Trolley Problem, Inc. Review: choices matter.
“There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. On the tracks are 5 people unable to move. You are next to a lever, if you pull this lever the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice there is a person on the other track. What do you do?”
Ahh, the trolley problem. An age-old moral quandary! This horrifying (yet luckily hypothetical) situation has only these two choices as options presented, but for an express purpose: to make you question your morals. Do you make the conscious decision to kill someone in an effort to save 5 people, or do you passively allow the train to stay its course, your negligence killing 5 people but sparing the one? Either way, you’re killing people — either through action or inaction, right? Or does that passivity mean you’re not truly responsible since you didn’t pull the trigger? Or is your inaction a worse crime since more people overall died?
Don’t spend too much time ruminating on that — you only have 45 seconds to make a decision before the infamous runaway trolley careens into an unspecified amount of people.
This thought experiment come to life is just another day on the job (the first one, in fact!) at Trolley Problem, Inc., “a darkly comedic narrative game based on real-world philosophical papers.” Developed by Read Graves and published by Yogscast Games, Trolley Problem, Inc. places PC players in extremely specific ethical dilemmas with lasting consequences over and over again until they’re absolutely exhausted with binary questions. Deftly woven together to form an outlandishly complex story with increasingly ridiculous twists and turns through familiar moral quandaries, Trolley Problem, Inc. provides a unique gaming experience filled with intelligent material, dark humor, and a plethora of opportunities for self-introspection.
As previously mentioned, Trolley Problem, Inc. opens up on your first day on the job, which is apparently a position of an inordinate amount of responsibility. In your hands are the fates of six humans, hanging in the balance because they’ve inextricably found themselves tied to train tracks and, naturally, a in the path of a runaway trolley. You’ll need to make a decision, and quickly, because you have a limited amount of time to do so. The narrator makes comments on whichever way you’re leaning, sometimes even deriding your decision, before moving onto the the conclusion of your choices… which is rarely pretty.
Of course, Trolley Problem, Inc. is not just the same ethical dilemma over and over again — various moral quandaries and thought experiments asked within the last few thousand years are posited as situations that require your urgent decision, such as Plato’s Allegory of the Cave or the ethics surrounding Euthanasia. Hell, even the Matrix’s red vs. blue pill proposition is involved; basically, anything that presents an ethical conundrum and has two options to choose from is fair game in this… not very fair game. But I guess life isn’t very fair, is it?
At first, I considered Trolley Problem, Inc. as a fun, experimental title that was definitely an amusing way to ponder how I felt about certain situations, but there’s a specific chapter that is a somewhat obvious parallel to an extremely topical human rights argument happening right now (which one, amirite?) that definitely elevated the experience for me. The reason? It was nice to see at the end of each situation how others voted, and on this specific topic it was most excellent to see an overwhelming majority of people align with something. Sure, it was presented in a different context, but it gave me hope that more people agree with the actual thing it alluded to. So… shout-out to letting me see how others voted, because it redeemed some hope in humanity for me, if only for a moment.
So, I feel like I have to address one thing I find critical, and that’s that I think the point of the game is easily missed due to a “forest for the trees” sort of thing. By the end of the game, I found it was pretty clear that Trolley Problem, Inc. was trying to show us that life is rarely full of false binary choices and that plenty of nuance exists before we even arrive at these situations. Before we resign ourselves to taking this extreme responsibility over the fates of 6 people and this runaway trolley, we should ask why these are our only options. Is there not a trolley driver to pump the brakes? Is no one else around to help free the 6 people on the tracks? And how did they even get on these tracks in the first place? Surely these are not the only two options we have?
Unfortunately, in the game’s brilliant ability to cleverly weave these moral quandaries into a strange, yet strangely cohesive story means that these situations that formerly lacked any sort of definitive post-answer commentary now had absolutist judgement calls from the narrator. This goes directly against the point of these questions, which is to provide introspective discussion on our morality and not necessarily have a right or wrong answer. Instead of just letting us have confidence in our choices despite the consequences — knowing full well the choice made was the lesser of two evils made under duress — the game’s storyline and dark humor can mislead players into thinking they’re withholding information or nudging players into choosing a specific answer.
Additionally, I didn’t love that some of the Steam achievements are either bugged, tedious, or are literally the most ridiculously complex without adding any gameplay value. This may seem a bit nitpicky and missing the point, but with a 2 hour playtime, I figured I may as well go for a 100% completion to pad the playvalue with another hour or so. Alas, the collector’s achievement seems to require players to get it in one playthrough, which means that the “agreeing with the developer all the way through”‘s achievement can’t be unlocked at the same time; for those keeping count at home, this means a minimum of 3 playthroughs if you’re going in blind (as you should). Exhausting. But the one that was the most frustrating? One achievement requires you to stream it on Twitch and get at least one vote. As a non-Twitch streamer, I have no idea what that means, and I have no intention of finding out.
With that being said, I think Trolley Problem, Inc. is one of the best games a content creator can play if they enjoy talking to their followers about their beliefs, values, or what they would do in increasingly ridiculous and mysterious hypothetical situations. As an eternal Unus Annus fan, I can easily see Markiplier and CrankGamePlays taking a stab at the Trolley Problem, Inc., either together or individually, being silly about it or answering seriously to share more about themselves to their fans. In fact, any content creator should definitely consider playing this game, as it’s definitely a one of a kind experience that’ll entertain anyone who watches. In the very least, players will learn something about themselves as part of gameplay (or at least give their brain a workout).
Trolley Problem, Inc. is a cleverly crafted thought experiment that takes familiar moral quandaries and weaves them together into one increasingly over the top storyline. Clocking in at around 2 hours, Trolley Problem, Inc. may be on the shorter side, but the material presented makes for an intellectual deep dive that will amuse, then exhaust players agonizing over each impossible situation. Although the overarching message may get a bit lost in the weeds, Trolley Problem, Inc. is a brilliant title eloquently executed, a must-play for content creators, novelty-seekers, and those wanting more food for thought alike.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PC (reviewed); Publisher: Yogscast Games; Developer: Read Graves; Players: 1 – 2; Released: April 22, 2022; MSRP: $10.99
Editor’s note: This review is based on a digital copy of Trolley Problem, Inc. provided by the publisher.