsed, the number of capable, Ash Williams-esque alpha males quipping one-liners as they mow down zombies en masse with chainsaws, shotguns, lawnmowers, and moose antlers would be vastly overshadowed by the myriad terrified, desperate survivors just trying to scrape by and live long enough to see the next minute without ending up infected or occupying the inside of an untold number of no-longer-functioning digestive tracts.  The Organ Trail succeeds in that it depicts a realism that has nothing to do with graphics.  Despite its simple, seventies-esque artistic design and sensibilities, I believe Organ Trail creates an experience of the zombie apocalypse that feels more authentic than many of big-budget zombie games.

Happy Halloween!

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About kevinimpellizeri

I'm a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Delaware where I am studying the social and cultural impact of video games in America. When I'm not studying history or playing video games I offer my voice on 91.3 WVUD Newark and review bad horror movies at www.horrorsofhorror.com. You can follow me on Twitter at @KDImpellizeri
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