IFDB page: Off the Trolley
Final placement: 20th place (of 36) in the 2005 Interactive Fiction Competition
Off the Trolley has a pretty arresting premise. You play a 65-year-old trolley driver on his last day at work. It’s your last day because your trolley line is going to be closed tomorrow, and no wonder — the line just goes back and forth between a grassy hill that used to be a movie theater and a cafe that seems to serve mainly trolley staff. But you’re obsessed with a mirror-windowed building just beyond the cinema stop, convinced that they’re building something in there “against humanity, morality, and
you.” The puzzles are all about figuring out how to crash the trolley into the building, and the game even makes a point of noting that in the last movie you saw at the now-gone theater, “Robert De Niro was acting great driving that taxi, solving all those matters so frankly.” So basically, you’re pensioner Travis Bickle in Trolley Driver.
Or at least, maybe you would be if the game hung together better. Unfortunately, it undermines its own effectiveness through a combination of awkward language, muddled tone, broken implementation, and a baffling, inconclusive ending. As you might have divined from the De Niro sentence, there are some significant problems with the English in the game. It’s not that it’s entirely broken all the time, though there are certainly plenty of broken moments. It’s more that the writing lacks grace and ease, using words in not-quite-right ways and making infelicitous diction choices throughout. For instance, here’s a sentence you’re likely to see often in the game: “Looking out, the trolley strolls steadily on its level route.” I believe what’s intended here is that you can see the landscape going by through the window, and you know that the trolley is moving at a steady pace. But “looking out” seems to apply to the trolley in the sentence, and by itself (without the addition of “the window”) it means scanning for danger. Not only that, “strolling” is not something that wheeled vehicles do — it’s a synonym for walking, with a connotation of casualness. It’s certainly possible to understand what the sentence wants to mean, but taking the journey from what it says to what it intends kicks you right out of the story.
The puzzles are enjoyable despite the language issues — well-cued and logical. However, I turned to the walkthrough after the game started spitting “[TADS-1010: object value required]” at me every turn. After that, things got stranger than I expected. Throughout the game, it’s unclear whether Off The Trolley wants to be a gentler version of Taxi Driver, revealing the psychosis of its protagonist, or whether in fact we would find something horrible within the mirrored building. But after I followed the walkthrough to avoid the TADS errors, I reached the ending, which resolves into… neither option? Instead, it suddenly shifts point-of-view for an Aisle-ish one-move experience, leading to various endings that ignore the protagonist’s arc altogether, stepping outside it to resolve absolutely nothing. These endings are all pretty much variations on a theme, and none of them are satisfying at all, instead leaving us hanging… sometimes literally.