A runaway trolley careens down some railway tracks, but on the tracks are five people unable to move. You’re next to a lever that will switch to a different set of tracks if you pull it. However, you notice that there is a person on the other track. Do you pull the leaver killing the person, or do nothing and watch five people die?
These are the moral questions thrust upon the player by lone developer Samuel Read-Graves, who aims to get gamers thinking with a series of philosophical questions. It’s a breezy experience, around an hour and a half to be precise, with each scenario offering two difficult answers to a deliciously tough question and a countdown timer to pile on the pressure. Trolley Problem, Inc. is certainly effective in places but the potential to truly change people’s way of thinking is squandered by half-baked ideas and loss of focus.
Narratively and mechanically speaking Trolley Problem, Inc. is a simple game to dive into. You’re a new employee for the titular company, guided by a snarky narrator who presents you with different scenarios based on real-world philosophical papers. You simply click one of two answers before the timer reaches zero and proceed through the story. The gameplay is very much played in your head. Will you leave the dying dog to have a slow and painful death, or put it out of its misery yourself? Would you rather give company money to the customers affected by your killer cars, or to your underpaid workers working on the project? On your own the questions generally do a good job of getting you to seriously think, but it’s particularly fun when playing with others in the room where you can debate and argue your choices. There’s even an option for Twitch streamers to let viewers vote for their preferred answer too.
At the end of each problem, you get a darkly comical receipt that reflects your choices; with items including ‘Children Killed’ and ‘Kept Alive Against Will’. The narrator also tends to comment on your choice, which typically makes you questions your actions no matter the outcome. It’s all designed to get you thinking about the weight of the moral dilemma and the consequences of whatever solution you go with. For those who want to delve further into the philosophical problems presented throughout the game, there is a handy reading list in the menu that references the real-life paper used for each scenario. It’s a welcome feature that could easily be used in schools and by those looking to study philosophy.
Trolley Problem, Inc. is most effect at the beginning as it thrusts you into truly difficult questions from the very first scenario. It doesn’t take long to see that Read-Graves wants you to think bigger than “should I save one or the many?”; to take into account what your involvement means in the grander scheme of free will and fate. Adding to the effect are the rare collectibles you can obtain from making certain decisions throughout your playthrough, typically a grim reminder of the consequences of your actions. I managed to unlock a syringe from the patient I euthanised. Lovely.
Unfortunately that heavy-hitting feeling fizzles out, even in the game’s brisk campaign. Whilst there are some interesting questions that cover topics such as Artificial Intelligence, the climate crisis, subscription services and immigration, most of the questions tend to surround death. It felt like I was constantly deciding between saving a small group of people or a large group of people. Narratively the game does take some interesting turns, and I was surprised to find a somewhat linear story playing out, but these similar scenarios kept popping up.
The ending feels rather shallow too. Across several playthroughs there only seems to be one proper narrative conclusion, with an additional ending simply cutting the story short after making a choice from a particular late game question. The receipt that builds after each scenario leads to nothing; you don’t even get to read through the final tally after the game ends. There might be something deeper going on with the ending, especially since the final questions focus on free will and society at large, but it feels disconnected to the first half of the game that built on choice and consequence. Maybe the point of the ending is that our choices and morals don’t matter? Either way, Read-Graves forces the player to abruptly draw up their own conclusions, for better or worse.
There are certainly worse ways to spend a couple of hours. At it’s best, Trolley Problem, Inc. is an entertainingly thought-provoking experience, especially when played with others. The use of real-world philosophy is sure to inspire some gamers to delve deeper into the papers references, and the little artistic and mechanical details peppered throughout the campaign shows just how passionate Read-Graves is about the topics explored. It’s just a shame that the trolley doesn’t always stay on track.
Trolley Problem, Inc. is out now on PC