Since I spend a lot of my life on trains, crammed into small seats and suffering frequent delays, it’s given me space to consider why they hold such a strong place in the canon of gaming tropes. While games formally about trains are fairly rare — limited to the simulator genre, puzzlers like Mini Metro and a relatively little-remembered Zelda game — some of gaming’s most beloved moments have seen characters taking to the rails. The range and scale of their involvement varies, but they can be a powerful tool — here are a few of the ways they’ve made themselves an essential element of so many different titles.
Trains as Introductions
The Half-Life games are famous for their near total lack of traditional cutscenes, so the opening ride on the Black Mesa Transit System serves as worldbuilding without overt exposition. Even without the pre-recorded narration, we immediately see that this is a contemporary setting, but one at the cutting edge of contemporary technology. We see a military helicopter taking off, hinting that this is a government facility. We also see that for all the technology, all is not perfect at Black Mesa, where a chemical spill is currently underway.
Placed at the start of the game, the Black Mesa Transit System signals that even in a sequence with no direct player interaction, freedom of player movement will not be completely taken away. By following this scene with Freeman’s release into the facility, it uses the temporary restriction to contrast with the exploration which will be possible once the confines of the train are lifted.
We also see this use of trains in Animal Crossing’s original GameCube installment. Fading up on an ongoing train journey tells the player that they are about to arrive somewhere new, and that once they are there, they will be let loose on their environment. With this promise, the game — via Rover the Cat — has license to interrogate the player with setup options in a manner not dissimilar to a series of impersonal menus, but with the framing of a long journey that places functional data entry in the context of the buildup for an exciting new adventure.
Trains as Gameplay Shift
A tactically-placed train ride in the middle of a narrative can be just as interesting as an introductory one. One memorable example is the three day journey on the Excess Express in Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door. It’s partly an excuse for the game to parody Agatha Christie’s classic Murder on the Orient Express, as well as to call back to a similar murder mystery subplot in the original Paper Mario. But it also gives the player a breather, with simple adventure game style inventory puzzles replacing the platforming and combat which have formed the bulk of previous chapters. While there is a puzzle-based section in the abandoned Riverside Station, this serves as an atmospheric interlude to let the player stretch Mario’s legs, and lampshades the chapter’s sedate pace by including a room full of Goombas.
The comparative lack of combat during this chapter helps build tension around the central mystery of the conspiracy against the train. The chapter’s puzzles are geared around solving strange happenings on board. Many are red herrings, but the advantage of the train setting here is the same reason Agatha Christie chose it and many country houses — the isolation of the environment boxes the player in with a finite number of suspects, clues and environments, in old fashioned point and click adventure style.
In the wider scope of the game’s pacing, the train journey is a sign that they have had their last chance to relax before the game’s ending. Only two chapters follow, during which Mario is sent to the moon via cannon and then does battle with a millennium-old demon queen. From a pacing perspective, a more low-key chapter to round off the second act is a smart move.
Trains as Symbols of Power
In a game full of exploration and variety, trains are great for fixing perspective and adjusting the pace. But what about narratives that don’t rely on those elements for their appeal? Life is Strange and its prequel Before the Storm feature trains both as transport and as a threat. In Before the Storm, Rachel and Chloe ride the boxcar of a passing freight train out to the Overlook, which functions as an explanation for their travel at a point where neither drives, and as a justification for an uninterrupted conversation between the two protagonists. In the original series, Chloe is caught on the tracks as a train approaches, forcing Max to rescue her.
In both instances, we see neither the driver nor any passengers. The train is a moving reminder of the outside world in a game largely consisting of fixed scenes with a small cast of characters. More than other modes of transport, the sheer size and power of trains, combined with the relative lack of human control over their direction and momentum means they’re well suited for a game whose themes include the butterfly effect of small decisions taken in the face of forces — trains, parents, educational establishments, storms — well outside the protagonists’ control.
By contrast, the absence of working trains in Fallout: New Vegas serves as a reminder that for all the progress in establishing societies atop the radioactive ruins, the nascent NCR and Caesar’s Legion have nothing on the old world.
The Mojave Wasteland is scattered with broken tracks and rusting hulks of locomotives, idle in the desert winds for two centuries. Even in the relatively stable world of New Vegas, a train track is a large, vulnerable, fixed target, unworkably dangerous in a frontier still packed with dangerous bands of roaming bandits and warring factions. This is ably demonstrated in the Vegas monorail, the one working train in the game, which even its location in a military base cannot protect from a bombing attempt which the player can assist or hinder. Unlike most other infrastructure, the trains never play any role in the main plot, nor in any sidequests. There is just one marked location in the game associated with them, an emergency repair yard which contains little of interest.
New Vegas was famously rushed, so it’s possible the trains may have been slated for an important role left out of the finished game. But they also represent the impotence of the new societies without needing a word of exposition. The NCR might have the mightiest of the new armies, but its soldiers are still outnumbered, travel on foot, and are barely well enough equipped to hold off an army of Roman cosplayers. Even the president’s vertibird is a salvaged pre-war model. The trains are so beyond the capabilities of law and order in the wastes that society all but ignores them — out of frustration, or out of fear.
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Trains as Endings
The Red Dead Redemption series wouldn’t be what it is without trains to ride, rob and to watch trundle across the landscape. Just like those in Life Is Strange, the railways are a reminder of the outside world, but unlike them, these are an unwelcome sign that society has built enough stability to render trains viable, and with them the Old West obsolete. While characters may be able to rob trains for a while, it is clear that they cannot possibly stop the spread of the civilisation which will prove their undoing.
Grim Fandango treats the Number Nine train — which allows comfortable passage into the Ninth Underworld — as an ultimate goal, both for its heroes, who wish to flee the Land of the Dead, but also for its villains. The latter, knowing their souls’ unhappy fate should they leave their current state of purgatory, steal and sell tickets to live the good life where they are.
Here too the train represents an otherworldly symbol of power, displayed in a very literal sense when we see a train full of sinners turn demonic and take a fiery detour when it realises the fraudulence of their fake tickets. When we see Manny and Meche board the Number Nine and disappear beyond the veil into their next mystery — eternal rest — we know from the player’s perspective that the adventure is over for good.
This trope is an inversion of the train as an introduction. The narrative has funnelled down and resolved all its threads, so it’s time to go. From all the player’s actions, only one course is left — to step on board, relinquish control and ride off into the sunset.