REVIEW: The Oregon Trail

The Oregon Trail was the major overland route from the Missouri River to the Pacific coast of the United States (particularly from 1846–69), taking those travelling to Oregon or the California goldfields, or other destinations such as Salt Lake City in Utah, across plains, prairies, rivers, mountains and deserts to reach their desired destination in the frontier West. It was a gruelling five- to six-month journey of more than 2,000 miles to reach Oregon Territory, requiring pioneers to overcome harsh and treacherous terrain, changeable weather, hostile strangers, wild animals, tiredness, illness and frequent accidents. Settlers travelled in groups for reasons of safety and ready assistance, walking alongside large, covered wagons carrying all of their substantial provisions, essential items and equipment, drawn by oxen, mules or sometimes horses. More than a quarter of a million emigrants undertook this mass migration across the continent hoping for a prosperous future, but many didn’t survive the difficult journey and they now rest beside the trail in marked or unmarked graves.

It’s 1850 and you play as a young pioneer heading out West with your family to Oregon Territory, where a square mile of free farmland awaits those willing to make the trip. The full journey is divided into four books: The Race to Chimney Rock (Independence, Missouri to Chimney Rock), Danger at the Haunted Gate (Chimney Rock to Devil’s Gate), The Search for Snake River (Devil’s Gate to Three Island Crossing) and The Road to Oregon City (Three Island Crossing to Oregon City).

These four adventures can be purchased individually or as a complete boxed set, which includes a bonus copy of the route map printed in colour (b&w version shown above). Each softcover book features fabulous cover art by pixel artist Gustavo Viselner, whose retro imagery adds a distinctive visual style to the series, reflecting the graphical presentation of the classic computer game. The vibrant matt-coated covers are neatly embossed on the front, and the pixel-style fonts used throughout the books add interest to the pages. The interior black & white artwork (both full page and spot) is provided by several artists, with much of it of a decent quality that adequately fits the subject matter and suits its audience.

This ‘choose your own trail’ series is intended for younger readers, yet can be enjoyed by anyone who appreciates CYOA-style adventures without game mechanics such as character sheets and player stats, combat and dice rolling. Each book features a helpful guide at the back warning of the perils likely to be encountered during the upcoming section of the journey, providing brief but highly useful hints on how to avoid problems by using common sense and considered judgment – perfect for inexperienced readers new to interactive fiction or the types of situations to be encountered along the trail, or for older players needing a little helpful information to make some decisions easier.

Featuring more than 20 possible endings in each book, the series contains just one true path through to achieving a successful conclusion, resulting in relatively short adventures that have few genuine alternative options to experiment with. There are many unwanted endings where changing circumstances halt your progress, or where the finality of death sees you abruptly failing to continue your journey – unfortunately, a number of these sudden conclusions would have benefitted from better plotting and more expansive descriptions as some are unsatisfactorily too brief, irritatingly incongruous with stated events, or simply lack what is best described as a realistic outcome.

You’ll face many moments in each book (of both major and minor importance), where logical, unselfish thinking is subsequently rewarded, and ill-considered, self-serving or reckless behaviour is quickly punished. Therefore, the storyline at times has a noticeable moral aspect that players must be heedful of to make continued progress. This narrative direction makes sense within the context of playing as a child on a lengthy journey under difficult conditions, and provides decent educational value for younger readers, but it may begin to irk those not in the target audience. Some of the more difficult decision points include: choosing what items to purchase, carry or leave behind; attempting to safely navigate dangerous rivers and steep slopes; encountering wild animals such as bears, rattlesnakes and stampeding buffalo; dealing with strangers or native peoples; and selecting your direction when facing arduous environments with diminishing supplies and/or increasing weariness. There are many grim and disheartening ways to fail in The Oregon Trail, and you’re likely to ‘die of dysentery’ at some point during the four parts of the adventure.

Jesse Wiley’s easy-to-read writing style perfectly suits the series, efficiently describing the many issues and hardships faced by settlers on the trail. There’s adequate tension and drama to be found within his storytelling, with a surprising amount of dark and disturbing events incorporating injury, deathly afflictions and the sorrowful passing of travelling companions. Wiley neatly captures the wide-eyed enthusiasm and wonderment of his young pioneers (which is soon replaced by tiredness and displeasure!), and the changing scenery is convincingly described, painting a realistic picture of the numerous environments by highlighting their characteristic harshness or beauty, and deceptive, intrinsic hazards.

The Oregon Trail is an entertaining interactive journey with additional educational and historical value. Readers with a pioneering spirit, or who enjoy storylines based on significant documented events, will likely find these gamebooks interesting and unexpectedly tragic on occasion, and often be amused – or bemused – by the wide range of calamities that may befall members of the wagon train. The publisher has also released other stand-alone adventures in this series, so there are already further trailblazing experiences for eager travellers to attempt. Westward ho!

STORYLINE: Many obstacles await you on the treacherous Oregon Trail as your oxen slowly pull your jam-packed wagon across North America’s Great Plains on a dangerous frontier journey. Cross mountains, prairies and rivers, and pass famous landmarks as you head out West, facing difficult decisions, meeting Native American people, and surviving hostile encounters and natural disasters. Watch out for fast-flowing rivers, snakebites, extreme heat, disease, flash floods, quicksand, sudden storms, forest fires, and much, much more – can you and your family make it all the way to Oregon City?

GAMEPLAY: CYOA-style adventures without game mechanics often feature only limited interaction and choices, and that’s certainly the case here. The helpful hints section in each book provides direct solutions for some of the trickier situations to be encountered, which makes sense for its intended audience. The single path that must be taken to achieve the only successful conclusion is mildly disappointing from a playing perspective, but this is somewhat balanced by some rather unexpected deaths, moody encounters and dramatic early endings.

PRESENTATION: The visual style of the series is immensely enhanced by Gustavo Viselner’s super cool pixel art, elevating these gamebooks above most of the other CYOA-style adventures published for younger readers. The interior layout is an interesting mix of pixel-style fonts and graphics, and basic page formatting, with the text set at a large size within plenty of white space. It’s great to see a series created for children given the advantage of some decent graphic design and quality illustration.

REPLAY VALUE: The restrictive winning path and its many resulting dead ends provide only scant alternative options to the central narrative. This is interactive fiction built around only one genuine storyline, rather than offering exploration with different solutions (and great escapes) that are clever, unexpected or reward determined strategy. There are numerous unsuccessful conclusions to be found – with or without an early death – yet their replay value is quite limited as they don’t add a substantial amount of undiscovered content to the individual adventures.

Review by Michael Reilly

5 thoughts on “REVIEW: The Oregon Trail”

    1. The price will always be variable depending on where you buy from and what country you live in, so GBN won’t be adding such information in the foreseeable future. An online search of the title will quickly show current pricing for anything featured.

    1. This would be a perfect gamebook for a parent to share with a child – I do hope you enjoy the experience together.

      I’ve recently purchased the 2nd boxed set of four further adventures, so I’ll be back on the trail again sometime soon!

  1. rachel backhouse

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