The Puzzle of Railroading

Ahhhhh… Spring break. Time to pour yourself an orange juice, kick off your shoes, and finally open all of those games you bought during the Steam winter sale but didn’t have time to play. To that affect, I’ve spent the last few days playing through two games on opposite ends of the spectrum – Fez and Shadowrun: Dragonfall. While both are amazing games, contrasting the two sheds some light on what aspects of entertainment video games excel at, and what other qualities they are still lacking. Minor spoilers ahead – minor meaning these are things you would find out within the first half hour of the game or less. If you do want a completely pristine experience, skip this post.

I’d heard about Fez from countless friends, and knew I had to play it after watching Indie Game: The Movie. (Yes Phil Fish isn’t a very nice guy but he made a cool game so whatever.) The core concept of the game is that you belong to a people who spend their whole lives believing that the world is 2D. The game begins when you wake up one day and journey to the top of your village where you meet a magical cube. Think about that for just a second. What would happen to the way you think if you woke up and just saw something in 4D? There it was, right in front of you, existing in all of its four-dimensional goodness. Nothing about you has intrinsically changed, and yet in that moment of perception your entire understanding of spacial geometry is flipped on its head. You can never undo your realization, and therefore can never go back to your old life. In any case, the cube blesses you (Gomez) with the ability to rotate around the different 2D views of the truly 3D world. In doing so, however, the cube is destroyed. It is up to you, therefore, to traverse this new 3D world and put the cube back together, one block at a time.

There’s a piece of the cube right there!

Fez is a puzzle game with no danger mechanic whatsoever. There are no enemies, no attacks, no health to lose. If you fall off a cliff, you simply respawn at the last solid location you touched. In spite of this lack of punishment for making mistakes, Fez is exceedingly difficult because the game is nearly text-free. When you come upon a puzzle, there are no instructions. It’s just you in a room with the puzzle elements. For example, in one room I found a huge bell at the top of a tower. I further found that the bell made different pitched rings when I rung it from each different side. I have no idea what to do with that bell. I assume there’s some order of sides to ring, but given that it could include duplicates it’s simply impossible to “try them all”. Hints in the form of treasure maps are given throughout the game, but even the maps are their own form of puzzle – they’re just pictures with no description or title given, so half of the challenge is figuring out which room the map even corresponds to. With every new puzzle I come to, I wonder if I even have enough information to solve it or if I can’t make more headway until I find a map somewhere else.

This intellectual difficulty is very refreshing at a time where many big games are guilty of over-explaining their gameplay. No one needs to be told to run away from the people shooting at you, or that you are in danger because your health is low (thanks Fi). Fez almost has the opposite problem – there were times I audibly exclaimed “I don’t get it!” while playing the game. Fez poses an unadulterated puzzle challenge. There are no time limits, no enemies, and only very modest platforming requirements. The only thing standing between you and the next room is whether or not you get the puzzle the room poses. It’s something that video games do very well. I don’t think I realized how much I hate reading pages of text in a video game (I’m looking at you Braid) until Fez came along and showed me that you can have both a moving plot and unfathomably complex puzzles without text entirely. The relative lack of text makes the few sentences you do get all the more important.

In contrast to Fez (in the first of many ways), I had never heard of Shadowrun: Dragonfall (or any of the Shadowrun series) before the steam sale. When I did stumble upon it, however, I knew I had found something good. To put all of the steam tags together, it’s an indie-cyberpunk-rpg-TBS. The first element to hit me was the rpg part – the moment you open up the game you are presented with an extremely intimidating character creation screen. Pick a race (human, elf, dwarf, orc, troll), pick a class (Street Samurai, Adept (Unarmed Combat), Decker, Rigger, Shaman, Mage), and start allocating stat points. It’s an electronic RPG dream, from the tabletop tradition. I went with my gut and played a drawf adept with plenty of points in strength and chi-casting. Because I didn’t know what was good and what wasn’t, I went with the “just don’t die” strategy. It’s worked relatively well thus far.

SR:DF Combat – You know you wanna get a piece of this action

The combat – whole party movement with AP as time currency, buffs/debufs, line of sight, AOE attacks, and simultaneous cyber-battles – is intensely complicated and plenty to chew on. I initially had the game set to hard, but quickly had to shift back to normal after getting destroyed a few times in a row on early missions. The upgrade and item system surrounding the stat system is equally complicated, but you get enough money to play around a little with your build. You are given just enough control of how the rest of your party upgrades to be useful, but not the full set of stats which would simply be laborious. All told, there is so much to think about in SR:DF, from the micro of how to emerge from this battle in one piece, to the macro of which team member deserves an upgrade with your limited funds. It’s one of the most tactical games I’ve played in a while.

Where SR:DF lost me, surprisingly, is at the plot. To get you up to speed, here’s the opening scenario, which I imagine may pertain in part to the original Shadowrun: It’s the mid 21st century and everything is topsy turvy. Through some not well explained means, our world went through a fantastical transformation, with dwarves, trolls, and other mythical races simply appearing. What’s interesting is how the game portrays this transformation in realistic and even bleak terms. At one point you confront an evangelical organization bent on the mass murder of all meta-humans (all the other races) for reasons that should seem old hat by this point in human history. A troll, running a soup kitchen for meta-humans on the streets, pays you off to “shut them down”. Needless to say, things aren’t at all rosy.

Most importantly, as you discover in the first hour of the game, the fantasy transition came with one more unsurprising surprise – dragons. As dragons are want to do, they quickly established their dominance over different areas of the globe. The dragon ruling Europe where the game takes place decided to show her power – by burning the continent to the ground. She was eventually stopped, but people who know too much continue to disappear. Clearly SR:DF doesn’t have a simple or by any means traditional plot. It is intense and gut-wrenching at just the right moments. Good level and character design play into the intensity and push the plot forward. So why do I feel like I’m blindly clicking dialogue buttons?

The best part of going grocery shopping, ages 4-6

Remember when you were very young, and a parent let you “steer” the grocery cart/racing car – the ones with the little steering wheels in the kiddy seats? If not you had a deprived childhood, and I’m very sorry. Assuming you weren’t a toddler, you probably knew that the steering wheel wasn’t actually attached to the grocery cart in any meaningful way. So when you felt the cart start to turn, you turned the wheel to pretend that you were the one causing the change. And it felt cool – it was the first step in the path to driving that included bumper cars and Mario Kart. But what happens when the cart doesn’t do something you want it to? For example, you’re passing right by the candy aisle. You bank hard to the left to turn in, but the cart continues straight. Right at that moment, you are suddenly aware of how little control you have over the cart (and start complaining that you want candy, etc etc). You only know and care that you’re railroaded – that your current and future path is already set out for you – when it takes a turn you don’t like and you’re powerless to stop it.

Plot-heavy games are a lot like this grocery kart (shields self from thrown rocks and tomatoes) metaphor. The game already has a plot set out from the beginning, and it’s up to you to follow that track. When the track takes sudden and illogical turns, or has uninteresting scenery, it becomes stale and boring. What’s worse (and what seems to be the case in SR:DF) is when the game asks you to put forth effort in the name of the plot, but has all choices map to the same outcome. If this becomes a pattern, I’ll just default to clicking the first response option in any dialogue chain. It’s not going to matter anyways. I don’t care about the plot when it’s merely a gift-wrapping for the gameplay to make it pretty.

My standards of railroading, however, are fairly high. My RPG experience comes from a DnD Dungeon Master background, where railroading is a cardinal sin. If I create a dungeon and you, a player, decide to simply skip the town, it would be frustrating on both of our parts for me to not allow you to leave (through a variety of means) until you complete my dungeon. In short, if I haven’t made you want to explore my dungeon, I’ve failed my job as a DM. If you can see my railroad tracks and resent the direction they go, I’ve failed my job as a DM. Video games, especially plot heavy ones, do this regularly. It doesn’t matter if I know who the murderer is, I still have to find the clues and walk in on the suspect as he murders the main love interest, because that’s how the plot has to go. That’s how it’s programmed to go.

Pen-and-paper RPGs (a-la DnD) will forever have this advantage over electronic RPGs. One of my favorite DnD experiences was when my party and I decided to rob an armory in the town we had just entered. Just to see what would happen. When electronic RPGs go the sandbox route, the main plot is usually laid by the wayside in favor of doing just this kind of weird stuff. Only in pen-and-paper RPGs, with no pre-programmed response to anything, can a skillful DM seamlessly integrate your latest random exploit with a greater plot and leave you begging for more. The moment-to-moment feedback that occurs between players and DM isn’t something that can be replicated in a preprogramed video game, no matter how sophisticated.

So wrapping it all together, both Fez and Shadowrun:Dragonfall are intensely difficult and strategic games. If you’re looking for a mental workout, I can heartily recommend both games. SR:DF pushes against the boundaries of what video games can do well a little too much for my tastes, and as a result has a strongly railroaded, if very interesting, plot. In contrast, Fez is a game that can only exist within an electronic medium, and fully takes advantage of the relative strengths of video games contrasted with their paper cousins – sound, lighting, and graphics as a game element. The plot simply comes along as an added bonus. And if anyone knows what to do with that freaking bell, let me know.