Extra Punctuation: The Rise of Rail Roading

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Actually Ben, one generation is 25 years.

Pedro The Hutt:

w00tage:

Akalabeth:

Batman Arkham Asylum on the other hand is a classic example of hand holding. When you're having a boss fight and the game tells you, on your first run through the fight, how to defeat the guy it's friggin annoying. Though, less annoying than the fact you have to fight at least four similar bosses in exactly the same way. There may even be more after that, I don't know. I got fed up on boss#4 and started playing Bulletstorm instead.

Exactly. I expected that I'd get all of the gameplay of "being the Batman", and instead I got some mooks to pound, some cutscenes, and a button to push to take out the first bad guy. Then I quit it, uninstalled and it's sitting in my archive of Steam games where it will stay forever.

Aren't you shooting yourself in the foot there? In and of itself it's a great Batman story and a huge love letter to the animated series, sure there's handholding all over the place but there's still stuff for you to figure out for yourself, like the Riddler's many challenges. While I too feel it could've done with less handholding (although it seems to get better the further in the game you get), it wasn't enough to completely ruin the experience for me.

To me the analogy is more "come to a party, there'll be fun and games", and when you arrive, it's got a fixed path with tables you stop at to play little solo mini games. And when you play the mini game, just as you're getting to the final and hardest part for the win, person running the minigame just grabs your game stuff and says "You win! Good job!" and gives you a pat on the head.

All it takes is one of those to pretty much spoil the mood for me. If it were just that one, or even just the unimportant ones, I could keep going. But that's a core technology thing, so it seemed pretty certain that is the way it would go for the entire rest of the game. Do all the setup, get to the final step where you are fired up and ready to WIN THIS THING, and have the game developers take the actual win out of your hands and give you a pat on the head for being such a good player.

In all fairness, that's the first game I've ever played with that mechanic, so perhaps people who have a history with those can deal a little better. But for my part, I have a word those developers might want to look up.

"Anticlimactic".

lowkey_jotunn:
Completely agree. One thing that's really made this trend stand out in my mind, is playing a game that DOESN'T hold your hand and guide you along. Recently picked up a copy of Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, and that game is absolutely brutal with the lack of hand-holding.

There is a "main" story line to follow, with plenty of divergent options, and a whole slew of side quests that are both awesome, and cleverly hidden. There's no minimap full of question marks telling you "NEW QUESTS ARE HERE! COMPLETED QUESTS GO HERE," and when you do get a quest, there's no compass or arrow guiding you blindly where you want to go.

"But how will I find my way?" I hear you saying ... easy, you read. You can read the quest logs, examine the items you pick up, talk to the person who gave you the quest, etc. You can figure it out, all the pieces to the puzzle are provided. They're just not categorized, alphabetized and highlighted for you.

And I loved it. There's an actual sense of accomplishment in finding a clue, checking a bus-stop for a map, going to a location and diggin up info on someone's computer... instead of just "GO HERE, KILL HIM, LOOT MACGUFFIN, NOW GO BACK. TURN IN MACGUFFIN. REPEAT"

I hate the whole "bad guy" protagonist thing. It's why I never played that particular game, I can't see myself as a predatory character. Recently I found myself looking for another game and hit up the LParchive site, where I found the V:TM Bloodlines LP.

DAMN what a great game that looks like. It's exactly the kind of game I love to play. I wish there was an option to be a human vampire hunter that gets pulled into their schemes to play the story (checked moddb and planet-vampire, no luck). And to top it off, I just missed the 75% off Steam sale blarggg.

lowkey_jotunn:
Completely agree. One thing that's really made this trend stand out in my mind, is playing a game that DOESN'T hold your hand and guide you along. Recently picked up a copy of Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, and that game is absolutely brutal with the lack of hand-holding.

People forget but Activision really botched the publsihing of the game and very nearly killed it off. Infact the game has been salvaged over the years due to pretty fanatical modding community. And that is the story of great games like this, even the most flawed ones, they have a great community that recognises their potential and actively expands on it.

You can see this in games like Mount and Blade, ARMA II, STALKER, the fan made adventures for the original Witcher. These games have epic support from their comunity, There is an emergin mid-teir of non Triple-A but also no 'indie' 2d titles mainly coming out of europe. These are characterised BY their feedom. The games lsited above are some of these big scale indie titles.

Rumor has it that STALKER 2 has a budget of $3 million. This is TINY compared to the ammounts spent of liniar gun fests. The first three stalker games, one of which took over 5 years to realise, only cost $7 million to create. There is something seriously WRONG with US development if games can be made this cheaply, this ambitiously and this sucessfully in this manor. Many AAA games have such a push for polish and risk aversion to claw back their stupid budgets that there is no way to not make them like this; being 'cinematic' and ambitious is seen as insanity by some publishers. CoD is the most obvious exponent of this move. Copare it something like ARMA and the utter freedom and uncompromised simulation. Its frankly embarassing that a small swedish studio can do so much and the biggest budget and publising house can do so little.

There is also the issue that many big budget games are buggy as hell, even more buggy sometimes than their indie counterparts. The Witcher was buggy sure but there was support above and beyond our wildest dreams for it. Many AAA games are buggy AND lack sufficient after market support. Its unreasonable.

I am hoping these rising indie but not indie stars are able to grow and kick the shit out of the stale offerings currently on show. Or maybe things will continue to devolve. Who really knows.

bojac6:
No, the game predetermining what choices you have is not non-linearity. It's several branching paths that you are then locked in on for the remainder of the game. And your entire second paragraph is exactly my point. A non-linear game cannot be narrative driven. You are completely missing the point by saying you'd be doing quests non-stop and be unable to miss time limits. The whole idea is that you would miss time limits, is that you could stop to admire the scenery, but all of those decisions would have consequences. It's entirely open. Mount and Blade has no structured narrative, but if you think about it, most games are the tale of one character becoming something. There are recurring characters, and I would imagine most players become a Lord and have an army and wage war. But it never ends, or at least it ends when you stop playing. To be a proper story, there needs to be a climax and resolution, which you can never have in a non-linear game.

Having a narrative implies story progression, which means that your characters have to develop, there have to be arcs and rising action, which means there is a natural linearity to it. If your game has an ending, a point that the rest of the story builds to and then finishes, it was linear. The fact that I can start over in the Witcher and side with the elves simply means it has branching options, but you still end up fighting the Grand Master. Even if the endings were completely different, it's not a non-linear game simply because you were given an artificial "option a" and "option b" that sets you down two different, but linear narrative paths. You choose a path and follow it to the end, that's still pretty linear. And that's exactly what Yahtzee's original statement meant. In order to be narrative driven, you have to be linear.

Linearity is not necessarily a bad thing. It can and should allow for a much better story.

Yeah I don't think we're going to get anywhere if we are at a disagreement over what the word means. As far as I've ALWAYS know Non-Linearity is when you, the player, are given the choice to pursue the plot, and explore the world, however you want.

Do you want to help the Scoia'tel, or the Humans? Non-linear. Do you want to recruit Garrus first, or Mordin? Non-linear. Want to gain the respect of the Boomers before you've even met House, let alone get him to ask you to do so? Non-linear.

Mount and Blade is a good example of a totally non-linear game. But it's not the end-all-be-all of non-linearity, at least according to the Definition I'm using.

In fact I'd like to point out a bit from that page:

A truly nonlinear story would be written entirely by the actions of the player, and thus remains a difficult design challenge. As such, there is often no story in truly nonlinear games. Facade, a video game often categorized as an interactive drama, features many branching paths that are dictated by the user's text input based on the current situation, but there is still a set number of outcomes as a result of the inherent limitations of programming, and as such, is non-linear, but not entirely so.

I think the problem is that you (and maybe Yahtzee) are viewing linearity as an on-off button. "A game is either totally, completely devoid of a guiding story that FORCES you to do stuff, or it's linear". I don't mean to put words in your mouth, and I apologize if I'm wrong, but that's what it seems to me.

I disagree with that notion. I feel a slider is a more accurate visual picture; with like, CoD and GoW on one side of the scale and M&B, Simcity, Sims etc. on the other, with RPGs like Oblivion, Fallout, Dragon Age and Witcher at varying points in the middle.
Some games can be MORE linear than others. But even mostly non-linear games (like New Vegas) can have great base narratives.

GrizzlerBorno:

Yeah I don't think we're going to get anywhere if we are at a disagreement over what the word means. As far as I've ALWAYS know Non-Linearity is when you, the player, are given the choice to pursue the plot, and explore the world, however you want.

Do you want to help the Scoia'tel, or the Humans? Non-linear. Do you want to recruit Garrus first, or Mordin? Non-linear. Want to gain the respect of the Boomers before you've even met House, let alone get him to ask you to do so? Non-linear.

Mount and Blade is a good example of a totally non-linear game. But it's not the end-all-be-all of non-linearity, at least according to the Definition I'm using.

In fact I'd like to point out a bit from that page:

A truly nonlinear story would be written entirely by the actions of the player, and thus remains a difficult design challenge. As such, there is often no story in truly nonlinear games. Facade, a video game often categorized as an interactive drama, features many branching paths that are dictated by the user's text input based on the current situation, but there is still a set number of outcomes as a result of the inherent limitations of programming, and as such, is non-linear, but not entirely so.

I think the problem is that you (and maybe Yahtzee) are viewing linearity as an on-off button. "A game is either totally, completely devoid of a guiding story that FORCES you to do stuff, or it's linear". I don't mean to put words in your mouth, and I apologize if I'm wrong, but that's what it seems to me.

I disagree with that notion. I feel a slider is a more accurate visual picture; with like, CoD and GoW on one side of the scale and M&B, Simcity, Sims etc. on the other, with RPGs like Oblivion, Fallout, Dragon Age and Witcher at varying points in the middle.
Some games can be MORE linear than others. But even mostly non-linear games (like New Vegas) can have great base narratives.

I agree with your assessment of how we're viewing this, but I would argue that as it exists currently, it still is a lot more like an on/off button than a scale, because a game is either completely non-linear or very close to the linear side of the spectrum.

Yes, RPGs are closer to the non-linear side than most shooters, but I think they are, for the most part, closer to shooters than Sim style games.

Let's look at one of your examples, Mordin or Garrus first. Yes, it is a choice, but it's just a temporarily separate path. In terms of gameplay, it matters up until you recruit them both. So there's a small window of time where you have Garrus' abilities, but not Mordin's. Another example would be Samara and Morinth, where you have to pick one or the other, but in terms of gameplay, it makes absolutely no difference, they both have the same abilities and the Paragon/Renegade swing is so low as to be meaningless. In terms of game driven narrative, it also doesn't matter too much. The story doesn't continue until you recruit both Mordin and Garrus, nor does it change if you grabbed one first and then dicked around the galaxy before grabbing the other. Samara/Morinth matters a lot more, in that you are given a totally different character and conversation tree. I'd argue for this choice to really matter, the fact that you're protecting a serial killer should have some ramifications, but that's a matter of degree. Now, in player driven narrative, these choices are entirely up to how much you want to RP, but can be quite important. Did Shepherd go after Mordin because he wants a top doctor, as his goal is healing? Or did she go after Archangel, wanting a bad ass fighter to help her smash her way through? Or did she recognize that Archangel was a sniper, precise, and view him as the kind of dedicated, targeted asset she really wanted for her team (which is what my Shepherd did)? Or, do you (the player) think Role Playing is bullshit and went after Archangel because it was the first quest listed alphabetically?

All of those are valid options, and I would say are a good argument for non-linearity, but none of them are really reflected in the game, only in the player. My point is that when looking solely at the game, in a New Critics lens, you see that it's really not that non-linear, it's just a minor bump in a linear progression.

I have to admit, though, that games like Oblivion and New Vegas are good examples of non-linear gameplay. I'm more familiar with Oblivion's story because I never really progressed it much in New Vegas, but that's kind of my point. There is a story driven narrative, that (at least in Oblivion) was quite linear and happened whenever you showed up to make it happen. But then there was another, almost different game there, that allowed you to do what you want, take side quests, and progress however you wanted. That was a very non-linear game, but it wasn't story driven at all, it was player driven. So the story driven parts were linear and the non-story parts weren't. I wasn't captured by the main storyline of New Vegas, so maybe it's different there, but all I did was sidequests and exploration, aka the non-linear part.

I guess my point is I don't consider being offered a choice, or several choices, that have two options as being particularly non-linear. It's not letting you explore the plot or the world in any way you want, it's letting you choose between two linear paths. But I've always been a sucker for the open-ended 4x type games or Egosoft's X games, which really tended to highlight the distinction I'm trying to draw here. There would be the world, which you would explore, conqueror, and build in, but there would also be the plotline, which occasionally had branching storylines (which I guess is considered non-linear). But the choices made in the story seemed so trivial compared to where to build your first factory or what species to ally yourself with.

In short, you're probably right. It is a slider. But I would argue that when following any games main story, even one like New Vegas, you're much closer to the linear side than the non-linear side.

bojac6:
I have to admit, though, that games like Oblivion and New Vegas are good examples of non-linear gameplay. I'm more familiar with Oblivion's story because I never really progressed it much in New Vegas, but that's kind of my point. There is a story driven narrative, that (at least in Oblivion) was quite linear and happened whenever you showed up to make it happen. But then there was another, almost different game there, that allowed you to do what you want, take side quests, and progress however you wanted. That was a very non-linear game, but it wasn't story driven at all, it was player driven. So the story driven parts were linear and the non-story parts weren't. I wasn't captured by the main storyline of New Vegas, so maybe it's different there, but all I did was sidequests and exploration, aka the non-linear part.

In short, you're probably right. It is a slider. But I would argue that when following any games main story, even one like New Vegas, you're much closer to the linear side than the non-linear side.

Fair points all around. Especially that last one is true I guess.

Lastly I would recommend playing New Vegas all the way to the end. In my opinion it is the single best coherent narrative a sandbox game can ever have, because it handles the linearity issue so well (sooooo much better than Fallout 3 at least).

You never have to do things that don't want to do/don't make sense for your character to do. As an example, when you never got hooked into the main story, I could easily just describe that as you playing as a version of the Courier who never intended to get mixed up in the politics to begin with. He/she just wanted to find the guy who shoot him/her, and eventually just gave up (presuming that's what you did do).

And even after you choose a side to fight on, it's not just a linear quest path per faction. It tells you about all the different smaller sub-factions in the Mojave, and asks you to deal with them in different ways (depending on your faction), in any order you want. You can just NOT deal with some of the factions altogether. That's pretty non-linear to me.

I can tell that you probably would've appreciated if there was like a (invisible?) countdown of "~60 days to Battle of the Hoover Dam" so that that climactic event, something portrayed to be an utter inevitability for the whole game, WILL happen regardless of whether or not you get involved. And whilst I can understand your POV on that..... you gotta understand that most people would've just hated that feature, because it would've put a specific time limit on how long they can play their game. And if you were nearing the deadline, you'd have to cut all of your optional quests short just to take part in the battle? That would NOT have gone down well at all. It just isn't worth it from a game design perspective.

Excellent Article Yathzee. I loved it. Too bad I have nothing more to add to this thread than a congratulations.

w00tage:

lowkey_jotunn:

I hate the whole "bad guy" protagonist thing. It's why I never played that particular game, I can't see myself as a predatory character. Recently I found myself looking for another game and hit up the LParchive site, where I found the V:TM Bloodlines LP.

DAMN what a great game that looks like. It's exactly the kind of game I love to play. I wish there was an option to be a human vampire hunter that gets pulled into their schemes to play the story (checked moddb and planet-vampire, no luck). And to top it off, I just missed the 75% off Steam sale blarggg.

Hate to derail a bit, but you don't actually have to play a "bad guy" protagonist in that game. Quite the opposite, actually. One of the main themes in the game is "Humanity" and walking he fine line. I'm pretty sure your average body count on a VTM:B playthrough is significantly lower than the totals of any generic brown RPG that Yahtzee loves so much.

Definitely gonna have to look up that LP now.

Oh, and to bring it back on topic, it all comes down to choice, just like Yahtzee was talking about. You can choose to be a twisted evil jerk who murders everyone he possibly can... or you can play the more "at peace" character who doesn't kill, only eats rodents or blood packs (or other Vampires) and only kills as a last resort. The game fully allows for each style.

If the "evil main character thing" bugs you that bad, just play a Toreador ;) They spend the whole game being angsty and writing poetry. Or stripping. Not even joking. Well, I don't know if YOU can be a stripper, but one of the prominent Toreador NPCs is.

Scrumpmonkey:

lowkey_jotunn:

People forget but Activision really botched the publsihing of the game and very nearly killed it off. Infact the game has been salvaged over the years due to pretty fanatical modding community. And that is the story of great games like this, even the most flawed ones, they have a great community that recognises their potential and actively expands on it.

You can see this in games like Mount and Blade, ARMA II, STALKER, the fan made adventures for the original Witcher. These games have epic support from their comunity, There is an emergin mid-teir of non Triple-A but also no 'indie' 2d titles mainly coming out of europe. These are characterised BY their feedom. The games lsited above are some of these big scale indie titles.

Rumor has it that STALKER 2 has a budget of $3 million. This is TINY compared to the ammounts spent of liniar gun fests. The first three stalker games, one of which took over 5 years to realise, only cost $7 million to create. There is something seriously WRONG with US development if games can be made this cheaply, this ambitiously and this sucessfully in this manor. Many AAA games have such a push for polish and risk aversion to claw back their stupid budgets that there is no way to not make them like this; being 'cinematic' and ambitious is seen as insanity by some publishers. CoD is the most obvious exponent of this move. Copare it something like ARMA and the utter freedom and uncompromised simulation. Its frankly embarassing that a small swedish studio can do so much and the biggest budget and publising house can do so little.

There is also the issue that many big budget games are buggy as hell, even more buggy sometimes than their indie counterparts. The Witcher was buggy sure but there was support above and beyond our wildest dreams for it. Many AAA games are buggy AND lack sufficient after market support. Its unreasonable.

I am hoping these rising indie but not indie stars are able to grow and kick the shit out of the stale offerings currently on show. Or maybe things will continue to devolve. Who really knows.

Absolutely agree that the Activision tripped and ate it towards the end of the production cycle. Tons of potential, great game being cooked up .... and rushed out at the last minute for the holiday shopping season, before it could be fully ironed out. The dev studio, Troika, actually went belly up because of that whole mess.

The cool thing is, that fanatical modding community has a few of the original game devs. Guys just stuck around and kept fixing bugs and releasing patches on their own free time. Talk about "for the love of the art." At least, it did originally. Unsure what all has transpired in the 7+ years since release.

I've never really understood why the big companies don't keep smaller "2nd tier" (as you call them) studios under their umbrella. A company like Troika, who created V:TMB, employed maybe a couple dozen people at most, and turned out a great product. A big studio like Activision or EA could completely bankroll them for what amount to peanut shells. As long as they keep their hansd off, those smaller guys will churn out great, unique products that the big company can put their stamp on. And the parent company can keep working on "Call of the Modern Battlefield 42."

lowkey_jotunn:

Absolutely agree that the Activision tripped and ate it towards the end of the production cycle. Tons of potential, great game being cooked up .... and rushed out at the last minute for the holiday shopping season, before it could be fully ironed out. The dev studio, Troika, actually went belly up because of that whole mess.

The cool thing is, that fanatical modding community has a few of the original game devs. Guys just stuck around and kept fixing bugs and releasing patches on their own free time. Talk about "for the love of the art." At least, it did originally. Unsure what all has transpired in the 7+ years since release.

I've never really understood why the big companies don't keep smaller "2nd tier" (as you call them) studios under their umbrella. A company like Troika, who created V:TMB, employed maybe a couple dozen people at most, and turned out a great product. A big studio like Activision or EA could completely bankroll them for what amount to peanut shells. As long as they keep their hansd off, those smaller guys will churn out great, unique products that the big company can put their stamp on. And the parent company can keep working on "Call of the Modern Battlefield 42."

Well THQ seems to be getting a little wise, they have 4A games under their wing. I too don't see why they can't create 3 slightly 'higher risk' games in search of a hit IP rather than just one 'low risk' super budget sequel that, if it flops, could take a studio with it.

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. (emphasis added)

I think this is the major rub. There are developers who are so intent on generating an experience primarily through narrative that there really isn't any room for a curious or unruly player. I have to wonder, though, if player expectations of grand narratives and movie-like experiences are more to blame than those who develop them.

A good business gives people what they want, and what the people want isn't always good, good for them, or good for the longevity of the market.

xdiesp:
Actually Ben, one generation is 25 years.

I always thought it was 20 years, but considering the speed at which information travels now, it might as well be 10.

Gaiacarra:

This isn't about open worlds. This is about moment-to-moment gameplay. Half Life is an old game that is utterly linear with no open world, but still a less directed experience than, say, Call of Duty 4, in which practically every single thing you do involves a scripted sequence.

Halflife is not "utterly" linear. Yes its linear, but you have the freedom to roam around large areas whilst you figure out what to do next and where you're going, not to mention finding hidden stashes of stuff. Ok its not open world, and to be frank very few games should be open world because that format of gameplay has its own problems and limitations, but its far from rail-roading the player.

OT: "humorless" rly?

This is one of the reasons The Witcher 2 is so good. I'm about halfway through it, so having made the choices I've made, I can't actually say if the other options really affect the outcome, but it really feels like they do. The game is telling a complex and very involved story, but it's actually making the player feel like he has some say in the outcome. It's an excellent way to tell a story, and more games should be trying that sort of thing.

Bringing up a dead article... HL1 and HL2/EP1/EP2 may be linear but they are not hand holding railroad rail shooter bs. each section you are allowed to do what you want however you want inside the limited space provided. the linear was simply to contain the flow of the game. once you cleared and explored a location you know what direction to go next

Ok enough with the talking to long dead posts and get to what i started this post for...

Yahtzee, i have been saying the same thing for years about games before you made your article. one of the worst offenders in my experiance is the COD series and the reason I refused to buy another version after Modern Warfare (WaW was free with a vid card).

I loved the Half-Life series because it did not hold your hand. play COD2 and it was handholding and very linear. but...

I also love playing the Novalogic Delta Force series.(not big on BHD or JO but thats just opinion on the comparisons). in those games you get a mission briefing, Told the objectives and what waypoints they are at, shown a map, and then let loose to complete the objectives however your tactics saw fit to do it. some maps were stealth oriented, some were full frontal assault. very very few were locked into 1 category(i can only remember like 3 maps).

Possibilities for replay were only limited to the player, handholding was simply the restart map because mission failed. not the best quality of games, they are not really sandbox because once you get way outside of the mission area you have wide open empty world without even a tree. nice thing was there were no invisible walls except for in BHD and it was a console port so limited because of hardware on consoles wasnt up to shakes yet.

Anyway i have been watching games get more and more railroad for years. I doubt authors will change anytime soon when story is more imprtant than gameplay to them these days.

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