In the latest edition of Metagame Monday, I ask: Which would make a better novel, WarCraft II or The Oregon Trail?
This seems like an obvious choice, and maybe even an unfair one. With a fictional universe full of blockbuster games and rich narrative not only from those games but also cinematics and extended fiction from novels and comics, WarCraft is unquestionably one of the richest worlds in video gaming history.
As a matter of fact, it was that rich narrative that paved the way for the graphical MMO phenomenon that World of WarCraft didn’t create (I believe that honour belongs to Meridian 59), but definitely made mainstream. Blizzard’s memorable depictions of the Human and Orc forces in Tides of Darkness and later The Frozen Throne as well as the epic tale of their struggle for control of a world that both sides needed for survival have heavy roots in classic fantasy tropes, but they were presented with a narrative quality and deft modern touch (such as the in-game unit commentary) that were new to PC games.
In this case, there are also a wide selection of WarCraft novels and they are actually solid fantasy stories even without the gaming experience around it. The ones I have read do a good job of explaining the world and characters to readers who may not be familiar with the games, and are exciting stories on their own.
The Oregon Trail
At times, the best narrative experiences are the ones where the gamer is only presented with a loose story framework and left to their own devices and imagination to create their own story. The Oregon Trail is one such game, where the very basic premise of traveling from point A to B with your family against a bevy of challenges such as broken wagons, hunger, thieves and FIRE!!! as well as a terrifying final journey along a rock studded river is open ended enough and dynamically different between each play through to foster a unique narrative interpretation for each sequence of events.
The Oregon Trail is essentially timeless, as its core experience lends itself to different interpretations based not only on version of the game (original or remake), but also where the gamer is in their own life. I still have vivid memories of struggling with the various challenges as a kid playing on a monochrome Mac in my grade school computer lab, but I also replayed the game recently on my iPhone with all of the bells and whistles of a modern remake. While my strategy has changed (I no longer insist on starting as a banker and then hunting incessantly), what stayed the same was my desire to personify and live vicariously through my virtual family of settlers on each attempt to reach our new home.
I have to give this one to WarCraft II, as that game laid the foundation for all future generations of computer and video games that succeeded it. As much as I enjoy the free form narrative that my experiences with The Oregon Trail has been comprised of, the winner should be the game that has the best defined story within the explicit game experience.