In Defence of Railroading
Since the dominance of the sandbox, railroading gameplay through linear non-divergent story and specific plot paths has become something of a faux-pas in game design, and was never looked upon favourably in tabletop roleplaying. As a player you seek agency, and often that comes from such simple things as choosing which path to take to the same inevitable end, and not following the obvious trail of breadcrumbs laid out for you. These days we laud games for open worlds, multiple endings, and the ability to approach one problem a dozen ways, to play it your way.
All but gone are the days of the 3D platformer, and the rail shooter, technology and computing power has given us the power to create actual worlds and weave beautiful stories into them rather than just telling a story and dragging you by the nose along it.
But is it so bad a thing that we’re better off entirely being rid of it, and casting away the strictly linear narratives of old?
There are times when actually taking your players by the nose and dragging them to the plot is not necessarily an unforgivable act. Here are a couple of examples of uses for, and in defence of railroading your story.
Here’s a nice easy one to get this started off. When beginning a campaign, or game, or whatever interactive experience your trying to share, you’ll usually have a few fundamentals to share, basic bits of information to share that’ll allow the player to understand the experiences to follow. A little bit of railroading aids “showing not telling” like the opening test chambers of Portal encouraging thinking with portals. Obduction drives you down a path in pursuit of one of the world-shifting seeds, and leaves you in a small bubble that tells you everything you need to know about the transition mechanics you’ll be playing with.
It’s a form of tutorial, but done right it’s so subtle that you barely notice it every replay. We’re guided through set pieces that leave us without doubt about where we’re going or what we’re doing for the rest of the game.
There are occasions where your story takes a turn that irrevocably changes everything. No turning back, and no matter what you have done up to this point this moment was unavoidable. Moments like the time-shift in Guild Wars, where the entire “tutorial” felt like an open world in it’s own right, only for everything to change in a single moment. Transitioning from one Mass Effect or Witcher still leaves you with a short period in which games are identical, no matter the decisions you’ve made.
Now, actions and decisions made before this pivotal moment can alter the events that follow, but all paths lead here ultimately. Most games use this kind of narrative, the storyline quests that so often get ignored in pure sandboxes, but there are times where that epic moment changes everything to the point where there’s no going back or wandering off to finish that sidequest you’ve been ignoring.
I’ll skim over this because this one’s more of a cheap trick, somewhat less acceptable. False choices are the doors you walk up to that suddenly slam shut and lock you out, or those decisions that immediately kill you or end the game. Arkham City did that with Catwoman’s story at one stage, where she had the option to simply walk away with loot in pocket, but because the game needed you to save Batman the game simply ended there. Sorry guys, given a real choice I’d have taken the money and run.
A Good Story
Halflife, Telltale Games, Psychonauts, hell most games will railroad up to a point. When your story is good and worth telling there’s nothing wrong with taking agency from the players in terms of narrative direction. In the drive to create bigger and more incredible games let’s not lose sight of a good story and the ways in which we can tell them, putting the player into the hazard suit of a mute scientist as he weaves through supersoldiers and alien parasites to reach the incredible conclusion of his epic tale (that will have been stuck on a cliffhanger for ten years this October) or filling the boots of the intrepid archaeologist as she shoots her way through adventures far more thrilling than any actual archaeologist would ever encounter.
I consider myself a world-builder first and foremost, so I’ll advocate for the ability to wander aimlessly around the whole world and delve its deepest corners and unveil every shred of lore, even if I have to sit and spend time that should be shooting down killer robots reading books on killer robot maintenance. But sometimes when a moment needs to be shared, or an idea is so stunning that it simply must be seen, there’s nothing wrong with putting the plot on tracks and asking everyone to enjoy the ride for a while.