In simulating the experience of what it was like to cross a large portion of North America during the nineteenth century, the Oregon Trail hits on some major themes. The narrative of the game revolves around the hardships that American pioneers would have experienced as they traveled to the Oregon territory. The player is put on a linear pathway as a caravan of pioneers with the singular endpoint in Oregon. Along the way the player faces decisions that can change the outcome of the journey. The narrative dictates play in this game, as the characters would simply die off after a certain amount of stagnation. Different pathways can be chosen with either good, or bad consequences. Death of the group is always a possibility, and if the player does not provision properly many ills can befall the journeymen and women such as disease, injury, or snakebite. Yet if the player holds their resolve and can withstand the hardships of the American frontier, the Oregon territory is definitely attainable. The Oregon Trail overall is a fun representation centered on the incredible difficulties that the people who really did this amazing feat experienced. It is oftentimes whimsical in dialogue, and a bit separated from the true struggles of disease on the frontier, or bodily injury, but that is what keeps the game lighter and more enjoyable in general.
Women and people of an ethnicity other than white are included in the game, but overall not instrumental elements. A number of Native American, African American, and even children can be traded with and conversed with over the 2000-mile trek. It is not to say that they are completely disregarded, but they are mainly dependent on the player’s willingness to engage, and are largely passive. At times the dialogue can be a bit stereotypical in regards to ethnicity and gender, but in truth, if the game is meant to be somewhat of an accurate interpretation of the time period then it probably falls short of the reality in this regard. Besides being characters along the trail, the player can also choose to have a group of travelers of whatever gender they want. This has no effect on the game as far as can be told, yet the player never actually sees their virtual pioneers at all, so here again the representation of women plays somewhat of a secondary role. But in holding with its happy go lucky feel, the game has a muted representation of minorities and women overall.
The primary protagonist of the game is the leader of the caravan, and the other four who journey along with. The other four are somewhat secondary, but are still reactive to the player’s choices in game. It is a player driven game, where the decisions made by said player can reap rewards, or not for the entire group. Not much can be done to subvert the agency of the historical actors in the case of the Oregon Trail. Many of the true to life pioneers both made it, and died along the way, so whether the player makes it or not is all part of the general narrative. There is not a way to veer from the prescribed path, even forks in the road all end up at the same point; they just represent different risks and benefits. Ultimately the lack of agency on behalf of the player makes the game less repeatable. The Oregon Trail is a fun game, and can be comedic as well as enlightening of this nineteenth century experience, but the path becomes restrictive after a play or two. For its age it holds up, but in comparing the experience to today’s games and agency it obviously lacks.
If the goal is to make the game feel antiquated through both the narrative as well as from a graphics perspective then it succeeds. It may have been a graphic innovation for its day, but the game is not overly exciting from a visual standpoint. The later version of the game with its updated graphics add to the pioneering feel of the game surely, but the text version required a greater amount of imagination, and in some ways the experience was more cathartic. The later version was easier to navigate with more streamlined and less cumbersome controls, adding to enjoyment and somewhat morbid irony of the whole situation presented by the game. From an education standpoint the original text base game stands out, though convincing today’s gamers to play that style of game would indeed be a challenge. In reiterating the point that it left more to the imagination it innately causes the player to analyze it deeper, and give a bit more thought to the experience itself. The 1990’s version translates into a more visual experience, yet falls short in being educational material. The game places the problems that real pioneers faced as obstacles in the way of making it to the main objective. Historical terms and ideas are there, but not explicitly explained or emphasized. The Oregon Trail is a fun, imaginative representation of the past without a doubt, but has its flaws as well.