On a rail is a level from Half-Life that has received mixed reviews over the years but is most generally less liked for a number of reasons that I’ll broach on later. I say broach, because today’s article is less about the actual level, or overall game itself and is probably only tenuously linked to video games, I promise you it’s a link nonetheless though!

For what I intend to do is to reiterate to you, the musings I’ve been having, on a life lesson I feel I learnt partially from gaming. A statement on life which I wish to proclaim to you, using this particular level as some kinda segueing analogy.

So now that’s out of the way I shall digress.

 

Why On a Rail?

The title is a play on words regarding the ‘rail’ aspect of video games in general and the starkly obvious fact that you are on a literal railway line, do you geddit?

If you think about it, for the most part, what are games but predetermined tracks for you to traverse and triumph over? Even beyond the most obvious and extreme examples of these, such as rail shooters and platformers you cannot escape this element anywhere. In games with the highest level of autonomy afforded to the player, to actually play the game, you’re still confined to the encoded conditions of the rail that’s set before you.

I’ve learnt many a thing from the time I’ve poured into gaming, from history and politics to the more niche facts of life like, Tails of sidekick fames real name is actually Miles  or violence is actually okay and I should shoot up schools (kidding it’s just what yank politicians and the media would have you think.) There are a myriad of lessons about the real world we can find through gaming, alone or with others.

I’ll give an example of one I learnt with others;

My Dad got to the last level of Sonic Spinball and paused it whilst he went to work. I came home from school and excitedly ran over to our Megadrive when I saw it was on, firing up the screen to see what was on it, instinctively and stupidly I unpaused, in awe of a new part of the game I hadn’t seen yet – immediately dying and getting a game over.  I was frightened he would be mad at me, as I would be if someone screwed up my attempt to finish the game.

However, when he got home and I confessed it to him, he merely smiled and told me – ‘I only paused it so you could see the last level.’ If that don’t teach you something then I don’t know what does! I’ll let you come to the conclusion on what it taught me. To put it simply, gaming is a mirror from which we can learn about the real world, life, ourselves and others.

Whilst I could spend hours talking about the teachings to be had in the satire and political commentary aspect of games, my introduction to the Cold War virtually being through Red Alert 2, what I’m going to focus on is a little more abstract and quite personal.

 

 

Off-Track and Turning-Tables

Over the last year or so of my life I’ve had a lot of deep dark troughs and some lofty peaks, as you do. With my mental health suffering I had stopped writing and allowed not just my blog, but my life to stagnate.

It felt to me like I was on a rail of someone else’s design, trapped in a level I couldn’t beat. When I analysed the game of life like that, I realised I was ignoring one vital element and lesson gaming had taught me; every level is beatable if you persevere.

You may not be on a track of your making on a path of your choosing, in a world that’s hostile. You may be on a rail ride you didn’t plan for you, but in life, as in games, you have the agency to make all the difference that you can in the parameters you’re dealing with. You can progress to the next level, get past the bit you’re stuck on, with determination you can learn how to beat it.

So I’ve decided to pick back up the controller so to speak, I had given up but I’m back in the game and I’ll always come back to it. Even if I need to hit pause for a bit, I’ll be back, because I know I’ve got some dope cut-scenes ahead, or at least some disappointing credits that I can bitch about.

Doing a spot of research before I began writing, I came across a Steam forums thread that furthered my resolve to write this piece. Let’s look at some of the criticisms of ‘On a Rail’ I found there and see just how applicable they are when applied to life;

 

On a rail crit

 

Life is confusing, sometimes it’s unclear what you’re supposed to do, it can be daunting. In this event, you just have to move about a bit and explore to figure it out. On a Rail, like life makes you face things head on but as in the level, sometimes you can stop the train and prepare yourself by dealing with the area you’re in. And then lastly, sometimes you have some great nights where you set off fireworks… SEE WHAT I MEAN! These criticisms of it spoke to me as both valid points regarding this level and life.

 

On a rail crit 2

 

This sentient journey you’re on is always gonna be a mixed bag and it’s definitely tedious at times and fraught with risks. Sure perhaps you’d enjoy it a lot more if you could predetermine what’s around every corner and counter it. But that’s not life, it’s a beautiful difficult journey where you can grow and learn how to be more effective. It’s unfair at times but you can find ways to level the playing field.

And that’s what I am going to do, because as I love games, so do I love life even if it’s always on expert mode.

So, I am going to be better at it.

A freelance writer and blogger living on the south-coast. I write about the world of video games on my current blog. With a focus on RTS/FPS military PC games.

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