Tobold's Blog
Monday, October 10, 2011
Playing on rails

Psychochild is pondering the question whether games have to be a series of interesting choices, as Sid Meier says. I think he has a point when he quotes Chris Bateman saying that this requirement only is true for a sub-set of games. Other games are all about execution. And increasingly games come to resemble TV shows or movies in that they are about passive enjoyment of a story.

For example I have been playing Mafia 2 lately, and am currently about half way through the game. Now technically Mafia 2 has sandbox elements. If I choose to do so, I can drive through Empire Bay for hours, steal cars, rob shops, escape from the police, buy clothes and guns, or look for hidden collectibles. The problem is that none of these actions have consequences. If I succeed in my criminal activities and get away clean, I get money, but I’ll quickly run out of stuff to buy with that money. If I don’t succeed and get arrested, the game ends, or rather restarts at the last save point of the story. Furthermore my interaction with the city is extremely limited. 99% of the buildings I can’t enter. The shops I can are all the same, that is every clothing shop looks exactly the same, has the same clothes on offer, and even the saleswoman is always the same. The streets are populated with people and cars, but the interaction I can have with them are extremely limited. In short, all the interesting stuff that happens in Mafia 2 happens as part of the story, and that story is completely on rails. While I can resist arrest or escape a hundred times in the sandbox mode, when I get arrested in the story mode, I can’t do anything about it (and lose all money and items I gathered in sandbox play). My “interesting choices” are limited to what type of gun I want to use to blow my target’s head off or what car I want to drive around in.

The obvious problem of that sort of design is replayability. Somebody might want to replay the game at a higher difficulty setting, or to collect the collectibles he missed. But then he’d just skip all the cut-scenes and story the second time around. And on replaying it would probably grate that you can’t save the game where you want, but there are only a limited number of fixed save points. Dying at the wrong moment means having to replay parts of the chapter you already mastered. One specific problem I had with the PC version of Mafia 2 was that the game is obviously designed for consoles. With a gamepad it is easier to drive a car (because you have analog controls), and harder to aim and shoot. I think Mafia 2 was balanced with those console controls in mind, because on the PC I found the driving relatively difficult and the shooting a bit too easy.

But overall I did enjoy Mafia 2. And I plan to play more of these “interactive movie” games in the future, like L.A. Noire or Deus Ex (which has more choices in each situation, but still has a story on rails). I’ll have to buy Red Dead Redemption for the PS3, as there is no PC version. I’m not so much into modern serial murder thrillers; otherwise I’d try Heavy Rain. But in any case these interactive movie games with little in the way of interesting choices are not games I buy on release. I picked up Mafia 2 at some Steam sale for half-price, and that is about what I’m willing to pay for that sort of game.

Replayability is overrated. It worked in the SNES era when games had to last until the next holiday, but there are so many ultra-cheap (or F2P) game choices available nowadays that it is getting difficult to commit to even a single playthrough for mediocre titles.

Besides, replayability has nothing to do with a story being "on rails" and everything to do with whether the underlying game mechanics are fun. I played through games like FFT and Fallout a number of times because the combat system was entertaining. If the game interaction is crap, a nonlinear story isn't going to get me to play again - I'll just "experience" the story on a Wiki page or Youtube.
I regretted pre-ordering Mafia II because it was a let down compared to it's predecessor, despite me getting a copy of the original as part of the pre-order bundle.
Another recommendation for Mafia 1. More open world and equally strong storyline. Has some difficulty spikes though.

For an intriguing example try Cryostasis. Very wierd story but the game play is hard work.

Completely unrelated recommendation: SpaceChem, available in humble bundle until tomorrow. Very challenging but completely brilliant puzzle game. Plus I have a vague memory of you admitting to be an industrial chemist in real life so how can you pass up the only game ever likely to be about your job?
I very rarely "reply" a game when I manage to finish it. Switching from normal to hard difficulty does not help either, because I already know the story/solution/path and I have zero incentive in re-doing it in a harder way.

The fun thing is that World of Warcraft is a game that forces you to repeat the same stuff on a daily basis. For weeks, months, years.

I can't reply a finished game but I have been able to repeat "daily quests" for years. I still can't figure how I could do that.
i agree with azuriel to a degree. a game like mafia 2 was very enjoyable because of the engaging story. however with the cost of games these days replayability has to be a factor when buying brand new games. this is where steam shines with its constant sales. when it comes to buying games on steam, i now buy games that didn't review as well that i normally would pass up or rent because paying top dollar for a flawed product is tough to do.
There are two kinds of AAA games right now. Stories and "traditional games".

Stories are meant to be played through (watched) once. Even Deus Ex 2 is hard to play through a second time. To play the excellent story of Mafia 2 a second time would be completely pointless.

And then there are the traditional games, like (traditional) MMOs or any PvP game.
Would you say that most self-proclaimed sandbox games suffer from this?

For example: MineCraft is a sandbox through and through, it has no objective. Everything you do advances your personal gains and your equipment etc., but at the end your goals are completely defined by you. There are no rails, you create your own rails.

On the other hand, a game like Mafia II or Oblivion has all these side-elements, and some of these will get you additional in-game cash, or items, or experience, but they all suffer from the same things you mentioned. Killing a boar in a dense forest may seem different from killing a boar in dusty plains, but at the end it is the same activity in different locations.

Follow-up question, aside from MineCraft, can you think of a few games that you, Tobold, consider "true sandbox" games?
Developers seem to be terrified about the prospect of having even a sliver of content which you don't see because of your choices.

Even something like KOTOR, you will either kill the big bad guy to stop him, or kill the big bad guy so that you can become the new head bad guy. Either way, you play through the same game with slightly different text and cut scenes.
Anyone remember the first Resident Evil? You had two different characters to play as and they gave you different story lines and were different difficulites... yet nothing at the start of the game said it.

Each character also had multiple endings in that you could save different people... depending on how you played. RE played on "rails" but offered varation and side exploration.

While far less "sand boxy" then say the GTA series I think it flows better and creates more replayability.

And I don't feel replayability is overrated. It's not just about wanting to replay a game it also goes to value for your money.
@Samus It's not so much the devs worried about exclusive content, it's the money guys. Content that fewer people see is proportionally more expensive. That adds up, and games are already expensive to make.

As to the topic, I'm a firm believer in flexibility. Games on rails are OK sometimes, but I get a lot more mileage out of a game that let me do more. Minecraft, for one, has been probably the best value for me in my gaming history, with the possible exception of Chrono Trigger and Disgaea.
Reminds me of:
I heard The Witcher 2 has a pretty good story and I was heavily recommended to play the game.
Azuriel, while I tend to agree that replayability is mostly related to how fun the underlying mechanic is, that doesn't mean that's all there is to it. There are definitely a few games that I had a ton of fun playing that I tried to play again later and found boring the second time. Other games I have played over and over (FFT is a great example). It's not just because they are fun, it is also because they have flexibility in how you approach them.

Of course very few games don't have *some* amount of flexibility. You could even get a new game experience out of Tetris by, say, deciding only to make exactly two lines at a time. But some games are very fun to probe, and other games are not.
For interactive movie style games like this, two that are definitely among the best, most polished fun and well executed are Uncharted 2 and Deus Ex HR, in recent years that is.

The former is amazing for an indiana jones esque adventure, watch the first movie then play this to get in the mood. It's a fast paced very movie like story, with the gameplay of the movie type scenes and action sequences done extremely well. It's all very intuitive and flows nicely, not like a bunch of tacked on elements or mini games.

Deus ex obviously has more rpg elements, and has aninteresting 20 min into the future setting and cool story, that is much less complicated than the original, which may be good or bad to you, once again the key element though is the fun and intuitive gameplay. It's a railed story but allows you to execute your own plans and complete the railed objectives in your own style, and let's you determine the style of character/movie in a way.

I played it with what I consider pragmatism. I would avoid killing cops and other ignorant innocents if at all possible, but of course sometimes for sake of greater good this wasn't possible. I didn't save whore to go by stealth for example, but once again it makes a lot of sense to avoid confrontation if at all possible. However dangerous foes were eliminated, pretty much if they were trying to kill me. But if I could I'd take them out with stealth...then again sometimes a firefight was the only option. The diverse options and gameplay work great and make it seem like a movie to me, and I feel not sticking to an unrealistic "nokill" or "stealth only" path would sap the fun and excitement, as well as realism...and make it much mor likely to be boring.

On an unrelated note, got an iPad game that id highly recommend for fans of xcom for example, called Hunters Episode One. It's a squad style turn based game, you equip a team of commandos and level them up, choosing armor and weapons load outs from a wide range of options.

Only complaint is so far at early levels the missions are pretty limited and uninspired, when it's clear there is so much potential for more.
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