What’s So Bad About Rail Shooters?

Back at this year’s E3, Lionhead Studios showed off their Kinect-enabled Fable game, Fable: The Journey. The live demonstration of the game featured a man waving his arms around to cast spells, controlling a horse through narrow paths, and fighting hordes of goblins. The experience looked very directed–on rails, even. However, when Peter Molyneaux showed the game to journalists, he called the demo a “horrendous mistake,” ensuring the press that the game was not on-rails. He even went as far as making them sign a whiteboard with the header, “It’s not on rails.”

Somewhere along the line, the term on-rails has become a dark mark. I’ve probably heard the term “it’s just a rail shooter” since the late 90s, but where is this stigma coming from? Why is an on-rails experience a bad thing when most of the games classified as such are beloved classics? Panzer Dragoon? Rez? Star Fox? Even Dead Space: Extraction has a following (myself included) that consider it one of the finest games on the Wii. With Child of Eden receiving great reviews and Gunstringer already looking like great fun, I have to wonder if on-rails games aren’t just scapegoats for the real problem; the tightly-scripted, linear FPS.

There is some flawed logic in the gaming community that makes Call of Duty a more valid experience than Child of Eden. Now this isn’t going to be a Call of Duty hate-fest–there’s more than enough of that going around–and honestly, I think they’re pretty solid games. However, they’re also packed with more and more directed sequences that dodge the “on-rails” moniker only because you can still walk in any direction. The player has the control scheme to walk anywhere and do anything, but goes through long sequences where they can’t actually go anywhere but straight, for cinematic effect.

An on-rails experience, on the other hand, takes linear movement and cinematic effect and makes it into a part of the gameplay. Nearly every cinematic set-piece is playable without any limits. The exciting, jaw-dropping moments require just as much skill as any other moment. They aren’t a QTE, you’re not tied up, or dizzy, or falling, or any number of ailments that plague first-person shooter characters in their most epic moments.

A game like Dead Space: Extraction goes a step further, telling its story through a cast of characters, dialogue, and plenty of scripted action moments, but still retaining the core gameplay throughout. Even in the downtime, players must explore the environment for weapon upgrades and ammo. There’s never a moment where you’re just watching.

The real strength of the on-rails genre–and the reason I’m going out of my way to defend it–is in their climactic moments. Since the designers are in control of the pacing, it allows them to craft a crescendo in the action. They’re those moments where the gameplay, graphics, audio, and story come together in perfect harmony. Those moments are so rare in the majority of games, and yet they’re almost expected in a rail-shooter like Panzer Dragoon or Rez.

If there was anything I got out of Fable 3, it was that chickens are resilient little creatures, and that Lionhead can really craft a cutscene when they want to. The opening cinematic for that game makes me wonder what they could do within the conventions of an on-rails experience. Yet Molyneaux seems dead-set on rejecting that notion, in a Kinect game no less.

Sega’s upcoming Kinect game, Rise of Nightmares, is so wary of the on-rails moniker that they give the player full movement controls. Putting your foot forward moves the character forward, moving your foot backward makes them back up. Twisting your body left and right moves your character left and right. Now I haven’t had a chance to try that first hand, but imagining it makes my head hurt. If Lionhead and Molyneaux have similar plans for Fable: The Journey, I think we may have a second wave of Kinect growing pains on the way.

In both of these examples, it seems the developers are resisting the strengths of the Kinect. Child of Eden has proven that a guided experience is one of the Kinect’s strengths. There’s never a dull moment in that game, and players even have full control to look around in 3D space, something that puts it a step above other rail-shooters. It’s intuitive and engaging, and it doesn’t leave you yearning for more depth the way naysayers seem to imply.

If these games have proven to be fun time and time again, why are some developers so scared of them?

Perhaps the on-rails genre isn’t valuable from a marketing standpoint. They’re often too short, lacking in the variety of options and unlockables that made a game like Panzer Dragoon Orta a 15+ hour masterpiece. They’re almost always single-player experiences, with little room for multiplayer modes. Combine that with the notion that “on-rails equals shallow”, and you have a recipe for a genre that seems lacking in marketable value. What do you get when publishers see a genre as a niche for less frugal gamers? You get Ubisoft’s botched publishing of Child of Eden, a game so lacking in advertising that some Rez fans aren’t aware it exists.

If that’s the case, then can we really blame Molyneaux and co. for dodging the moniker? I’d say so. A company in Lionhead’s position has an opportunity to revitalize the genre. Just as 2D platformers and fighting games have made triumphant returns, so too could the on-rails game. We just need someone brave enough to carry the torch.