Brenda Brathwaite's Train

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In a few short weeks, all three platform holders will be committed to bringing gestural controls to the commercial industry. But while the Wii, Move and Kinect are offering little more than alternate ways to point and shoot, games industry veteran Brenda Brathwaite has created an experience that demonstrates how context can be used to invest physical actions with deep and complex meaning.

Brenda Brathwaite's TrainTrain is unique on every conceivable level: it exemplifies how games can escape being predictable and safe, and tackle difficult subject matter in a provocative and useful way. Only one version exists, touring an endless circuit of art galleries and cultural centres, forcing interested players to expend time and effort to participate in the experience. It is played on a pealing window frame laid flat in front of the players – the panes are freshly broken, shards of glass are scattered across the table. Across it lie three railway tracks, each with a set of carriages that can hold a number of yellow wooden tokens, shaped to look like people. An authentic, World War II-era German typewriter sits nearby, a piece of paper loaded into the mechanism.

Players find a set of rules instructing them to load the people into the boxcars and progress to the end of the track. To do this they roll dice, draw cards and make choices that result in switching tracks, damaging trains, or derailing – as well as the desired forward progression. The destination revealed by the terminus cards at the end of each track is Auschwitz, or another Nazi concentration camp, but it’s not this final reveal that makes Train significant and interesting.

Unlike games where the narrative is the principal source of emotional stimulus, Train offers no political or philosophical standpoint on its subject matter, focussing instead on the uneasy sense of complicity created by the player’s physical interactions with the game. On one level, its singularity separates it completely from the mass-produced videogames we play; on another, it could serve as an invaluable point of inspiration for the legions of designers seeking to create meaningful experiences using Kinect and Move.

Train grew from a single evening where its enigmatic designer, Brenda Brathwaite, used board game pieces to help her seven-year old daughter understand the plight of African slaves travelling the Middle Passage. A series of simple physical interactions represented the reality of the slave trade with more power than weeks of dry, didactic history lessons, and Brathwaite resolved to create six board games about specific moments in history. The latest, and most significant, is Train.

“Of these games,” Brathwaite adds, “Train was one I had to do. If you are going to do games about difficult topics, you can’t avoid the holocaust if you want it to be a full exercise… It occurred to me how many times we don’t make the game because we think the subject matter is not suitable… Often, we make games because it’s fun or commercially successful. But how many paintings are painted with that in mind? Or how many great works of art exist that didn’t have to ask that question? It was simply the medium of expression that the artist selected.”

Brenda Brathwaite's TrainThe power of Train lies not just in the interaction required by the rules, but in the physical nature of the way it is played. “Train couldn’t be programmed because of the way it enables the infinite possibility of the human imagination,” Brathwaite says. “Take the Derail rule for example, ‘When the car derails, half the pieces return to the starting gate and half refuse to re-board.’ What does that mean? Some players have said the people are dead and have laid them down on the board, others have said they’ve escaped, while others have forced them to re-board. As players make this range of individual decisions, they are implicated in the outcome. Train takes full advantage of this analogue luxury… Before players know what Train is about, they often take the pawns and just slam them into the train-cars. But when they realise that they represent the Jews, they take them out of those cars and set them down so incredibly gently.”

In a sense, Train has as much in common with an art installation as it does a game. It’s as much about a temporary physical performance as it is about winning or losing. Indeed, the performance aspect of Train is arguably the crucial way in which it departs from videogames. Not just because of its one-off nature, but because of the way people don’t play videogames in front of onlookers anymore.

“The larger question in Train is: Are you just going to blindly follow the rules?” Brathwaite asks. “Even if you have just taken them from a Nazi’s typewriter, will you obey them without even asking where it is all heading? And the answer is: yes, in the case of Train at least, we will.”

For more on Brenda Brathwaite’s Train pick up issue 102 of games™ – on-sale 28th October.