I spent the better part of an hour typing up a really big and neat post but then I realized too late that I was not signed in and the interwebs ate everything I wrote. I'm really quite pissed now and I can't muster the time and concentration to repeat everything I wrote...so here's a shorter version of something that used to longer (and possibly better).
Over inthat other thread
I attacked Railroading quire mercilessly. I disagree with JDCorley (and that quote by Kenneth Hite) not because I think there aren't fun things that get called "railroading", but because Railroading is bad by definition
. I see no value in trying to say railroading "isn't all bad", because yes it is, that's what it means. It's a name for something that sucks. There are however "railroady" things that aren't necessarily Railroading - I think we already have other names for them (or need new names) - and this thread is about those.
Instrad of focusing on the negatives and debating the semantics of "railroading", I think we'd better look at the features of "railroady" games and figure out what's fun or cool about them (or rather, why other people find it fun).
I'll be looking at videogames instead of roleplaying games, for two reasons. One, I'm more familiar with the format in that medium and two, I think it puts some distance between the subject and RPGs, minimizing the chance of emotional kneejerks (pretense to objectivity).A. Point & Click Adventures
For the most part these feature a linear narrative, usually with one conclusion, and pre-defined sequence of events. There's always only one solution and it's the one that the creators prepared. If you don't click in the right spot ("pixelbitching") or combine the right two objects, the story won't continue, because it's all pre-scripted.
What's fun here is
(1) Out of the box thinking - funny, meta-game solution to situations. There is no immediate or possible in-game solution to a given problem so you need to think around it. These are specifically aimed at the player
. There's an (in)famous moment in one of the Monkey Island games where some bad guys tie a heavy thing around your ankle and throw you off the pier.
There's a number of sharp objects around you that you could use to set yourself free, but the rope is too short. And you don't seem to be able of untying the knot. What's the solution? You pick up the heavy object you're tied to and put it in your inventory (adventure characters are know for their Pockes of Holding where they carry everything from phonebooks to 10ft ladders). It's absurd! It's funny! Because there's clearly no solution, you must think laterally and it pays off.
(2) Logical & Skill Puzzles
Maybe you have to pull some levers in the correct order or push some crates around to open your way or quickly repeat some sequence you saw earlier. Again, there's only one goal and only one solution, but it's a clear
goal and a clear
solution. It's a challenge!
[These both fail when the goal is unclear or the solution is unclear or there is an in-world possible solution but the game doesn't allow it because it wasn't anticipated. Let's say I need to get into a locked house. If the game doesn't highlight the window as an obvious point of entry then I can waste a lot of time trying perfectly viable approaches (climb the ivy, break down the door, enter through the garage) only to have them all shut down because they aren't "right". This can be part of the challenge however! Even more frustrating, and actually bad is another situation that came up in these games a lot. Let's say I have a clear goal (enter the house) and clear solution (break the window). I have a rock in my inventory, but the game doesn't allow me to break the window. Later, I find a hammer, and after applying the hammer to the window, it breaks. Why didn't the rock work? Bad!]
B. Interactive Movies
There used to be a whole bunch of these with actual live-action footage, usually crammed up on a whole stack of CDs. There were lengthy video clips that would advance the story-line and in between you'd play a bit, probably just clicking a few things so you'd get the next video. These games disappeared for a while but now they're back with computer graphics. Titles like Heavy Rain or L.A. Noire are reasonably well received and there are lots of other big title games that consist of heavily scripted sequences and the player only has to press the right button at the right time to initiate the next scripted sequence (aka Quick Time Events).
What's cool about this is that most character actions turn out exceptionally cool and cinematic, because all actions are pre-defined, and so are consequences, nothing "off" can happen, because the only consequences are the ones that were prepared to fit. In a new gameplay trailer for the Tomb Raider reboot, Lara falls down a very deep hole and gets a sharp piece of wood (or bone or something) stuck beneath her ribs. She pulls it out and keeps applying pressure on the bleeding wound with her palm afterwards. It looks cool! But there's practically no chance of that happening in a videogame with that level of detail and drama without having been scripted. Prepared events are powerful because they can fit parameters.C. Grand Destinies
From the Avatar to Gordon Freeman, we rarely get the chance to fully create our characters in videogames. I'm not talking just about characterization (how they look and sound) but also character. Gordon is notoriously "mute" so the player can fill in for his words and thoughts, but the way NPCs react to Gordon
specifically and not the player's choices or actions, profoundly defines him as a character. But going beyond defining just origins (Vault Dweller, Bhaalspawn), this also gives videogames the power to define endings (kill the bad guy, save the world etc.). This ensures that the hero gets the story he deserves! If we screw up there's always the Save/Load option and lots of games are trying to incorporate that into the gameplay itself (resurrection chambers, clone vats), some games are narrated from a relative future, so when something goes wrong, the narrator can say "no, no, that's not what really
happened", giving us the chance to do it right next time. In Prince of Persia, when you fall off a ledge to your death, your companion Elika extends her arm and catches you at the last moment.
This secures the hero's position as a hero, because who ever heard of a hero that died before completing his destiny. It's cool because we know he'll triumph. We know Gordon will defeat the Combine. We know the Avatar will defeat the Guardian. That's their whole deal
. A game must deliver on that and help us get there.