Extra Punctuation

Extra Punctuation
The Rise of Rail Roading

Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw | 9 Aug 2011 16:00
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Sometimes it seems like the player is some necessary nuisance the game feels it has to put up with rather than work together with to create an experience. Not content with the endemic cut scenes, the interactivity of even the gameplay sections is being plucked away piece by piece, and I see it everywhere now. Games used to let you jump over or crawl under things yourself, but now they'll just let you press one contextual button when you approach an obstacle and activate some pre-baked animation that shows your character navigating it. They used to let you figure stuff out for yourself, not wrench the camera away and point it squarely at the next contextual button press like some humorless preschool teacher commanding a toddler.

Speaking of patterns in the random flow of existence, it seems like a lot of my favorite games from the last few years have been sandbox titles. And I think the reason for that is because the sandbox style (in most cases) tends to lend itself better to free-flowing gameplay - usually, anyway. The counterpoint is LA Noire, or half the missions in GTA 4 where you just follow a sequence of instructional captions from checkpoint to checkpoint. But I'm not saying every game should be a sandbox to avoid this issue, I've never had a problem with linearity (indeed, there's no such thing as a non-linear narrative-driven game) but you can be linear and organic. It's the difference between flowing like a dangerous river and flowing like a length of surgical tubing.

Look at action-adventure climbing sections such as in Tomb Raider or Uncharted. There's usually a fixed path, but you're free to let go or jump in the wrong direction. Maybe you'll find a secret. More likely you'll die a hideous splattery death, but at least your fate is in your own hands. Compare that to the climbing from Enslaved, which doesn't even let you jump or fall off a ledge unless you're aimed squarely at the next designated climbing spot. This is just another way of walking down a corridor, except there's a big fat dude walking along behind you who keeps shoving you in the back if you try to stop and look at one of the pictures on the wall.

If interactive media is to evolve then developers need to embrace the notion that the player is a participant in the story, not some inconveniently self-aware aspect of it that has to be herded into line. Because honestly, if you feel you can't trust the player enough to create their own spectacular set pieces then maybe you should just be making films.

What happened to the trust between player and designer? To the thrill a developer used to feel when players came up with a solution they didn't think of? Are they laboring under the impression that we've all become too dumb to play games by ourselves? Just because there are people who have bought 3D TVs? Like me?

Huh. That's a point. Fine, forget I said anything. Herd my dumb ass.

Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn't talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games and writes the back page column for PC Gamer, who are too important to mention us. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.

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