The narrative includes the shadowy guides-for-hire, called coyotes.
It is a virtual world of hunt or be hunted, set in the simulated Sonora Desert of Arizona, where more than 2,500 immigrants, mainly Mexicans, have died of dehydration trying to enter the U.S. since 2000.
Designed by a New York University professor to help promote his documentary about migrant deaths, the game last month was named a finalist in a national awards competition for socially meaningful digital games. Since its introduction last year, it has drawn attention from advocates and teachers, who say it helps expose the next generation to the humanitarian aspects of immigration policy.
Recent changes in enforcement have reduced the number of urban points where immigrants traverse, funneling more into the parched, roughly 60-mile stretch featured in the game.
Some undocumented immigrants in the Philadelphia area have made the real-life trek from Mexico's border to Tucson, and on to the East Coast.
"For our members who crossed the border, the [game's] traumatic reality rings true," said Peter Pedemonti, executive director of the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, an interfaith immigrant support group.
At the request of The Inquirer, Pedemonti, 35, test-drove The Migrant Trail as both immigrant and border agent. He said it was eye-opening having to decide how many cans of tuna to carry, or what to do upon finding "dead bodies, abandoned backpacks, and wallets with pictures of [immigrants'] kids."
A challenge designed for one player at a time, The Migrant Trail is the invention of Marco Williams, a professor of film and television at New York University and director/producer of The Undocumented, a documentary about immigrants who perished, and the subsequent efforts by U.S. and Mexican authorities to identify and repatriate the remains.
The 90-minute film, which was hosted last month by Philadelphia's Scribe Video Center and screened at International House in West Philadelphia, aired last year on PBS.
The game, a co-creation of Williams' Hip Truth Productions and game maker Gigantic Mechanic, is interspersed with clips from the film. Williams' company absorbs the cost of maintaining the site. He said he's not a natural online gamer.
The images shot by Williams for the documentary show in detail what the unrelenting sun can do to a corpse, but the tone of the film and the game is compassionate, not crass.
In an interview, Williams said his goal was to humanize the participants on both sides of the debate about illegal immigration.
The game and film, he said, have been "part of a module about the border" in a ninth-grade English class in Riverdale, Calif., near Fresno, where 80 percent of the student body is Hispanic.
Playing as migrants, students are introduced to the stories of the fictional characters willing to risk their lives to reach America.
Playing as border agents, they learn about a job that entails more than capturing migrants, and may include saving lives or providing closure for bereaved families in Mexico.
There is no simple definition of winning. Players can increase the level of difficulty by directing multiple avatars simultaneously, but cannot play as border crosser and agent at the same time.
"My boyfriend is in New York City. He saved up $2,500 washing dishes in some Italian restaurant so I could join him. . . . The desert terrifies me," says the avatar Adriana. "But if I can just get to Tucson, I can catch a bus and it will all be OK."
Another avatar, Ruiz, a border patrolman, sees another side.
"You could say the law's in my blood. My dad, my grandfather, most of my uncles, [are] all police. It wasn't easy for them being Puerto Rican cops up in Chicago, especially back in the day," he says. "I came down here a few years ago. I know I tend to be strict out there, but it's the law, and they broke it."
There are no easy answers with this sensitive topic, a reviewer for the gaming site Shacknews wrote last month, "but this free game gives players another perspective."
To play, go to: http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/undocumented/migrant-trail.html