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A game about American railway bridges collapsing isn’t as absurd as it seems

There’s a moment in every child’s life, when posing as an amateur builder, when they realize a simple but fundamental principle of design: things work better when you stagger them. In bricklaying, Lego or otherwise, the staggering of joints is called a running bond. In Mark Ellis: Train Bridge Inspector, it’s nonexistent.

The game, a physics simulator rendered in a few different shades of brown, plays with this principle by letting locomotives loose across bridges held up by precarious arrangements of monochromatic blocks. At the start of each level, you choose whether or not to give a bridge the Mark Ellis stamp of approval. Then comes the moment of truth as you watch a cartoonish train bobble down it toward an uncertain fate. Were you right to approve?

Sometimes everything falls apart before the train even appears on screen 

At its most basic, Train Bridge Inspector offers the primitive thrill of a single-trick Rube Goldberg Machine. Each block vibrates under the stress of the oncoming train, slowly wiggling out of its starting position until large stretches of track go flying into the chasm they were meant to bridge.

Strictly speaking, the way to “win” in Train Bridge Inspector is to correctly guess whether a train can make it from one side of the bridge to the other. Sometimes everything falls apart before the train even appears on screen. Other times, sheer momentum will carry the train to safety despite the debris surrounding it. In the end, though, there’s nothing to collect or gain. Getting an inspection right doesn’t lead to success so much as forestall the eventual failure. This end up being thematically appropriate, given the hazardous state of many railroads and bridges in the real world.

Adriaan de Jongh and Rami Ismail created the game together during the 2015 Train Jam, in part as a reflection of the fact that, as they state on the game’s website, “American train bridges are assessed by the companies that control the railroad.” Made while they rode 57 hours from Chicago to San Francisco on Amtrak’s California Zephyr line, the game doubles as a comedic reflection on the darker possibilities of travel by rail.

“American train bridges are assessed by the companies that control the railroad” 

Funnily enough, a couple weeks ago, John Olivermade headlines when he tore into the state of America’s infrastructure. But the crumbling edifice of the nation’s transportation system is nothing new. In an in-depth report for the La Crosse Tribune last December, Chris Hubbuch detailed the shortcomings of actual train bridge inspection in some detail. In addition to there being only six inspectors for the nation’s estimated 76,000 rail bridges, the Federal Railroad Administration’s only real objective is to, “verify the bridge’s physical appearance matches what’s in the railroad’s report.” While the FRA provides oversight, direct responsibility for rail safety lies, as Jongh and Ismail noted, with the railroad companies themselves.

And this element of dark but straightforward satire is part of what gives Train Bridge Inspector its absurd charm. Out of context, the game is a clever piece of distractionware; a fun way to passively watch minor disasters unfold and, by virtue of the Mark Ellis stamp of approval, feel ownership over the outcome.

But that little bit of knowledge—that trains pass over nearly century old bridges that haven’t been properly inspected every day—in the back of your mind can give Train Bridge Inspector an added kick. It’s the obviousness of the problem and solution that gives the issue a comedic twist, which is why Oliver seized on it. And it’s that same dynamic that makes seeing a train catapulted across a nonsense bridge in Jongh and Ismail’s game elicit childish giggles from those who play it.

You can download Mark Ellis: Train Bridge Inspector for free on the App Store.