Saturday, May 9, 2015

Shades of Resonance: Fond Reminiscence - Memory Log #32

The Oregon Trail

Oh, that peculiar world of computer gaming. In my younger days, I wasn't sure how to quantify it. "Can these clunky, complicated-looking monstrosities really be considered 'gaming systems'?" I wondered. "Can theirs truly be called 'video games'?" 

Even as someone who had daily access to a Commodore 64, I still had trouble reconciling the differences between "computer games" and those I'd play on consoles. "Should Bruce Lee, Impossible Mission and Law of the West be considered computer equivalents of the '8-bit' video games I regularly play on my friends' NESes?" I'd debate amongst myself. "Or should they be classified as something else entirely?" These were the types of questions that resurfaced to my mind's forefront on the day our 4th-grade computer class was introduced to The Oregon Trail

I remember the scene: It was the second floor of St. Bernadette Catholic school in that weird desk-less classroom into which none in my group had ever entered before that year. In the past, we'd peek into it whenever we'd wander through that second-floor hallway, but we couldn't guess as to the room's actual purpose ("Is it for business or perhaps storing our information?"). We'd learn that it was the school's computer room, which most notably abandoned the conventional classroom setup in favor of a circumferential alignment of tables stuffed with somewhere around 20 Apple II computers. The room was perennially patrolled by the stern, humorless Sister Francis (who I didn't believe to be a real nun because she always wore a dress suit and no habit), and we avoided getting too close to her domain because we were all aware of how she'd angrily reprimand any kid who dared to enter without permission.

Her class was mostly about familiarizing us with mouse controls, typing, and basic computer software, and we were pretty excited about it at first; though, after a few weeks of being forced to repeat the same boring, repetitive exercises, our interest waned and it became just another mundane one-hour period. That's why it was such a surprise to us when we entered the computer room that day and found that some rather-intriguing-looking software had been loaded onto each Apple II before we arrived; the visual on the monitor read "The Oregon Trail," and we could all sense that something creative and fun was waiting for us beyond the title image.

And it turned out that The Oregon Trail was an honest-to-goodness video game--or at least something I'd deemed to resemble one--which shocked me not because I didn't believe the Apple II to possess game-playing capability but because it seemed so out of character for Sister Francis to allow such a thing in her classroom; she seemed more like the type who would catch us playing Super Mario Bros. and readily remind us that "video games are a waste of time!"

Nevertheless, she was surprisingly eager to teach us the basics--how to name our characters, buy supplies, and generally proceed through the game. Now, I admit that I had no clue what The Oregon Trail was actually about or how I was supposed to properly interact with, well, any part of it, but certain elements of the game captured my imagination in a way that was purely specific to an oddball like me; that is, where everyone else was more concerned with shooting the largest buffalo (the hunting minigame was predictably a crowd favorite) and deciding whether or not to caulk their wagon to across a lake, my fascination lay with how radically different The Oregon Trail was from any of the games I'd ever played and how alien it felt even compared to all of those Commodore 64 games I'd labeled "weird." I'd originally concluded that consoles and computers were wholly separate entities operating from within two disparately functioning, narrowly defined universes, but now it appeared that even the different computer systems had clear divisions! It'd take me a few years to figure out what that could mean.

All I knew for sure was that everyone in my class loved the game and looked forward to playing it again in the future. Sadly, though, we'd only get a limited number of shots at it; if we were lucky, Sister Francis would load up The Oregon Trail maybe four or five more times during any semester--twice as part of her normal scheduling and a small handful times when she'd capitulate after we'd collectively whine and beg her to play it.

"So how did you decide to play it, you freak?" you ask, rudely.

Well, I always chose a banker as my main character because it seemed like the logical thing to do. I mean, the bankers had all of the money, and selecting to play as one came with the innate advantage of being able to load up on on goods--particularly the maximum amount of food, which was important for me to have in abundance when you consider my complex strategy--and still have plenty of funds left over. If the only punishment for taking an easier path to victory was "receiving less points," then I could happily continue shunning the other characters forever.

Naturally, I'd name the members of my party after high-class individuals like professional wrestlers and comedy duos from my favorite sitcoms (like The Honeymooners and The Odd Couple). My party leader was of course dubbed "Mr. Perfect" (or "Mr. Perf," since you could only fit eight characters), and I'd assign the other four members names like Ralph, Norton, Felix, Oscar, Laurel, Hardy, Abbot and Costello--the chosen combination depending upon how I felt that day.

"So what was this 'complex strategy' you mentioned before, you nutcase?" you continue badgering.

Well, um, there really wasn't any. My plan was to simply max out my supplies and then tank it. I didn't have the patience for party management, so it made the most sense for me to (a) ignore any of the game's warnings, (b) stop only to hunt for food, and (c) continue charging forward no matter how badly my crew was ravaged by repeated bouts of fever, dysentery, typhoid, cholera or any those other diseases none of us could properly pronounce ("'Dye-ster-knee'? 'Cho-lee-rah'? Huh?"). There was no stopping to look around. No checking of supplies. No retreat. No surrender.

I can't figure out why, but I was never able to reach Oregon. I'd make it maybe 75% of the way on my best day. "No food?" I'd notice. "No problem--my pals can make it another five days without nourishment!" Well, no they couldn't; they'd all inevitably die from funny-sounding diseases.

And that was my experience with The Oregon Trail, a game I could never accurately classify. "Does a computer-based educational game count as a 'real' video game? Can it be considered part of the same medium that produced the likes of Metroid and Rolling Thunder? Would it even fit in on a gaming-oriented computer system like the Commodore 64?" The answers to those questions would elude me for a long time.

Still, even after I found enlightenment and learned to lovingly embrace the medium in all of its wonderfully disparate forms--a game being a game by any name--one thing would remain consistent: I'd continue to associate The Oregon Trail with the school days of my youth and that weirdly furnished computer room on the second floor of St. Bernadette Catholic school. 

And typhoid.

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