I encountered Brenda Brathwaite’s Train at The Museum of Design Atlanta’s XYZ: Alternative Voices in Game Design exhibition, in a high-ceilinged gallery space with a skylight, the first steely clouds and bassy thunderclaps of a storm rolling in. I’d seen that Flatlands was all set up and ready to go, but Flatlands requires three players, and it was the end of the day, and the only other person in the room was curatorial assistant who’d sold me my ticket. So I was about to leave—but when I saw Train, I stopped and stared, then instinctively looked around, marginally embarrassed at my own burst of excitement.
You see, Train is a tabletop game, and also a unique art-object. (It handily rebuts all of the standard objections to games being considered “art,” from the aura of the original to the issue of single authorship, while also revealing the reductive silliness of that whole debate). There’s only one of it, and it travels from city to city, space to space. So I hadn’t known when or where or if I’d get to play Train, and somehow I’d missed it on the list of games in the exhibition, even though I knew about the involvement of John Sharp, the venerable art historian and Brathwaite’s sometime-collaborator. This was my shot.
“How’s it going?” the curatorial assistant asked just then.
“Good, except that there’s nobody to play Train with me,” I said with a near-total lack of subtlety, gesturing to the mostly-empty gallery. He smiled at me, unperturbed by my dopey faux-coyness, and we sat down and we played.
For those who aren’t familiar, the object of Train is to load little yellow person-shaped tokens into train cars, and then to guide those cars to the end of a track. As you can see from the image above, the three lengths of track (one per player) are set on top of a broken window pane, and the rules are typed on vellum paper, one sheet of which is still sticking out of what they probably don’t realize is an actual S.S. typewriter. The rules, like the psychical pieces of the game, are menacing and unstable. “Each token is worth a hundred thousand,” the vellum will tell you, without saying a hundred thousand of what.
When a player gets a train car to its destination, that player draws a Terminus Card, on which is written the name of a Nazi concentration camp. The player then removes the carload of tokens and places on the card. (I found myself instinctually setting them into orderly, symmetrical rows). Ah, so a token is worth a hundred thousand people, then. The game ends when there are no tokens, no people, left to transport. “Well, you win, and we all lose,” the curatorial assistant said to me after I had outmaneuvered him. We winced. We shrugged.
Having played the game numerous times and seen other play it even more, my opponent/curator had stories to share. The fresh breaking of glass included in the instructions for setting the game up. (“God damn it, who broke Train?” someone had hollered from the next room). Or the players who kept trying to walk out of the building with the tokens, maybe wanting souvenirs, or maybe wanting to be rescuers in some weird way, or maybe both. Or the two young guys who seemed to enjoy the game much more once they realized what reaching the end of the track signified.
My host was also hyper-aware of the game’s unsettling subtleties. He played a DERAIL card against me, which meant I had to surrender half my tokens, of which I had nine. An odd number. So did we round up, or down? Well, the vellum was mute on that point, so we had to decide for ourselves. We had to negotiate. We had to collaborate as well as compete. It’s not just a game about the banality of evil, but also about the alienated labor necessary for evil to operate. It’s a game about how every job requires drudgery and attentiveness and skill, regardless of its productive (or destructive) value and its moral content.
Ian Bogost has made much of how Train “embraces ambiguity at every turn, refusing to connect any dots,” and how “it never makes an argument about the Holocaust. It never even takes a position on whether or not the efficient movement of people from station to terminus ought to be praised or condemned by its players, whether they should adopt the role of Nazi officer in order to grasp his plight or if they should reject it as morally reprehensible.”
“But Train is a tabletop game, not a digital one,” Bogost says. Then he asks, “Is it even possible to translate the gestural ambiguity of such an experience into a video game?”
In my next post, I’ll discuss one particular video game that answers that question confidently, elegantly, and in the affirmative.