Sunday, October 9, 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.

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