As many of you know, I am a very big fan of choices in games. I love it when a game allows me a degree of agency over the story and the way things unfold. To me, this is a major part of what helps gaming separate itself from other mediums, like books or movies. However, this does not mean that I am against the notion of linearity in video games. There is nothing wrong with games having players follow a path that is decided by the designers well before they gets their hands on it. Many of the better games and stories in this medium are of high-quality because of their linear nature. The key for developers to have well-executed plots that railroad players into one path is to carefully mask those rails as much as they possibly can. This can be done in a number of ways and with many different approaches. Today's article will be dedicated to outlining a couple of possible methods with which railroad-y plots can work.
The first of these methods is simply to create a large world and build the perception that there are many places and locations for the player to explore, while at the same blocking off areas until they have completed a significant enough portion of the story. Final Fantasy games, especially the earlier games in the franchise, are some of the most well known practitioners of this strategy. In many of this franchise's games, players start off in one town, but see that all around them there is a fairly large and expansive world map to explore when they depart that town. Most sections of the map are blocked off simply because the player requires certain means of transportation to get passed obstacles like mountains, rivers, oceans, and so on. After making significant enough progress in the story, the player is given some method with which to bypass the obstacle like a teleporter or some kind of vehicle (most famously the Airship). This tactic comes with its own strengths and weaknesses. On the positive side, it gives off the illusion of a massive world which the player can explore. Earlier Final Fantasy games always had the feeling of world-sprawling adventures that took players to varied, exotic locals. It also allows for strategic placement of locations and towns to give off the impression that players are exploring an actual place with people. Taken further, designers can also use this world to place side quests in deliberate locations that make them feel like natural extensions to the game and its lore. This can best be shown by contrasting early Final Fantasy games with a later game in the franchise that did not utilize such a mask, Final Fantasy XIII. That particular game is notorious for presenting the majority of itself as a long, linear corridor. Without the illusion of a large world, the game feels like a straight line and there is very little room for side content. On the other hand, there are downsides as well to this particular illusion. For one, it is fairly difficult to scale up. This worked well on small scale pixelated games because we accepted a degree of abstraction. We did not need to see other people using airships or traveling around, gathering resources and trading, to assume that it was happening. When we scaled up to high-fidelity 3D, this was no longer sufficient. For games to employ this tactic in modern AAA gaming, it requires a great deal of effort. The place has to look almost exactly like a living breathing world in the vein of an Elder Scrolls or Assassin's Creed game, especially an Assassin's Creed game, in order to maintain the illusion. Because of this, the blocks that prevent players from proceeding further into unexplored territory before advancing the story can seem increasingly artificial. In particular, the Assassin's Creed series is extremely bad at this. The barriers that determine how far players can explore are literal force fields that appear when they are going too far out of the designated free area. It justifies them by saying that the ancestor of the day did not explore those locations during the memory segment that the player is currently reliving via the Animus. While crafting natural blocks that make sense in the world can be difficult at times, Ubisoft did not even try and many games in the series feel decidedly linear because of it. That is not to say that this is a bad tactic to use, but we have to consider the weaknesses of doing things this way.
Another good way to disguise linearity in games is to plan the player's actions and the level design so that the correct path to take feels like the one they are most likely to take anyway. This is easier said than done as it takes a fair amount of work, play testing, and knowledge to get right. One of the biggest problems with games and plots that railroad the player into doing certain things is that often the player is forced to take actions that are obviously stupid even without knowing what they will lead to later on. A good example of this is the start of Mass Effect 2, where Shepard decides to work with the organization Cerberus despite knowing already that they are a terrorist organization that is responsible for completely reprehensible crimes against humanity. Most players who are familiar with the events in the first game would NEVER want to join up with Cerberus, but are forced to anyway because the writers have already made that decision. Assassin's Creed 2 is also responsible for this by forcing Ezio to spare Rodrigo Borgia at the end of the game despite the fact that he is and will be responsible for thousands of deaths. These kinds of moments make it seem like the protagonist or designer of the game is attempting to troll the player, both acting illogically and placing the player in situations that could have easily been avoided. Simply put, neither the player nor the player character should ever be forced to take actions that are obviously stupid in service to a plot. If that does happen, then the players will often mark the game down for being overly-linear and “railroad-y.” Hiding a game's linear nature is easiest to pull off by reading and re-reading the script of the game with a critical eye. Designers need to think about logical actions that the player or protagonist might consider taking and either finding a way to explain why it would not work or rearranging the plot element or set piece in question around that. Play testing and bringing in fresh eyes can also help as watching what others do and asking why they make those choices can greatly help in planning scenarios in a way that they seem less linear. It is hard to point to games that do this particularly well because those are the kinds of games that are so well done that it is hard to notice that designers are funneling their audience towards one end. While I am an advocate of doing things this way, again one has to acknowledge that it is not easy and requires quite a bit of forethought and adaptability.
Lastly, one of the more ambitious ways to create a linear game is to actually enable players the ability to make choices as the plot goes on, but weave those choices into the story in a way where the player feels like they were making significant choices, when in actuality they were just being funneled into the tale that the designers wanted to tell. Out of all the possible tactics to employ, this is the most risky. Done well, it can give players a strong feeling of authorship over the narrative until playing through the game again. When poorly executed, players can feel like the game is invalidating their choice and forcing them into situations they would rather avoid. One example of the former is Telltale's The Walking Dead. While there are moments where it seems like the game is conveniently sweeping decisions players have made in the past under the rug (particularly in Episode 3), for the most part the game is pretty good about guiding players towards their intended paths while acknowledging and respecting the choices they made along the way. But of course, for every good example of a game doing something right there is a counter-example that demonstrates the worst way to implement the same thing. In this case, Mass Effect 3 serves as that counter-example. There were several moments in Mass Effect 3 where the script seemed to do what it wanted despite the choices players have made. In order to avoid spoilers in this article, I will instead point to my previous works that detail this phenomenon. This is something hard to talk about because in order to do it justice, I would have to prepared to go into massive spoiler territory and I am trying to keep this spoiler free for once. Nonetheless, such a skillful weaving is something that takes genuine effort. Players will notice and appreciate it.
Again, there is absolutely nothing wrong with games being linear. Done well, a good linear story can make for quite an enjoyable game. It is worth noting that none of these strategies have to be done in isolation. In fact, it is ideal if a few of them overlap. This is also by no means a comprehensive article on the subject. I am sure that other tactics exist to help facilitate linear storytelling in video games. Lastly, my final disclaimer is that sometimes not hiding the rails can be a legitimate tactic if the game's story calls for it, as seen in games like Spec Ops: The Line or the first two-thirds of Bioshock. By no means is game design an exact science with hard and fast rules. The medium is still very much in its youth. Designers should feel free to experiment with and test other ways to improve how we tell stories.