There are few philosophical thought experiments that have captured popular imagination quite like the trolley problem. Originally conceived more than 50 years ago, it’s been reinterpreted and expanded upon countless times, as people explored how changing details in the basic premise could elicit different responses. In the social media age—especially in the wake of a popular episode of the (extremely good) TV show The Good Place—it’s taken a memetic turn, with modified versions of an illustration of the problem being used for comic effect and biting satire. It’s that sort of cultural weight that Gang Beasts creator Sam Read-Graves new game, Trolley Problem, Inc., builds upon.
At first glance, Trolley Problem, Inc. is simply a gamified version of the various iterations of the classic problem. As a new employee at a company “founded to help people travel safely across the nation”, your on-the-job training involves decision-making in trolley problem-style moral dilemmas. All while, a narrator questions your every choice in an effort to sow seeds of doubt: each question has a timer, and your decision is only locked in when the timer ends, giving you ample opportunity to second-guess yourself. Each day on the job is a new problem to answer, from the timeless original, to variations where the sacrificed individual is a cute little child, to the transplant problem, to a question about putting a dying dog stuck on a railroad out of its misery or letting it suffer for another whole day before the next train comes along.
After answering each question, you get a quick reflection on your decision from the narrator—and being a “darkly comedic” game about making awful decisions, they’re usually laughably derisive—and some stats about how other players voted. There’s also a comparison with Read-Graves’ own choices, and a running tally of how closely (or not) you align with him.
That sounds like an interesting enough game concept on its own, but that’s really just the start of Trolley Problem, Inc. That “moral philosophy firm” thing isn’t just a framing device for some ethical dilemmas, but the basis for an intriguing narrative adventure woven through a series of increasingly bizarre, surreal twists on the foundational ideas. It’s a ride that takes you from theoretical philosopher to trained assassin to someone standing in Hell before the judgment of Beelzebub. It veers in directions both playful (“Will you choose the blue pill or the red pill?”, complete with a “Wachowski and Wachowski, 1997” citation) and sobering (the application of abstract moral philosophising to timely questions about important real-life issues abortion, racism, and war), with the the ultimate goal of really, truly unpacking what it is that thought experiments like the trolley problem want you to explore.
The most impressive thing is that it does all this through the dilemmas it presents to you. There’s little in the way of exposition, other than some snide comments from the narrator and the brief introductions to each problem. But as those problems feed off and inform one another, alongside a deliberately utilitarian tracker of the numerical consequences of all your actions—number of people killed, number of projects failed, number of pills taken, number of people cooked, etc—a heady story about the weight of expectations, responsibility, and figuring out what truly matters starts to emerge.
Clever use of visual effects help pull the pieces together, with VCR-like distortion effects and simple interface creating the atmosphere of dated training videos from the ’90s and a few slightly more surreal, eerie moments in towards the end. That extends to twists on the simple binary choice mechanic, too: nothing can make you doubt your decision about an already tricky moral choice quite like having the answers keep swapping places thanks to some technological and/or demonic interference.
A lengthy reading list of philosophy papers, articles, and other references serves as a nice resource for people wanting a more academic dig, though having at least some reading material in the game itself would be nice, copyright hurdles notwithstanding. But Trolley Problem, Inc. itself is a valuable reflection on exactly that branch of moral philosophy, in the way the unfolding story explores—and prompts players to explore—underlying questions of ethics and morality. It’s a game about choices, not just as a means to divergent ends, but as a way of understanding oneself.
“A darkly comedic narrative game based on real world philosophical papers” is an apt description for Trolley Problem, Inc. but one that feels incomplete. Through its surreal story and black humour, it delivers a thoughtful, fascinating reflection on the moral philosophy underpinning the famous thought experiment. It won’t give you an answer—that was never the point—but it’s a captivating way of delving into those murky depths.
Trolley Problem, Inc.
Developer: Read Graves
Publisher: Yogscast Games
Genre: Narrative adventure
Platforms: PC (reviewed)
Release date: 22 April 2022
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.