The logo for Trolley Problem Inc, the publisher's name in the corner

Review

Trolley Problem, Inc. Review

April 21, 2022

By: Tyler Chancey

 
 

If you have a passing knowledge of philosophy or justice, you've most likely heard of the trolley problem. You're on a runaway trolley on a collision course with five helpless people. There's a lever in front of you. Pulling the lever will save five people, but the opposite track has one helpless person on it. Is it better to be complacent in the death of five, or willingly kill someone else in an attempt to do less harm? It is the basis of many ethical debates dating all the way back to the times of the Roman Empire to the modern-day., and it is the entire basis of Trolley Problem, Inc.

A trolley going towards two tracks, one with five people, the other with one.
This is as simple as this game gets. Really.

Left or Right?

As the name implies, Trolley Problem, Inc. is a game all about presenting you with binary moral choices. The game in its entirety is presented in a faux web browser and is framed as a training program, complete with friendly narration by a cool female voice. The problem is expressed, a time limit of 30 seconds ticks down, and you choose by simply clicking on one of two decisions. Once your choice is made, your choice is compared with the decisions made by other people who took similar surveys as well as the choices of the creative director, Read Graves.

 

On paper, it's an extremely basic gameplay experience that managed to be the biggest emotional gut punch I've experienced this year. What helps elevate it are two key details. First and foremost, the problems presented in Trolley Problem, Inc. are actual ethics questions that have been published in one way, shape, or form across a wide swath of material. These range from Plato's Myth of the Cave to excerpts from the Qu'ran to the works of Albert Camus to actual court cases all the way up to moral dilemmas regarding AI as recent as 2021. The game even cites each of these studies, cases, and journal publications in a dedicated Reading List on the main menu.

Furthermore, the seriousness of these dilemmas is made palatable thanks to a persistent undercurrent of dark humor presented by the narrator. She even has multiple responses and asides based on your choices as the timer ticks down, her commentary cutting deep with layers of extraneous context. This commentary is even backed up with fourth-wall-breaking scenarios with the screen glitching out or words scrolling past the screen. It isn't as invasive and subversive as Daniel Mullin's work, but it does bring a more modern sting to the questions it presents. While many intellectuals have criticized the binary nature of the lack of context of the titular trolley problem, Trolley Problem, Inc., uses it as a means to examine how contextual and situational good intentions and ethical choices really are.

 
 
A problem regarding subscription services and insurance companies
Yay, corporate-approved protection racketts!

Am I A Good Person?

The time I spent with Trolley Problem, Inc. was a highly enlightening one. What started as simple utilitarian questions – condemning five lives to death or murdering one – gradually became more complex. What if the one person you kill is a child? What if the five people being threatened are by someone else and you have the means to stop them?

This framing expands throughout the game's various chapters. The first chapter is mostly clinical questions devoid of outside influence, the kind of bog-standard questions that one gets in a High School Civics class. But future chapters include the moral dilemmas facing those in the field of medical care. Do you give a heart transplant to an elderly man whose next on the waiting list or to a young accident victim that will die without it? This continues with questions regarding AI research and corporate influence. Do you try to cover up potentially malfunctioning car AI and risk bad press or do you tell the truth and lose what influence you have to fix the problem? There is even a chapter of questions regarding geopolitics and the problems world leaders face like a surveillance state over respecting personal privacy. The game even gets theological near the end when it comes to forgiveness and personal responsibility.

 
 

It was the most draining hour and a half I've ever spent playing a game. But Trolley Problem, Inc. never explicitly condemns your actions. There are even a few curveball questions peppered throughout to keep the entire experience from feeling accusatory or exhausting. It also helped invoke some introspection regarding what I held dear and what I ended up choosing under pressure.

A problem regarding covering up shady dealings
The source for this particular issue made me gag.

In fact, Trolley Problem, Inc. can also double as a fantastic learning aid in both communal and academic circles. In addition to the game's single-player mode, there is a co-op mode where your choices are shared, great for a couch session. There is also a Custom mode where you can have multiple players choose for themselves and have them polled collectively. There is even Twitch integration for streamers and influencers to have their moral boundaries pushed with their viewers in tow.

This does highlight one critique I do have with Trolley Problem, Inc. Much like the simplicity of the trolley problem itself, I found myself appreciating and respecting the experience itself more than being entertained by it. While it is all well presented with many different accessibility options including dyslexic font, colorblind modes, and even options to extend or shorten timers, it can feel more like a teaching aid than a form of entertainment. Personally, I loved my time with the game and the way it presented nuanced questions and problems, but if you aren't fond of reductive “A or B” decision making this won't be a revelation.

An end of problem screen with narration text making a joke about the Myth of Ownership
As someone who minored in Philosophy, this honestly made me laugh.

Trolley Problem, Inc. | Final Thoughts

Trolley, Problem Inc. does a fantastic job of presenting questions with no clear answers and makes each one of them deeply engaging. It cuts deep with social commentary without condemning or attacking the player's actions and does an admirable job of making sure the questions are taken from wide swaths of the human experience. If you love ethical philosophy and civics debate or are a college professor in need of some tools, this game is a must. But if you've never been fond of the framing of this game's namesake, you might be better served elsewhere.

 
 

TechRaptor's review of Trolley Problem, Inc. was conducted on PC with a copy provided by the publisher.

Review Summary

Review Summary

9.0
Trolley Problem, Inc. presents ethical questions in a direct, accessible manner, covering multiple fields of discussion. At times, that depth can make it feel more of a teaching tool than a game.

Pros

  • Engaging, Well-Researched, Moral Choice Gameplay
  • Plentiful Accessibility Tools
  • Sharp, Relevant Social Commentary

Cons

  • More Questionnaire Than Game