I assume you are all familiar with the concept of the trolley problem. You know the ethics minefield thought experiment, right? A trolley races across the tracks and crashes into five people. You face a switch that changes the trolley’s course and saves the five people – but kills a spectator on the other platform. How are you?
Of course you already know what you’re thinking. But does your decision change with context? If the only way to save the five is to physically push a person onto the tracks to force the car to stop, is that worse than pushing a button? What if the five step onto the tracks knowingly and against warnings – are they then less salvageable?
As an ethical and philosophical study, this dilemma dates back to the 1960s, but in recent years it is a concept that has been lifted from the land of professional philosophers and into the mainstream. It’s featured frequently in TV, film and books – and the study of ethics is the backbone of the brilliant comedy series The Good Place. And now we have a video game based on the same concept.
The aptly named Trolley Trouble, Inc is my newest indie obsession on Steam, and the concept behind it is pretty simple: it gives players difficult, if not impossible, choices to make – and weaves a story around those choices. It actually starts with you working at a railroad company, making literal decisions on trolley issues — but it quickly escalates — into health, public safety, and planet-damaging decisions that reach into the realm of sci-fi — all loosely woven narratives.
It’s difficult to talk about this game without getting caught in spoilers, which I absolutely, decidedly won’t do. Narration is the game here, and with varying degrees of surprise, it had me squealing in laughter, gasping in shock, and shaking my head in mild disbelief all at the same time.
What I can say is this: it’s brilliantly presented. A tongue-in-cheek, knowledgable narrator guides you through the experience, which lasts for a few hours but of course has diversions suitable for experiencing multiple runs. All of the questions you’re asked are based on real-world philosophical study, with the game even showing references in the bottom-left corner that can be explored via a menu if you want to continue reading outside of the game. And by and large, everything is pretty brilliant.
It’s a simple concept. The presentation is clever, but it’s also not exactly something that couldn’t have been experienced in a Flash game years ago. The star of the game in every way is British Public Service Announcement’s kind of energy for his art and the knowing, often accusing narrator.
Above all, the narrator really defines the experience. She has no time for your bullshit – whatever flavor it may have. As you make decisions, Trolley Problem, Inc counts your accomplishments after each question. It also shows you how your choices compare to the crowd. When I picked up slain innocents, a dead dog (and much worse), I was moved.
Of course, there’s also a “feeling bad” component. Throughout the experience there is a slight sense of futility – the idea that no matter what you do, you and the world might be a little screwed. Are there really bad decisions or just bad people? are you a bad person Or are you a victim of circumstances – of decisions forced upon you?
And yet, in the same breath, as the game progresses, it has real things to say to you, the player. It speaks directly to you with thoughts about life and what’s good about life and what’s worth holding on to. It’s interesting and very different from anything I’ve played before. I loved it, although I have to admit that I have no particular desire to play it again.
Over on Steam, reviews for Trolley Problem, Inc are understandably, predictably mixed. Common complaints are that the “choices” offered throughout the narrative are illusory, that it’s a brief experience for the $10 admission price, and even the grumbling that the narrator criticizes you no matter the choice you meet. But… that’s kind of the point I guess.
This doubt is a core element of what this game tries to convey. As I said, while often funny in its absurdity or cheekiness, there is a definite “feel-bad” energy in elements of this experience. As for the price – I had about as much fun playing it as I did the last time I went to the cinema, which cost about the same price for about the same “length” of content. Make what you want out of it.
For those familiar with the previously mentioned The Good Place, this feels exactly like how it would have been introduced in that game to torture Chidi. Which is pretty gross when I think about it. Like a TV sitcom that regularly quotes Plato, however, it’s definitely an acquired taste. Hence the mixed reviews.
To contemplate one of the most paralyzing and divisive philosophical questions out there, Trolley Problem, Inc isn’t exactly the most subtle of experiences. However, it does not pretend to be philosophically pure and perfect, and it does not pretend to have the answers. It just pushes your buttons to make you think – and it certainly does. It’s not an experience I’ll soon forget.
https://www.vg247.com/trolley-problem-inc-feel-bad-gem Trolley Problem, Inc is a brilliantly fun indie gem that feels bad and it’s out now on Steam