Which throwback video game would make a better film adaptation: Duck Hunt, or the Oregon Trail?
On Wednesday, I competed in a debate for the show The Skewer. The debate topic was the following:
This month it was announced that the film adaptation of Tetris is a go. It will be an 80 million dollar sci-fi/thriller that will be the first part in a trilogy. Nostalgia and terrible movies seem to be “in” right now, but it isn’t the only old game waiting to come back into the spotlight.
Which video game would make the best film adaptation? Duck Hunt, or Oregon Trail?
I was assigned Oregon Trail. Here’s my argument:
Oregon Trail and Dunk Hunt are relics of an innocent era when the screeching sounds of dial-up internet seemed at once dulcet and cutting edge, like the auto-tune in Cher’s Do You Believe in Life After Love . We lovingly played both games; Duck Hunt in the centipede-filled basements of neighbor kids, Oregon Trail in the cinderblock computer labs of elementary schools. Back then, both games seemed immersive, impressive. But let’s not allow nostalgia to cloud our older, gimlet eyes.
It’s clear which of these preadolescent pastimes is more narratively developed and cinematic. Oregon Trail is a vastly superior game. It is dynamic, complex, and tragic. It interweaves a narrative with a variety of gameplay dynamics. You hunt, you travel over a variety of terrain, you trade, you cross rapid, coursing rivers, and you learn a little about the conflict between the Sioux and Shoshone Indians.
It’s even historically accurate! Game developer Don Rawitsch based the probabilities of outcomes like dysentery and death on the actual proportion of such incidents in the historical record. His characters might be three-pixel taupe blobs, but many of their quotes are cribbed from diaries of the time period.
The open-endedness and depth of this game made it groundbreaking. In Oregon Trail, you have choices, and those choices carry weight. You can die. Literally everyone can die. And not from failing to time your button presses, but from making poor choices. The tension and conflict at the heart of this game makes it readily adaptable to the screen.
Oregon Trail is a classic Hero’s Journey myth. You travel thousands of miles, abandoning your old life, risking death to pursue some sad, dust bowl vision of the American dream. Your trail is strewn with pixelated tombstones; like Hercules you must pass into the underworld, pay your respects at the grave of someone names Lil Peanut, and then ford the River Styx.
There are tough choices to make and costs for every decision. In all likelihood your third party member, Lance Bass, will perish along the way. There’s even moral complexity! You hunt for survival, and the bison population dwindles. You press westward, seeking a better life for your family, and encounter the Native Americans your people have disenfranchised.
Oregon Trail is the Odyssey, as i lay dying, on the road, Thelma and Louise, little miss sunshine, and too wong fu all rolled into one. It’s a Spaghetti Western pastiche, a domestic family drama, and a road movie. It’s a classic story of triumph over adversity, in a classically American backdrop. Who wouldn’t want to watch that?
Duck Hunt, conversely, is a simple game about the blithe human conquest of nature. There are no consequences for it carnage. There are zero stakes; if you miss, the worst thing that can happen is that your dog laughs at you. And even the game’s’ sole mechanic, hunting, is outclassed by the hunting in Oregon Trail. In the Oregon Trail, hunting is a matter of life and death. In Duck Hunt, it’s exclusively about impressing your dog.
The Oregon Trail was the pinnacle of late 80’s digital storytelling. It made learning about dysentery and nineteenth century budgeting interesting. The story and outcome of the game was a little bit different every single time you played it. That alone gives it the potential to be a narrative-shattering cinematic masterpiece.
It would legitimately make a fantastic film. And that’s despite the fact that there has never, in the history of cinema, been a good videogame-inspired movie before. Think about Hollywood’s previous attempts. Corporate orgy clusterfucks like The Angry Birds Movie, Battleship, Super Mario Brothers, and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (remember that shit?).
Unlike those bloated, narratively impoverished cash-grabs, The Oregon Trail lends itself to the silver screen quite naturally. It progresses in a straightforward, visually compelling manner that any audience would love. Imagine a wide-screened pan over the Blue Mountains at dawn. Picture Steve Carrell, Paul Dano, and Abigail Breslin sitting in the back of a dusty Conestoga wood wagon, wearing hoopskirts. Pretend the dialogue is written by Quentin Tarantino, with a triumphant musical score by Ennio Morricone. See Paul Dano collapsing just outside of Oregon City, as a snake bite froths his blood into a gelatinous solid.
And remember, that deep down, Oregon Trail is really about a bunch of trashy white imperialists dying. Nearly every character drops dead of illness, their bodies spurting out streams of hot, cholera-infected poopwater. This film could be a pioneer bloodbath on par with Hateful Eight, which as a self-hating white person, I am really into.
The potential of this film is unparalleled in a video game movie. It is expansive, sweeping, and widespread in its appeal. With the right cast and crew, it could be a new american classic. We all happily gathered around the Macintosh to play Oregon Trail over and over again as children. We were rapt in live-and-death dilemmas like whether to ford the river, or cut our rations. We felt the stakes, even then, when the world was 8-bit. It’s time we return to that place of imagination and immersion, gathered together before a much lusher image, on a far larger screen.