We're Not Keeping the Player Hungry
In much of the modern world, most of us don't spend our days living in fear of injury or starvation. Why? Because we're prepared to handle them. They no longer pose an immediate threat. We're not scared, because we're just too ready.
The Oregon Trail uses some of the most fertile soil there is: desperation.
Games are often about fulfilling power fantasies, so we tend to start off at least a little heroic and get even more heroic as we go. This can erode the challenge, so we usually increase the opposition (in numbers, in strength, or both) to match. This leads to an "arms race" that turns a lot of survival horror into yet-another-run-and-gun. We're no longer truly fighting to survive; it's just monster hunting, which isn't scary. When we remove the survival, we undermine the horror.
In The Oregon Trail, you're not a hero. You're just some "banker from Boston" (or carpenter or farmer, if you're still pretending). Right from the start, there are already limitations that make you wince. Wagons have four wheels, but you can only bring three spares. Subtle, perhaps, but this math faces you with dark knowledge: You can't be ready for everything.
You never set out feeling you have "enough," and it only gets worse from there. You might take down a half-ton buffalo, but you can only carry back 100 lbs. at a time, making it hard to stockpile. (The Resident Evil series has always used similar Can't-Have-It-All tactics that force players to make tough choices and leave things behind.) This continues to ensure you're never over-prepared, and it also keeps you constantly aware of this fact. That leads us to the final lesson we learn from the Trail -
We're Not Targeting the Right Emotions
There's a reason many of us remember The Oregon Trail so well - we tend to remember things that elicit strong emotions. Sometimes, it's not so much about what an experience makes us feel, but about whether and how much it makes us feel that cements it in our memories. The ability to stir an emotional response is essential, and survival horror games look to stir one in particular: fear.
The greatest mistake in horror is trying to elicit fear by "doing something scary." Even worse, we assume that something that scares the character will automatically scare the player, as if by some voodoo doll connection. An emotion can't be imposed, in the same way a farmer can't force something to grow. He can prepare the ground, plant the seeds, and maintain the right conditions for growth, but nature does the rest. If we expect to "harvest" fear, we first have to find the right soil in which to "plant" it.
The Oregon Trail uses some of the most fertile soil there is: desperation. Fear itself is too elevated an emotional state to keep up for very long, but desperation is more subtle and more sustainable. An added benefit is that when we're desperate, every emotional response is amplified - stretch a rubber band to its limit, and even a tiny scrape will snap it. This is the place where small problems (a snakebite) become heartbreaks, small victories (fording a river) become triumphs, a little humor (finding another player's tombstone) becomes an oasis in the desert, and a little fear finally becomes horror.
This sense of desperation creates interesting emotional conflicts, as well. When one of your party members dies, part of you mourns the loss - perhaps of the points more than of the character - but another part of you realizes this means fewer mouths to feed ... and the chilling fact is that part of you is a little relieved.
When it comes to stirring emotions, The Oregon Trail gets results. And what flies in the face of current logic is that there are no "relatable characters" and no "compelling storyline." There's no leveling system or equipment upgrades. You can't really win, as much as you can just hope to finish. There aren't even any monsters.
Instead, the game uses its mechanics and tone to target the player's emotional state directly. Using the elements of scarcity and entropy, placing palpable limitations on preparedness, and creating an atmosphere that invites (rather than imposes) emotional response, The Oregon Trail reaches into our minds and taps into the basis of all human terror - the idea that we might not make it.
If we can craft core experiences that grip us like this one, it's a small thing to add in the robots, zombies, mutants, or even that damnable dysentery - not necessarily as enemies, but as obstacles to our survival. They are no longer the main course, but rather seasoning in the entrée that will finally satisfy that unyielding hunger for compelling survival horror.
Brian Campbell is a musician and teacher in NC, where he puts brains into kids so the inevitable zombie horde will have something to eat. If you pass his tombstone along the Trail, it will forever read, "Cheese and Pepperoni."