Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Railroad, Sandbox

Between the messy process of writing the current book and figuring out exactly what the plot is as I go, and various gaming situations, I've been thinking a lot about the railroad vs. the sandbox.

A game has a "railroad" plot if there's only one correct way to finish it - if you need to put all the elements together in the correct order in order to win. Most videogames are of this variety, because it's so well-suited to the way computer programs behave. The more choices a player has, the complicated the program has to be, and in any program there's an upper limit to the choices that can be allowed. The pleasure of these videogames is at least partly the pleasure of learning and implementing the optimal set of choices. It's almost like formal dancing - without the full-body movement, and I'm not sure how well the soundtracks of these games are synched to the rhythms of the winning strategy.

A "sandbox" game, however, is much more free-form and player-controlled. You have a game map of some sort (visual, mental, whatever) and you can go anywhere within it and find something interesting and fun to do, with the potential of leading you to a scenario in which you count yourself as winning. Non-computer based roleplaying games are the ultimate in sandbox games, because the players and game master are cooperatively developing a plot peculiarly suited to themselves, limited only by the resourcefulness of the players and the flexibility of the DM. For my money, a sandbox game is the most fun you can have, full of surprises, improvisation, teamwork, and self-expression.

They are also a lot of work for the GM, who can't tell whether the players are going to turn left or right and needs to know what they see in either direction. Once you hit a time of your life when your free time and energy are limited - when you're old enough for the need to sleep to kick in, when you're supposed to be holding down jobs and raising kids and maintaining your household and watching your health, when your creativity needs to be channeled into outlets that will provide economic benefits - it is difficult to find time to build up a world and create appropriate challenges from scratch, or even to expand one that's already in existence.

Which is why tabletop RPGs produce modules, in which people have been hired by the game company to do that work for you, and all the GM has to do (theoretically) is guide the players through the module and adjudicate the combats; or (in reality) is to tweak the module to suit his group's preferences, strengths, and weaknesses.

The trouble with modules is, that it's a lot easier (especially for younger creators raised on videogames and formula fiction) to write a railroad module than a sandbox one. And if you happen to get one written by someone who has only ever played with players very different from yours, it can be as much work to adapt it as it would have been to homebrew an adventure, yourself. My own gaming group is currently in the middle of a very railroady indeed module, which assumes a batch of players with a radically different playstyle from us, and we're both consistently poorer in resources than the module expects us to be, and consistently better at using them than the module writers anticipate, so that they did not provide enough information to allow the GM to improvise easily. (Our playsessions at the moment are sprinkled with such cries as: "Who traps his own bedroom?" "How is building a tentacle monster supposed to bring his wife back?" "Pickled garlic?" and "That's what it says, guys, I don't know." On the plus side, we managed to rescue the mad scientist and get him to provide us with the specs on which the tentacle monster was built, without fighting the tentacle monster; the GM predicts that, with this information, it will take us three game rounds to take out a monster that, had we encountered it unprepared, could probably have killed us all.) The event that has most engaged us emotionally as characters is a random encounter which has had consequences, so that at least some of the characters are now fully prepared to jump the rails and take off into territory the GM would have to make up as he goes. And if he had the time and energy to do that we wouldn't be running through this stupid module in the first place.

Books (and movies, and TV shows), on the face of it, have to have railroad plots. After all, the reader starts on Page 1 and reads till the end. She has freedom to interpret the plot, characters, and themes, but she can't change the pace at which information is released to her, or directly interrogate the text for clarification, and she's pretty much at the mercy of the author. This is true whether the story is a formula mystery or an avant-garde experiment - the author controls the presentation, and the amount of leeway the reader has in modifying the presentation is limited, in most cases, to skimming, skipping ahead to read the last paragraph, going back to check something from earlier ("Wait, wasn't the person who found the body walking a dog?"), and mentally turning the elements of the story around and around trying to anticipate the next development, the solution, or the third-act turn. A reader cannot make Dorothy settle down to live among the Munchkins, or overthrow the Wizard and attempt to rule Oz...

Except in fanfic, of course. Fanfic makes the universe of media into a giant sandbox.

And a book, or movie, or TV show, really should feel like a sandbox, don't you think?

It should contain surprises. It should feel as though the characters have complete free will, that they can turn left or right and deal with different consequences based upon that choice. They should be able to make bad choices based on insufficient information or character flaws, and learn from those choices, and make better choices later. Nothing is more discouraging than the moment when you realize that a character is about to make a bad choice, even though he should know by now it's a bad choice, not because of some driving personal imperative but because if he doesn't the plot won't wind up where it needs to be; because the set piece won't play out properly; because this is the only way to blow up the lost city at the end and lost cities always blow up, it's a rule. The game of predicting dialog and plot points is a dreary game, which I only ever play, to keep myself sane, when trapped in the vicinity of one of those shows.

I don't read books like this. I put them down, and reach for another one.

I damn sure don't want to write a book like that.

I don't think I have a conclusion, here. It's just on my mind.

1 comment:

  1. yes! I love books that have great surprises through out!

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