For gamers of a certain age, The Oregon Trail game from 1971 is a true icon. Set in 1848 and following a group of European settlers, it helped school children everywhere learn more about American history. Furthermore, it led to some truly meme-worthy moments, including the classic “You have died of dysentery” meme.
Now, however, a new 2D adventure game has taken the concept of The Oregon Trail and given it a very unique twist. The game, called When Rivers Were Trails, is set in 1890 and tells the story of a Native American forced out of Minnesota as they make their way to California.
Released in 2019, When Rivers Were Trails has already made major waves in the gaming community. And it has also helped to put the original Oregon Trail back on the map.
Here is everything you need to know about When Rivers Were Trails and why it is making game history.
The original Oregon Trail
Younger gamers may have no real memory or even knowledge of the original Oregon Trail. Those who played it, though, remember it as an unforgettable experience.
By modern standards, the graphics and gameplay are primitive. After all, the original code dates back to 1971. And the game mostly centered around successfully getting from Missouri to the West Coast.
To do so, you had to pick the right supplies, select the speed of your journey, and make some hard decisions when bad things happen. And for most players, the journey ended in deaths that alternated between horrific and hilarious.
To the original developers, though, the point of the game was what you learned along the way.
Legacy of the first Oregon Trail
For better or for worse, Oregon Trail basically created the “edutainment” genre of gaming. Designed by Paul Dillenberger, Bill Heinemann, and Don Rawitsch in 1971, it served as an interactive history lesson for young students in Minnesota.
Thanks to Rawitsch, the game spread throughout Minnesota and then throughout the country. And it would receive numerous ports and adaptations over the next five decades to help gamers everywhere experience its bizarre and educational charm.
Even if it weren’t so influential as an educational title, Oregon Trail made history for another reason. It’s what the World Video Game Museum dubbed “the oldest continuously available video game ever made.”
However, the new game When Rivers Were Trails takes issue with some of the lessons from the original title.
Why do a remix?
Even for a title as old as Oregon Trail, many ask a simple question: why do a remix at all? In an age where movies and video games alike are all about sequels, prequels, reboots, and spinoffs, do we really need to return to this particular well?
For video game designer and culture professor Elizabeth LaPensée, the answer to that is a resounding “yes.” She is an indigenous Anishinaabe and Métis and had some very specific bones to pick with the original game.
The original Oregon Trail “always put Native people in relation to settlers,” LaPensée told Native New Online. This is problematic because it leads to poor portrayals of Native Americans. “They were either traders, guides, or would circle wagons and attack.”
While the original designers probably did not do this maliciously, such a portrayal helps reinforce many of the Native American cultural stereotypes from movies and television. Fortunately, When Rivers Were Trails is here to put those stereotypes to rest.
The indigenous development team
A game is only as good as its development team. For LaPensée, the solution was simple: to craft an awesome indigenous version of Oregon Trail, she was going to need an awesome indigenous team.
That’s why she worked with 30 different indigenous writers as well as the Native American artist Weshoyot Alvitre. This created a deep pool of Native experience and contributes to the complexities and charms of the final product.
Developed by Michigan State University’s Games for Entertainment and Learning Lab in collaboration with the Indian Land Tenure Foundation, the Native characters don’t just trade, guide, and attack. Instead, they navigate tribal customs, internecine conflict, romantic intrigue, and much more.
You can watch the trailer for When Rivers Were Trails below.
The end result is the best of both worlds. Not only is the game a more realistic and respectful portrayal of Native life, but it also offers the replayability and fun factor that gamers crave.
As far as cultural impact goes, When Rivers Were Trails is really picking up steam. In 2019, it took home Indiecade’s prestigious Adaptation Award. And in August 2020, the Smithsonian American Art Museum featured the game as part of its annual video game festival SAAM Arcade.
When Rivers Were Trails’ cultural and historical prominence is likely to grow over time, much like the original Oregon Trail. And in time, it may completely change the way society perceives Native Americans and game design itself.
Furthermore, When Rivers Were Trails serves as an inspiration for indie game designers everywhere. It goes to show that there are engaging and immersive stories about so many underrepresented protagonists just waiting for the right creators.
And for gamers hungry for a new kind of story and a new kind of game, that future can’t get here quick enough!