Are you a walker or a fast-traveller?

I came across an article by Gavin from Bits & Pieces last month which gave a brief history of fast-travel in video games. Although he was unable to discover which title first used this mechanic, he gave examples of how it has been implemented over the years.

This got me thinking about how much other-half and I make use of it. I’ve written a couple of posts recently about our gaming differences – for instance, how Pete will hit the ‘randomise’ button while I’ll spend ages mulling over the character creation screen, and how he has no qualms in picking the evil response whereas that kind of decision usually leaves me feeling guilty – and it seems that fast-travel is yet another element where we have completely different opinions.

Pete will make use of a fast-travel option as soon as it’s offered to him and will utilise it to its fullest extent. He does enjoy some exploration in video games but it’s certainly not the main appeal of gaming for him: he’d much rather be wrapped up in the energy of a battle than slow down to explore every inch of the world. His argument is that he doesn’t have enough time to play nowadays thanks to adult responsibilities, so he wants to cram in as much action as possible whenever there’s the chance.

On the other hand, there’s me: I’m not so bothered about being involved in constant action and play more for stories and immersion. The feeling of a digital world slowly opening up as you travel through its locations and uncover its secrets is therefore one of the most exciting for me personally. A slight hint of a new quest, mystery to solve or path to follow through the trees is enough to make me forget about the main quest for a while and wander off into the wilderness.

I guess my perfectionist tendencies and the fear of missing out has a lot to do with my frequent reluctance to resort to fast-travel. Whenever I play an RPG, the worry that I might fail to see something constantly niggles at the back of my head and is enough to get me traipsing across the map on my feet or a mount. I’ve experienced some lovely scenes in open-world releases in recent years and probably wouldn’t have seen them if I’d opted to zip across the miles in the blink of an eye.

Take the time I caught a mudcrab trying to steal the morning’s catch from a drying-rack next to a river, and the way the fisherman responded to it in The Elder Scrolls Online. Or when I found a colony of tree ants crawling up a trunk in the sunshine in Horizon Zero Dawn, each carrying a leaf in their teeth. Moments like these don’t necessarily do anything to progress the central storyline in a game but they go a long way in helping to create a world which feels alive and spontaneous.

The ability to teleport across a map in an instant hides the size and layout of a digital world and, when you think about it, is kind of at odds with the usual epic-quest-premise found in most RPGs. The Cambridge Dictionary defines ‘quest’ as ‘a long search for something that is difficult to find or an attempt to achieve something difficult’. Does that mean it transforms into something more like a task on your to-do list if you can reach your destination in a few seconds behind a loading screen and tooltip?

The risk of the mechanic is that it reduces the in-game map to something almost like the diagram of the London Underground. You run a few errands in town and pick up a bite to eat while you’re there before hopping back onto the Fast-Travel Line; then jump off a few stops later to deliver a parcel to a non-player character and get your weapons fixed. Don’t forget to take your belongings and tap your Oyster card on the Autosave before you head above ground.

RPG environments are becoming more about these hubs of activity, and less about finding your way to the next one and exploring the distance between them. I do get it though and can’t deny that Pete has a good point. When life is full of adult commitments and you don’t want to waste an hour walking between locations only for nothing much to happen, the fast-travel mechanic offers a convenient shortcut which allows you to squeeze in as much of the best parts of a release as possible.

It’s not always about practicality and accessibility though. We gamers can be an impatient bunch and there are many players out there who want an instant hit of adrenaline and fulfilment of a power-fantasy – and there’s nothing wrong with that. We’re all unique and get our enjoyment from different aspects of gaming so, for people who are more interested in constant action, fast-travel is appealing because it cuts out all that boring walking from one side of the map to the other.

But this gives rise to a new question: why do we find it boring? It’s the developer’s job to find a fix for any boredom and a fast-travel option feels more like a workaround than a cure, but I do understand that it’s something of a catch-22 situation. If you know most players are interested in the hubs of activity mentioned earlier, that’s where you focus your effort; but failing to create a journey full of smaller interesting moments means fewer gamers will be enticed to take the long trip.

Is it a case of open-world games simply becoming too big for their own good and therefore being too difficult or expensive to fill with these scenes? This is something picked up on by several people who kindly responded to my recent poll. Even Frostilyte from Frostilyte Writes, who seems to agree with my point about fast-travel hiding the scale and layout of a game-world, said that a lot of modern open-world releases are painful to explore because they’re just too large.

I’m not saying that fast-travel is a bad thing or that I never use it. It’s certainly useful when I’ve only got a spare half-hour and I quickly want to get somewhere to finish a quest before having to turn off my PC. But my preference is always to hit the road using my feet and take in all the sights during the journey to my next destination. A good RPG for me is one when you’re never really lost, because there’s always an adventure waiting around every corner.

So how about you: are you a walker or a fast-traveller?

39 thoughts on “Are you a walker or a fast-traveller?

  1. Mainly a walker, I’d say. I’ve been replaying Skyrim for the first time in a few years and have been enjoying wandering through the lands, and have stumbled across numerous NPCs and moments of dialogue that I’d never come across in any previous playthroughs. I like exploring and seeing the dynamic moments that occur when you let the world unfold in front of you.

    That being said, I do kinda have to agree with Pete; sometimes I’ll have a multi-item fetch quest in one of these RPGs that requires travelling to three different places across the map for the sake of one item and I’ll just teleport there 😅 I’ll admit to getting that thought in my head of “yeah I don’t have time for this right now, have to (mow the lawn, pick up the kids, deal with the washing, etc)” mentality. Generally though I like to walk through the game world though haha

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    • Games like Skyrim can fit in quite well around adult responsibilities. You can take your time with them when you’ve got a free evening; just go running towards the horizon and see what you can find when you want a chilled session; or use fast-travel and get a couple of quests done quickly when you’ve only got 30 minutes.

      And now I want to turn ESO on again. 😆

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  2. I feel like the objectively correct choice is to (ab)use Fast Travel as much as possible. After all, the devs gave us the option to cut down meaningless travel time to fast forward to the good parts. Most of the games have enough side activities or less intense sections to not get “overburdened” by non-stop action (action being whatever the game is about, not necessariliy just explosions and shooting, in this context).

    That being said, I do have a problem with that system (yes, there is a rant coming, once again. Brace yourself!). Before we get into this, though, I need to clarify one thing: I’d say exploration and Fast Travel are (or, at least, can and should be) two different things. When I used to Fast Travel a lot, I still would go out of my way to explore every inch of the map. After I had seen everything (or thought I’d seen everything), I’d resort to Fast Travelling.

    Nowadays, I tend to avoid Fast Travel as much as possible, at least on my first playthrough (on my 6th playthrough of Borderlands 2, you can be sure, I don’t walk anywhere). I do this for many of the same reasons you do: I want to explore the world, and see what it has to offer. If a quest takes me across half the map, it should feel like an actual journey. Do I need to prepare myself? How long will it take? If I get there, are there otehr things I can do on the way or in that area? If I’m just in and out for a 20-minute-adventure, the weight of the journey and the game world gets completely undermined.

    However, most of the time, I get frustrated with that way of playing. I feel like almost all game worlds are 80 % meaningless. They are just there to have the “open world” checkbox crossed. Sure, sometimes you come across a funny thing or cool Easter Egg, but if there’s something the devs really want to show you, they’ll guide you there anyway. In my opinion, an open world must not be something that is carelessly thrown together. When a dev wants to make an open world game, then that world has to be an important part of the narrative, the gameplay, and the overall experience.

    But you seem to have made entirely different experiences than I have. Can you recommend a few games with great open worlds?

    Liked by 1 person

    • My favourite experiences have been with Horizon Zero Dawn and The Elder Scrolls Online – so much so with the latter, that I’ve found myself returning to it every few months for the past six years or so. I spent a lot of time in Horizon just exploring and using the photo mode, whereas in ESO it seems like there’s always something new to discover. It could be as simple as a nice view or an event such as a random encounter or funny scene.

      I totally agree with you though: some games are too big for their own good. If a fast-travel system has to be implemented to get players to the next hub of activity because there’s nothing interesting to see in-between them, in my mind there’s something wrong with the design. I’d rather have a smaller world with plenty in it than a huge one in a release claiming to have the ‘biggest open-world environment ever’.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. It depends on the game and the reason if I fast travel, I never really use it much in Witcher 3 or the Red Dead games, active quests mostly take place around a certain radius of your story quest

    Breath of the Wild, I quick travel as much as possible, with weather blocking your path and gliding of Towerd being the best way to explore.

    In Skyrim, I tend to rp a bit so if a quest tells me to hurry to Whiterun I quicktravel, no rush and nearby enough I walk. Epic quests I do on foot as well, but if someone in Riften tells me to steal an apple in Dawnstar or go pet a goat in Morthal I fast travel

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    • I can’t lie: I do the same when I’m playing Skyrim or ESO. When an NPC gives you a really trivial quest, I’ll almost always use fast-travel and grumble about their request while I’m doing it. 😆

      If it’s a quest that feels consequential in terms of the story though, I’ll go on foot. I want to feel like I’m on the same journey as the character and experience everything that comes along with it.

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  4. Such an interesting post!

    I’ll always remember walking around Morrowind fondly, the map (literally) in hand, and I think that’s why I still enjoy taking my time and exploring. My partner on the other hand prefers using fast-traveling as soon as it’s possible so when we play together we try to find some kind of balance, lol. It depends on the games, too. When I’m really enjoying myself in a world I’m more likely to ignore the fast-travelling options, but in some games I’m glad they’re so prevalent because I just don’t feel like exploring 🙈

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    • That makes sense! If a game is designed well, there’s enough incentive there to make a player want to explore rather than opt for fast-travel. I usually resort to using it when nothing much happens or there’s nothing interesting between the main locations of activity… and they’re usually the worlds I don’t look back on as fondly afterwards. 🤔

      Liked by 1 person

  5. We like to say it’s about the journey not the destination but makes a huge difference whether you’re taking the journey for the first time or the thousand-and-first. I like to explore fully and completely on foot (or mount) on the first run but once it starts to become a commute then I’m more than happy to take whatever fast-transit option I can find. In mmoprgs, where you might play for years and cross the same landscape hundreds of times, being able to click a map to get to the approximate end-point of your current activity is a godsend. I’ve been playing EverQuest II for a decade and a half now and the introduction of a Fast Travel option has made a hugely positive difference to my enjoyment there.

    My preference is for fast-travel systems that require you to make the journey once the slow way to open up the portal or whatever it is. That turns the whole thing into part of the adventure and the travel option itself into the reward, which feels organic. I’ve played many games that use that concept and I’ve always seen it as a core part of the gameplay. I think having fast travel right out of the box, so to speak, would be a detraction from the experience I’d be hoping for… but then so would having to do the same overland journey many, many times with no alternative.

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    • ‘When it starts to become a commute.’ I really like the way you’ve phrased that there. I hadn’t thought about it in those terms while writing this post but it makes sense: fast-travel is kind of the same as switching off during your commute to work because you’ve done the same journey so many times already.

      For me personally, fast-travel is implemented in the best way when it’s something you have to earn by travelling to a new location on foot for the first time. That doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll always use it afterwards, but it’s nice having the option when I’ve got limited time to play.

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  6. >be me
    >see Kim has a new poll on twitter
    >respond with words
    >get featured in the following article

    Joking aside, to expand on what I said now that I don’t have a character limit: I think the issue is less about the size of the world and more the lack of meaningful content therein. Most of the open-world stuff I’ve played is big and empty. Sure there is a checklist of repeated content to do across the world map, but that isn’t engaging. It feels like the kind of busy work I do when I’m trying to waste time at work instead of an enjoyable way to spend my free time. Making the map bigger only exacerbates the problem because you invariably get to see even more of that copy pasted content.

    Unfortunately, the industry, by and large, has decided that bigger is better and so I’m pretty sure we’ll continue to see giant maps filled with “nothing” to do. :\

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    • I warned you that you were going to feature in another post! Your tweet pretty much summed up what I was trying to say but in a much more succinct and Frosti way. 😆

      Here’s a question for you: how do you feel about photo modes in video games? Would the feature make you more likely to explore a world, even if there’s limited content between each main location?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I don’t really have any strong feelings on photo modes. Any time such a feature is in a game I almost entirely ignore it. I’m not one for tacking pictures in real life, so the idea of doing so in a video game doesn’t really have any appeal either.

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        • That makes sense. To be honest, I couldn’t really see you slowing down during a game to take photographs… unless it’s a game about taking photographs, obviously!

          Liked by 1 person

  7. I usually prefer walking. I only fast travel in Skyrim if I’m trying to get something done quickly. I feel like having the encounters like Skyrim make you want to explore more since you never know what you’ll find.

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    • Yes, that’s exactly how I feel about Skyrim and ESO! There’s usually always something to see while you’re on foot and not knowing what you’re going to find next makes you want to explore more. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I feel like many of the other people who have commented here – I think it really depends on the game that I’m playing when it comes to deciding whether to walk or fast travel.
    When I think of something like Spider-Man on the PS4 for instance, I feel like the whole point of that game is the traversal. Getting from one place to the next is where the game really shines.
    Storywise, I often feel a similar way in JRPGs. I feel like the journey is part of the story in itself. I have to go through this arduous walk in order to get to the next stuff. Excitement is gradually building as move between events as I begin to wonder about what is going to happen next.
    God of War was another game like this.

    Some games however, feel like the world is designed to just waste my time. The latest Assassin’s Creed games, while some of my favourites in the series, are also giant time sinks and I’m not sure how much value traversing the world on foot actually brings me. Because of that, I’ll often end up fast traveling.

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    • I have to admit, I haven’t played any of the Assassin’s Creed games since the first (although I’ve watched friends stream part of them). Is it safe to say that they’ve grown too big for their own good?

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      • I think it just requires almost a change in mindset.
        With Valhalla, it’s a massive world, one where I am constantly distracted by fun things to do if I travel on foot, but I also feel like I’m never going to get to the end of it. In that sense I might have to say, yeah, it’s getting too big.
        On the other hand, I also feel like the developers these days don’t really expect the gamers to finish everything like they did before, so I kind of feel like I just have to adjust my expectations about how much I’ll actually see and do.

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        • Ah, I get what you mean. There have been several open-world games over the past few years that I’ve started, but have never actually finished the main storyline because I’ve become burned-out on the side-quests before I get there.

          I’ve seen all sorts of statistics but the one which seems to be quoted most regularly is that developers expect only 20% of people to finish their game. Maybe it’s because I’m getting old, but that figure just seems a bit sad to me. 😦

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  9. It depends a lot in the game and for fun getting around is. I see Spider-man as an example someone mentioned, and I think I used the subway a total of the times across two playthroughs. Similarly, in Just Cause I enjoy wingsuiting around enough that I rarely used FT. But in Witcher 3, lugging Geralt around on foot across the same stretch of woods yet again usually just seemed like a tedious waste of time.

    If I do use fast travel in a game, I like to do the video game equivalent of “getting off the bus one stop early”. Fast travel to the general area as an objective, but not necessarily to the closest or most convenient location, so I still get to walk and enjoy the scenery before I arrive

    Unless I’m in an inpatient mood. I can be a very fickle gamer.

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    • I like that ‘bus’ idea! It’s not something I’d considered before but it seems like a good compromise. You get to cut out the biggest part of the journey, but still experience some exploration before the next objective so you can get a feel for the location and let the excitement build up. I might have to try this the next time I’m playing ESO and don’t have a lot of time. 🤔

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  10. Thanks (again) for the mention on my wee piece. Glad to see it’s inspired some interesting thoughts! I always prefer to wander around the world, but at the end of the day if the design of the game incentivises me to do otherwise I don’t have the willpower to fight it. I think with the scale bloat mentioned by other commenters and need for an enormous stream of ‘content’, a degree of subtlety in quest/mission design has gone out of the window for open-world games, replaced largely with an explosion of map markers (can you tell I’m thinking about Ubisoft?).

    Developers clearly design with the intent it be used, such as when quests ask you to go halfway across the gameworld to somewhere you’ve already been for a trivial reason. But it can also be used to skip less tedious journeys, too, as a convenience enhancer. I think this is why it’s so noticeable when really good open-world games manage to convince you to make a manual journey for rewarding reasons – or trick you into making one for reasons that aren’t.

    I think fast travel mechanics are pretty intertwined with the way a developer chooses to design missions and objectives for this reason. If not, as you mentioned it can feel like a bit of a cheat to cover up less-thoughtful decisions. The bigger games become, the more moving parts there are in a game’s development – the team designing the side-content, little encampments and map-marker style stuff might be totally separate from the people handling the main story. Sort of rambling on here, but thanks again for the compelling post! Might need to revisit the topic myself.

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    • There have been a few games in recent years where, because I’ve gone into them with the mindset that I’m going to complete every single objective, I’ve kind of overdosed on side-quests and run out of steam before actually finishing the main storyline. Perhaps that says more about my perfectionist nature rather than the games’ design, but I feel it’s a bad sign if your players feel exhausted before they’ve reach the credits!

      Thanks so much for the inspiration. 😀

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  11. Pingback: UI Fatigue, or; why I still haven’t finished AC Odyssey – Bits & Pieces

  12. I would say it depends on the game. If the world is really captivating I might explore on foot, or vehicle, like I have been doing with Cyberpunk 2077. If the world doesn’t capture my interest then I’m more focused on finishing the game and getting to my destination faster. I think if a world is just too big I might do a little of both, on foot and fast travel.

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    • It seems like a lot of people have similar views and it depends on how they’re finding the game. It’s encouraging to hear that many like exploring though if the world is interesting, and that it’s not always about finishing a game as quickly as possible. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I usually use the fast travel option once its offered since the games I’m playing have it due to being altogether too big to traverse efficiently without. I’m thinking of Bravely Default II right now that has lots of backtracking due to quests popping up in prior locations. Once you reach a town, the option to fast travel is made available, which makes it a lot easier to go from town to town and check out quests. This doesn’t take away from exploration as the quests will have you out and about. I do like how prior Squeenix games in the Final Fantasy series would offer “fast travel” with airships, which is clever and story based. I like when developers work the fast travel system into the game’s story especially if it takes place in a setting that wouldn’t necessarily have something like that. I mean we don’t even have insta-travel now so having a medieval setting have it without some explanation is pretty sus.

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    • I hadn’t considered the setting while writing this post, but you make a very good point there. It would make more sense for fast-travel to happen via a cart in a medieval game for example, rather than a more modern means of travel. This has got me thinking about how I feel about the wayshrines in ESO… I’m more likely to take my horse unless there’s a long way to travel and I don’t have much time to play. 🤔

      Liked by 1 person

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