Wednesday, February 21

Rails: The Train Runs Both Ways

Jerry Holkins knows games. Representing Tycho over at Penny-Arcade, Holkins' experience frequently proves him a rather knowledgable video game intellectual. Penny-Arcade has criticism in spades; name the game and they've got words to analyze. However, their criticism is usually founded, resulting in many top-class game and industry editorials. Today, Holkins discusses the Sonic series and its most recent entry, Sonic and the Secret Rings. The Secret Rings is an on-rails action/platformer, and being of a genre often "sneered" upon, was attended to by Mr. Holkins:
The term "On Rails" is typically used a pejorative, often produced with a sneer and accompanied by a snort of derision. This is all according to some Gamer Law whose origin isn't clear to me. I think it is because the human spirit yearns for freedom, and they feel as though the rails amount to a kind of "Man" who is "coming down" on "them." All games are on rails, and these rails are of varying thickness and ornamentation. Characters that never change. Environments that shunt players. Severely constrained interactivity. Punitive gameplay mechanics. All of these things are acceptable. But when you restrain certain classes of player movement, oh ho, then the game is on rails.
And may your statement ring true. I really can't say it any better then that, but I'll try anyway, if only for purposes of writing practice and refinement of the concept in my mind. "On-Rails," as Holkins points out, is usually defined as restriction of character movement. However, movement is not the only gameplay element of an on-rails nature, just the most obvious. The true defenition may be more like "the restriction of gameplay or its aspects." Now, we see On-rails as refering to a linear or constricted aspect of gameplay. Of course, theres nothing wrong with this in itself. But as Holkins says, in games like RPGs where story is critical, lack of dynamic characters can be as on-rails as it gets. Even games of the free-roam variety can harbor on-rails elements; how about a derivative combat system, or a repetitive mission structure?

What Holkins really wants us to see is this: Perhaps linear movement isn't the aspect of games we should be shunting. On-rails movement can work when it serves the purposes of a game, as it has in games like Killer 7. What we should be more critical of is the features of games that force us to play in a narrow, boring, or repetitious manner.

Get on the Train *woot! woot!*
Lets say you were tasked with creating a game where the player character is oriented along an single or sometimes branching path (on-rails)? What elements of gameplay would you focus on to keep the game enticing, dynamic, and fun?

Think about some of the games you've played. What aspects of the game do you feel were too constrictive? How did it hurt the game or hinder fun? How would that aspect be imrpoved upon to avoid this?

Source: Penny-Arcade

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