April 21, 2022
Individual values and ethical quandaries reign supreme in Trolley Problem, Inc. Take a well-known philosophical paper and turn the dilemmas found within into pithy, absurdist binary questions and watch as players struggle when you only give them ~40 seconds to answer. That’s the basic premise behind solo developer Sam Read-Graves’ Trolley Problem, Inc, a title that forces you to make a decision and then judges you for it for the rest of the game. A somewhat interesting experiment on morality, the game opens with some genuinely interesting lines worthy of pondering but struggles to maintain that same level of interest throughout its rather short playtime (60-90 minutes).
First introduced by English philosopher Philipa Foot and iterated upon by many over the years, the titular Trolley Problem is a widely appreciated philosophical dilemma that dates back to 1967. Still holding relevancy to this day, the Trolley Problem, and the game by the same name, asks whether you should do nothing and let a trolley crash into and kill five people, or whether you should intervene by pulling a lever, directing the trolley into one person who would also inevitably die. Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one? Does pulling the lever make you a murderer who intervened with the world’s natural path? Is not pulling the lever just as much of an action as pulling the lever? Does being an inactive bystander really make you innocent? Would your decision change if you knew who the one person was? Would your decision change if you weren’t pulling a lever to change the track, but instead pushing a very large man onto the track, killing him but stopping the trolley from hitting the five?
The basics of the Trolley Problem are explored in Graves’ game within the first three questions. Players are met with a prompt narrated by actress Jan Ravens and are given very little time to internally debate the choice at hand. Much like the Trolley Problem itself, not making a choice isn’t an option here, because one of the two choices will already be selected, so you’re either adjusting the course of fate or allowing it to go through. A narrative carries you from one choice to the next, with the game thinly justifying how you keep being the pivot point of world-altering decisions. At the end of each choice, a scoreboard will show you just how many lives you harmed, killed, or otherwise negatively impacted, serving as a constant reminder of the influence of your choices. You can also compare your decisions up against that of the rest of the players, a fun mechanic that I unfortunately wasn’t able to fully appreciate as someone playing the game prior to release.
“Trolley Problem, Inc sticks surprisingly faithfully to actual philosophical doctrine.”
Trolley Problem, Inc sticks surprisingly faithfully to actual philosophical doctrine. In fact, as you play, references to philosophical papers will pop up in the bottom left to indicate where a particular dilemma was derived from. Starting with the Trolley Problem, you’ll move into hospital proceedings, then the programming of self-driving cars, and explore modern political debates. I can’t help but feel however that the game is at its strongest during its first chapters, maybe even during its first few prompts.
The Trolley Problem is iconic for a reason. It distils the value of life and the role of the bystander down into one simple question. I still don’t have an answer for the question that feels good, because it’s designed to force you to pick between two bad yet equally weighted answers. Compare that to questions posed later in the game, such as whether self-driving cars should be programmed to place a higher value on the lives of those who pay the company making them a monthly subscription, and suddenly the philosophy feels less nuanced and less interesting. No, I don’t believe the ultra-wealthy have more of a right to live. Yes, I am pro-abortion. Yes, I am pro-vaccination. Once Trolley Problem, Inc moves into areas where people have already made up their minds, there is nothing left to ponder during the 40 seconds of deliberation. Even if the prompt is thinly disguising these real-world issues with laboured analogies, they still don’t generate the same level of thought as the Trolley Problem itself. At best they’re cute ways of bringing real politics into a philosophy game, at worst they’re offensive, as if the right for women to choose what happens to their own bodies is somehow comparable to a thought-provoking, equally-weighted moral dilemma.
A question further into the game references the prisoner’s dilemma, another classic conundrum that can pit two people against each other, even if it’s in their best interest to work together. But in Trolley Problem, Inc, the prisoner’s dilemma is described incorrectly. Without going into too much boring detail, the game fails to follow the basics of the prisoner’s dilemma prompt and instead offers a binary choice where there’s one answer that is always better than the other. It just kind of… messed it up. It was an unfortunate moment than undermined a little bit of what the game was looking to achieve, but thankfully the only example I noticed within the many prompts found in the game.
Whilst Trolley Problem, Inc struggles in some way to keep the questions poignant, it doesn’t fail at its presentation. A minimalistic approach allows for maximum impact as the game very cleanly presents you with a choice to make. The background sounds of a trolley in motion remind you of the game’s namesake as you agonize over a choice against a ticking clock. The timeline is presented thematically too, with the trolley problem showing the passage of time by a small animation of a trolley on a track, and prompts within the hospital showing the passage of time via a heartrate monitor. Even the cursor will change as you hover a syringe over the choice to either vaccinate or not vaccinate the population. There’s a cleverness to the simplicity and presentation that works, with Jan Ravens’ narration setting the mood perfectly. Her voice work is superb for 95% of the experience, outside of a couple of lines that were clearly recorded in a different setting or with different equipment and stuck out like a sore thumb.
A report card that displays at the end of each prompt serves as a constant reminder of your misdeads. It’s a fun inclusion, with a set of bonus items you can find throughout your playtime also displayed on this screen. These collectables are acquired if you make certain choices along the way, and serve as a fairly weak reason to replay the game. Unfortunately without having meaningful branching paths or repercussions for your answers, I don’t see much reason to play Trolley problem, Inc for a second time. This is especially true because, at the time of reviewing, the game didn’t have a fast-forward button, meaning even if you knew what choice you wanted to make, you’d still have to wait out the ~40 seconds before the choice was locked in. It does appear like this functionality is being worked on however and will hopefully be available upon release.
“There are undeniable shimmers of brilliance found in this experience, it’s just a shame there are also constant reminders of its shortcomings.”
At unexpected moments, the game will occasionally flash the results of your choices on screen for a brief second, creating a rather sorrowful and minor jump scare. Despite this, the absurdist nature of the game and the dark sense of humour it portrays helps to keep the tone enjoyable even with the frequent morbidity of the situation. It’s in this balance that Trolley problem, Inc manages to succeed. There are undeniable shimmers of brilliance found in this experience, it’s just a shame there are also constant reminders of its shortcomings.
One of the game’s shortcomings would have to be its cooperative capabilities. I was initially glad to see the game facilitated coop play, because what’s more fun than arguing with a loved one over a question with no good answer? Unfortuantely the way coop is implemented is suboptimal. Rather than allowing all players to vote, with tiebreakers decided at random, the game instead gives control to one player intermittently, before relinquishing control and granting it to the other player. This essentially means that whoever had control of the cursor just as the countdown runs out got full control of the outcome. Even more bizarre is that this functionality is maintained through to the game menu screens. Quitting the game or changing an option in the menu suddenly became a teamwork exercise for no good reason whatsoever.
Trolley problem, Inc is a game of binaries. The good parts of the game often weigh equally with the bad. It’s kind of beautiful in a way, as the game constantly likes to remind us that there is no good without equally weighted bad. A perfect marriage of thematic ideology and game design competency.
- Takes evocative real-world philosophy and applies it to a video game
- Presented cleanly and cleverly
- A unique game whose themes will always be relevant
- Prompts don't maintain a consistent level of poignancy
- A very thin overarching narrative
- Poorly implemented coop play
Trolley Problem, Inc is a decent exploration of morality and philosophy, culminating in a provocative experience that will likely linger beyond its rather short playtime. It’s cleverly presented, even if it can verge on the side of overly simple. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t maintain the same level of intrigue generated by its opening questions, failing to include real-world politics in a satisfying way. It stumbles one too many times, with moments of brilliance being met in equal measure by disappointing shortcomings.