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Agency Vs Rails part 1: Action - Destructoid

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I am long time gamer who's more into portables then consoles.
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Gaming is unique as a hobby, as it follows rules, but lets us experience another's story at our own pace and even, in some games, effect the outcome of the progression and story. From its inception, we were able to effect how the story progressed to its end, even if we weren't directly influencing the story itself. An easy example of this is Mega Man; you can chose to beat the bosses in a different order than I do, but we will see the same ending. This game gives you game play agency but the story itself is on rails, undeviating.

Catherine's action is far more linear, but the actual ending chosen from half a dozen depends on your responses to specific situations. The action sections are mostly puzzles and can be considered on rails, so much so that it is possible to actually skip the puzzle sections entirely and enjoy the story.


This guy is clever I swear!

When I play games, I want agency in my game play. I find it absolutely infuriating when I am forced to beat something precisely the one way the developers designed it. A funny example would be when I was playing Darksiders. I got to a circular room filled with water and a door that needed to be blown up at the other end. There was a sticky bomb fruit plant on my platform and a torch that I could use to light and detonate the bomb fruit. Since the fruit grew back, I had an unlimited supply. I proceeded to stick bomb fruit from the blocked door all the way around the circumference of the room and finally, after about 20 fruit, detonated them. As I was making my way to the now open door, I notice pipes on the wall. When struck they let out gas. I immediately realized that you could light this gas on fire and the pipes reached that other side of the room, meaning the puzzle. in fact, required a single bomb fruit. I love that, yes, my solution was impractical and not what the designers wanted me to do but, hey, it worked and I got to watch a very satisfying chain of fruit explode. I'm pretty sure this happened a second time towards the end of the game with a portal gun/weight puzzle, but it was so convoluted, I can't even begin to explain it. This is an example of agency within the action of a world. I put my solution to work on the world using the rules and tools provided.

Although I felt silly about my solutions, I also felt they were clever. Had the game not had the bomb fruit regrow constantly, worse, just disappeared when I picked too many of them or the bomb fruit inexplicably not chained its explosion, I am certain I would have felt anger and frustration about it.


I really wanted this to work.

On the flip side, some games deny you agency over the solving of puzzles. Half-Llife 2 does this. While going to Ravenholm, I came across a ladder that was locked, the unlocked part wasn't too far up and I had a crate, a pallet, an armoire and a brand new gravity gun to try out. Funny thing about the Half-Life 2 engine is that it hates having 3 three things on top of each other. I didn't do anything weird, mind you, I put the pallet on the bottom, then the larger armoire, then the crate, but the crate kept clipping through the other object and the pallet kept inexplicably shifting back and forth in a buggy fashion, causing the other objects to topple. After half a dozen tries, I saw the lock, felt stupid, shot it open and continued on my way. The thing is, my solution should have worked. Yes, it's more round about, but why should it not have worked? Because it was not what the designers had intended, thus it bugged out and failed. I had another solution denied to me in episode 1 involving a strider. For all my criticism of Half-Life 2, episode 1 and episode 2 being said, I massively enjoyed Portal.

When I play games, I want to impose my will over the player character and solve problems the way I see fit. If the solution I come up with doesn't work because my character can't jump far/high enough, can't move something or can shot lasers from his belly button, that's OK, really it is! But if a game gives me a bunch of tools, tells me what I can do and then, when I try to use them as directed, it fails because it wasn't what the makers wanted me specifically to do, then that's bad design; not my fault for not thinking linearly enough. The worst sin, in my eyes, for game design, is to create a puzzle and then make the player feel stupid about solving it.

In part two I will talk about the pros and cons of having the story on rails.

How about you guys? Have any of you ever come up with a solution so clever you could brush your teeth with it, only to stumble upon the obvious solution later? Has a game ever made you feel stupid about your answer to a puzzle?



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