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.
How likely are you to use fast-travel in video games when the option is available?—
Later Levels (@LaterLevels) April 06, 2021
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?
@LaterLevels Time is precious, and if I need to run to the other side of the world for the 14th time, I'm going to skip that journey.—
Toasty | Games With Toasty (@GamesWithToasty) April 06, 2021
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.
(@Frostilyte) April 06, 2021
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?