Railroading and bad narrative explanations

railroading railroad tycoon 3
And on your right you'll see the Forest of Doom which will be available to explore after passing through every city in this entire country and completing 30 quests or so.

There’s a certain thought that has been brewing in the back of my mind for the past few months and it has been growing increasingly larger the more I play games like Pokemon, Zelda and GTA. It’s certainly not a complex thought, I just have been dwelling on it for so long because of it’s contradictory nature. Basically, the thought can be summarized in two sentences:

  • I absolutely adore these games.
  • I absolutely hate to play through the first half of these games.

It didn’t take me long to figure out that I loath the guided, linear parts of Zelda, Pokemon and GTA, but that I adore it when they let me explore the world by myself at my own pace.

At least for me, this feels like a familiar subject, but I think we don’t talk too much about it when we discuss these games. At least I haven’t seen anybody bringing this up so far:

When I know what needs to be done to progress through the game, and there’s not that much to do outside of that, I almost feel like I’m being pushed in one way or another by the designer while I can see that there are quite a few things I can’t reach at the moment due to … very dubious reasons. It just feels so freaking artificial. After all, here’s this huge world bristling with characters and special moments that are all locked up with the most lazy, underwhelming, mind-numbing “plot doors” I can fathom.

It’s like giving the designer a piggyback ride while he dons the proverbial carrot and stick. It’s not like I’m chasing a carrot and then it suddenly runs away in some direction, I can feel the weight of the designer on my shoulders, practically taunting me with the carrot and making it more than obvious that I won’t be able to get to it no matter how much I try. Basically: It’s plain obvious, it’s pathetic and it makes me wonder constantly why do i like these games. That is, until I get to the good parts and then I forget all of my previous mysery.

Here, I suppose you already know this one from Pokemon: There’s this guy that is blocking a cave entrance/door/route, and he’s just standing there, doing absolutely nothing but stare into the void. Of course, when you talk to him, he’ll just say something completely unrelated to his current condition. When you finally do what you where supposed to do on the other side of the world (save a cat from a tree for example), the guy magically vanishes for no in-game reason.

On the GTA front it’s a little better, but not by much: At the start of the game you have access to this huge city filled with people to kill, buildings to buy and cars to steal. Except that, well, there’s nothing to do here. I mean, nothing interesting that might entertain you for more than 30 minutes. It’s only by playing the missions that the city becomes somewhat better with genuinely interesting places to explore and things to do. The problem is, this “unlocking of the city” is just as artificial as the Pokemon example above

I guess you get the point, but let’s be specific just in case: In one mission I had to go to this one building and open the door to enter. That’s it, that was the mission’s first objective. This act would have been offensively bland if it weren’t for one thing: You couldn’t open that door before. But now you can. Because you accepted the mission.


Of course, there’s no in-game or narrative explanation for this, the door just magically unlocks for you at the designer’s command. Subtle, ain’t it? [/sarcasm]

As you already know, this is not an isolated example. This kind of thinking is applied to almost every single mission I’ve ever played in any GTA game. By the magical act of accepting a mission your character is now bestowed with the power to open one more specific door in this freaking huge city. Gee, thanks? I hope that wasn’t too much work for you Rockstar, you might sprain your creativity gland if you’re not careful.

Isn't having a bunch of islands to explore instead of one huge interconnected world, a telling clue of how much the series has changed? (For better or for worse)

Alright, what’s next? Zelda? Mmmhhh, well, this is the toughest one. I can’t remember of a single “plot door” that seemed really jarring in the old Zelda games. In the new ones? Oh boy, it’s practically filled with them.

In the first few hours of Phantom Hourglass the player will gain the ability to sail in a boat. However, there’s very, VERY few islands that are within reach. What keeps the player from sailing north, and reaching every other part of the map,  is that there’s a huge hurricane going back and forth that’s “blocking the way”. How can a hurricane block a a fourth part of the map you ask? Well, the real answer is that it can’t. It travels so slowly that it’s easily avoidable. So, naturally I sailed north, avoiding the hurricane by a mile and a half. To my surprise, not only did the boat stop in it’s tracks for no reason, but the hurricane also suddenly changed directions and started coming towards me. Very slowly. It took a few seconds to catch me and then send me flying towards open sea.

It was like a slap to the face, frankly. “No, you can’t do that. Not now. Go back and do something else. No, I can’t explain why”. I mean, if you are going to limit the player’s exploration so much, at least have the decency of coming up with a reasonable explanation.

Even without considering these personal insults, these lazy bastardizations of logic called “plot doors”, I would still hate to play through the first half of these games. I would probably enjoy them more if they didn’t insult my intelligence, sure, that’s a given, but it wouldn’t change this thought I have at the back of my head.

The very concept of having a world that gradually opens up to the player is annoying at first (exhausting even). The problem is that we love these games and ask for more, because we only remember the later bits: when it all opens up and becomes a sandbox, where we get to explore and utilize all of our learned skills and acquired toys at our own pace. It’s this freedom that we crave and adore but we only get it once we’ve jumped through a sufficient number of hoops.

Exactly why do we make the player jump through hoops? I frankly can’t come up with a logical explanation other than “Because that’s how successful games have done it and nobody dares to challenge that notion until it stops selling so well”.

Mmmhh, yeah, that was a lie, there’s another less cynical explanation:  It’s a problem of balancing between tutorials and freedom, between teaching the player how to play and letting her play. You don’t want to shove the player into the world without knowing anything other than walking, so you design your game to be straightforward and easy to grasp at first. This section might seem to drag for experienced players but it’s not the end of the world. After all, everybody expects a slow start.

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Hey, I don’t have anything against hoops, but, you know, jumping through them is just not my style. I personally prefer to go around them if possible, thank you very much.

The thing is, the designer needs to know when to let go. Sometimes it feels like he has become addicted to railroading the player, so much so that the main “storyline” of some of these games could be considered a linear affair and only after the game finishes, it opens up.

Then again, railroading is the easy answer for everything. You don’t have to design your game to be intuitive if you can control what the player does at every moment. So, I guess one should question the need to have authored tutorials, to have linear segments dedicated to teaching the player how the game plays. I think it should be a natural process: The designer doesn’t need to manifest himself into the game in order to make sure you know how to play.

But I think that’s a topic for another post. I think I need to do some research on pedagogics before I talk any further about tutorials or the potential for games as teaching tools.

Side-note: Yes, I know that Spirit Tracks would have been a better game to extract humor out of, railroading and all that, but I haven’t played it yet.

Images pilfered from here, here and here.


One thought on “Railroading and bad narrative explanations

  1. Pingback: Of Linearity and Wind Waker HD for Wii U « Indigo Static

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