The RPG Scrollbars: To Distant Shores

I’m on the road at the moment – not literally, that would make typing very dangerous – so unsurprisingly I’ve been pondering travel. Also regretting taking too long to see The Martian, and again being stunned by what Americans consider chocolate. But I can’t think of even a tenuous connection between those and RPGs, so travel it is – and in particular, the rare joy that comes of not simply going somewhere new, but feeling that sense of distance behind you and a whole new horizon lying ahead.

When it comes to travel, I often point to Leisure Suit Larry 2, though no, it’s not an RPG. It’s not a good game in terms of design, but it’s one I have a soft spot for. A big reason for that is that it felt epic. You start in Los Angeles, and from there you go aboard a cruise ship, to a beautiful holiday island full of nude beaches and KGB assassins, escape from there to go flying to safety, then realise it’s actually not that safe after all and end up parachuting down onto the tropical Nontoonyt Island… all in an era of floppy disks. Lucasarts’ Zak McKracken pulled off something similar, with an adventure spanning the entire world and also a trip to Mars, in an era where most adventures could barely handle an island or two, a small town, or some other nicely limited space.

In both cases, the sense of scale is largely a feint. Count up the number of rooms (screens) and it’s not that impressive. This is Leisure Suit Larry 2. and this Zak McKracken, perhaps with an occasional missing bit here or there that I didn’t spot on a cursory glance.

If so though, not many.

However, both managed to make their voyages effective with a few simple adventure gaming tricks – each area locked off and only accessible by physically travelling there somehow, via plane or boat or whatever, distinct differences in style to make it feel like you’ve arrived somewhere new, and presenting a world where other options are theoretically available, if not actually open during the game proper. Larry 2 for instance forces you to bail out of the plane even though you’re actually heading somewhere else, while Zak gives you a choice of destinations with every trip that may or may not be of any use.

Their big advantage over RPGs though is that going in, the expectation is that they’re going to be pretty small, in terms of screen count or scope. RPGs meanwhile love to boast huge maps and 50 hour experiences and whatever, to the point that scale, perceived or otherwise, is less a selling point than a core feature. The core design is typically built on forward momentum – your power increasing as you push through increasingly tough terrain that demands it, and which goes on for what often feels like forever. That can lead to great satisfaction in terms of exploring the map and finding cool things, but it’s still rare to get that raw sense of being on a new shore, where everything may or may not actually be different, but at least might.

I don’t think any game has achieved that effect quite as well as Final Fantasy VII, in which you have a pretty much endless linear adventure throughout the first disc that ultimately leaves you with the keys to your own airship and a whole world to go “Oh, so that’s what the OTHER discs were for…” at. But I can think of quite a few examples that have had the same oomph for me. The uninterrupted ride from the mage tower in the forest to Camelot itself, past an entire world of bandits and other tough enemies. In World of Warcraft, the first time I took a ship to Menethil Harbour, going from a sunny day near Stormwind into the torrential rain of a brand new map, and stepping through the Dark Portal for the first time, into the broken Outland and immediately facing its full wrath.

In this awesome hat.

It’s not simply about being somewhere new. The journey is crucial – it has to feel like one. That’s why I like Warcraft’s ships, which take you out to sea before cutting away to the new zone, and then bring you in a little way on the other side for good measure. Final Fantasy XIV also does it well. You spend most of your initial levelling in your home country – The Sand One, The Grass One or The Water One, before the story has you become an ambassador to your side and you’re allowed to go further afield via airship, complete with lots of dramatic cut-scenes and epic music. There’s no question that after doing this, you won’t just save shoe-leather and warp everywhere using magic. What matters is that your character’s first trip into the unknown feels impressive, and that you as the player can share in a degree of that excitement.

That’s a very scripted experience though, and I don’t mean to rule out the fun of going somewhere on a whim. It’s often hard to wander in RPGs because of levelled content – in short, sure, you can have a friend teleport you to the gates of the Dark One’s Fortress O’Evil at Level 1, but it’s going to be a short visit. Rarely is there any actual point in directly ignoring the levelling structure and going somewhere before you’re ready, even though that sort of off-the-cuff adventure can be pretty good fun.

I was very sad when World of Warcraft dropped its class-specific quests for instance, because running as an underlevelled Druid to pick up new forms was one of the few quests in that game that I can outright call an Adventure. A dangerous trek through foreign, hostile realms in search of power and knowledge? Well, huzzah! Sign me up and don’t subsequently dumb things down like you slipped lead paint in their gruel. I liked the concept of the Warlock quests too.

The last true example of something like this working was in Star Trek Online. It isn’t a game that caught my interest much, but I’ll always remember firing it up the first time just to see if I could fly to Deep Space Nine, past a lot of mobs that were kinda coughing and going “Are you SURE you want to be heading out this way?” Yes! I replied, just about successfully evading them, and being thrilled to discover that not only could I make it to my favourite Star Trek series’ home station, I could beam across and explore a surprisingly well done version of it on the inside. I had no idea that they’d built it in the game, and had expected to find some handwaved excuse for why it wasn’t there. I was practically giddy to see what they’d done. Then I decided to push my luck and try Risa, and – yes! It was exactly as boring as it always was on the show!

These moments aren’t just cool on their own terms, though that shouldn’t be discounted. As said, RPGs love space – endless square-miles of terrain, hundreds of dungeons, mountain ranges, great oceans, whatever takes the designer’s fancy. Of the time spent within them though, little has quite as much power as your first glimpse – of emerging from the tutorial with eyes blinking in the sun, looking around, and answering that first, all-important question – “So, what now?”

These ‘distant shores’ moments are echoes of that moment. They might literally be that, or a new city, or a new planet in a space game, a new time-zone in a time-travelling spree, or whatever else. They combine that sense of wonder with a sense of achievement. The first time you looked out at the world, it was its creators’ work. This time, it’s your home, and you approach this new corner of it not as some mere penniless noob covered in rags and wielding a rusty pig-sticker, but a granite-eyed veteran of adventure and war that it will come to respect.

Besides, even heroes need a holiday now and again.

25 Comments

  1. Ace Rimmer says:

    A few of the later LucasArts adventures also did this whole evocation of space and travel very well.

    In RPG’s, the shining example to me is the various regions of Morrowind; I only recently tried Skyrim for the first time (I know, I know) and the numbing sameness of it’s setting was a big let-down (though I suppose I was duly warned).

    The KOTORs also deserve mention, esp. the first one (as always), although I suppose they could have done more with the actual interstellar travel.

    • Skeletor68 says:

      Having to work a out a route through Morrowind to get where you wanted to made your character feel much more like an inhabitant. Silt Strider to here, boat to here, mage guild to here etc. I never quite got used to using mark and recall effectively. Those kinds of systems were amazing and rewarding when I was a teenager with much more time. I would probably appreciate Morrowind from a distance if I was this age on its release.

      Aside from the bus journeys I think Far Cry 2 was also quite successful in this respect.

      • Dicehuge says:

        I loved the travel in Morrowind for the same reasons. Having to plan an actual route through the world was an infinitely more immersive and interesting way to travel than simply clicking an icon on a map a la oblivion. It added a sense of scale and distance and I think it showed you can do fast travel without taking the feeling of journey out of the game.

      • Minglefingler says:

        One thing that Morrorwind did very well was to have npcs giving you directions to caves or ruins that they wanted you to visit for a quest. Wandering down trails wondering if you’ve taken a wrong turn and finally being relieved when you found what you were looking for really added to the sense that you were exploring a real place.

    • Danley says:

      Morrowind was my first true open world love, but you can turn off the compass and on-screen indicators in Skyrim. Definitely my preferred way to play because I love the idea of having to actually get your bearings in a game world versus staring at the minimap/compass or opening and closing the map over and over again. Playing Skyrim like this definitely exacerbates that problem, since you’ll REALLY need the map when you do, but if you go in with the intention of having a look around, you quickly get the same sense of direction you do in the real world. I haven’t tried it yet with a VR headset, but it may be even more natural of a transition.

      The most extreme way I’ve played is with the overworld map turned off and a random start location. I’m not overly familiar with the game (level 40ish is the most I’ve gone) so the first time I did this it wasn’t until I came across a military camp with a map that I actually knew where I was.

      There’s still nothing like loading up a new game of Minecraft or venturing over that next hill. Proteus can be interesting and I’ve had a lot of fun with Starmade, but Minecraft is still the best way to actually get lost in a game.

  2. GameCat says:

    I still think that Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, while it’s a totally linear game, have the better sense of journey than any RPG I’ve ever played.

    I’m still waiting for “road RPG” where you’re constantly moving forward like hobbits in Lord of the Rings or Roland and his crew in The Dark Tower.
    Maybe that new Final Fantasy game will cratch this itch.

  3. Bernardo says:

    Why are distant shores the important criterium for travel? Witcher 3 doesn’t have sprawling world, but tight regions full of detail. It’s the first RPG where I just never think of using fast travel, simply because I love that feeling of riding slowly through the country in changing weather, playing gwent with an innkeep or merchant here, getting into a fight with wolves or bandits there. I’d actually love to be able to craft a fire and sit down for a cuppa and some bread in between.

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    Risingson says:

    There a quite a few more adventures with this sense of travel, and I know you know them :) The one I think about which is even more imperfect than Larry 2 is Countdown, where actually the game penalized you for travelling because there is a time and cash limit. Unlike Broken Sword, a wonderful game marred a bit by the lack of sense of urgency.

    Indy Atlantis is a wonder of world travel. I understand the fascination with Larry2: it really makes you feel small in an urban world, something I cannot remember in any other adventure. Sherlock Holmes Marred Scalpel introduced the map to travel in the city, later copied in Gabriel Knight and some other games, but still feels small.

    That makes me think that exploration is maybe a more crucial aspect of adventure games than I thought. The Quest for Glory games, for example, feel just right for this.

  5. Jeremy says:

    This immediately makes me think of Realms of Arkania: Star Trail. One of the first games I ever played, and definitely the first game that showed me the potential of gaming. The sense of discovery, journey, and adventure totally blew me away. Having to plan for illness, rain, water, and food for each stretch of road. Being able to gather water, herbs, and food while you camp, but not without danger. Random events plus scripted events, would lead you to new cities, or dangers, or an orc fortress in the middle of nowhere. I’m pretty sure it’s available for free somewhere, but I’m nervous to open it back up and spoil the memory of its perfection.

  6. OttoVonFoo says:

    I know, from a gaming standpoint, that it was almost entirely bollocks, but Second Life really did present a feeling of travel to me, especially before they made changes that made it much easier to warp into any specific point. In the early days, you had to go to a hub and then run/fly/crawl/sqrrgleflp to your destination. Also, some of the early players really spent a lot of time on creating spectacular vistas and architecture that was really meant to be interesting and inspiring, rather than related to a game mechanic. I still remember a specific house, high up on a rocky peak… an empty wheat field with an abandoned locomotive…

    Of course 90% of the time you were flying over giant fields of rubbish and phalli. But the occasional gem made it feel even more like a travel-related find.

    Nothing since comes quite to it for me, though there have been some really lovely games (Kingdom of Amalur, eg) in terms of huge, sweeping scenic lands.

    • Danley says:

      I always wanted to play Second Life for that exact reason, to explore a world constructed in large part by its players. I always imagined that that was what MMOs were, with lots of people ludicrously roleplaying and building the world that new players would then be introduced to rather than everyone getting the same stock experience.

  7. Gomer_Pyle says:

    I always enjoy reading your articles. Great themes, great writing.

  8. TheAngriestHobo says:

    Ugh, I have so much to say on this subject and only 5 minutes before I have to head back to work.

    I agree with all of the above, particularly WoW and, to a lesser degree, STO. Guild Wars 2 also caters to explorers in a lovely way, by offering a massive map with racial capitals scattered fairly evenly across it, and a system that allows you to seamlessly transition into lower-level regions without feeling overpowered. Also, the capitals are HUGE and have extremely distinctive architecture, which means you can spend the better part of a gaming session just exploring your hometown and chatting with the locals.

    • LionsPhil says:

      I love wandering around in Guild Wars 2. It just has so much varied stuff to go explore, and vistas are a neat mechanic that ties into the natural inclination to climb on top of things. I’ve got character levels out of just exploring places (and being excitedly distracted by harvesting vegetables).

      • TheAngriestHobo says:

        I’m right there with you; I adore the fact that I can pop an XP boost and gain five levels by just wandering around and looking at all the pretty.

        Also, since you brought it up, I love the hidden little jumping puzzles scattered throughout Tyria. I got totally distracted the other day and lost two hours just trying to solve one in a Quaggan daycare.

        Also also, apparently Quaggan nannies are called coddlers and “get to do the most cooing”. It’s not pertinent, but I feel like it’s worth stating.

  9. bhauck says:

    I’m still looking for the next game that can recapture what it was like exploring in WoW, while trying to accept that I no longer have the time to invest in something like that even if I found it. Cat stealthing my balance druid around higher level zones during my undirected, inefficient leveling; stealthing to bosses in old high-level dungeons as a level-80 Moonkin doing Loremaster; building up feral tank gear and soloing parts of MC and BC dungeons. God, the number of times I ran Scholomance for my Dungeon Set helm. I can never figure out if I loved wasting all that time in WoW or just loved having all that time available to waste.

  10. orcist says:

    If we talk about the nuances of travel in RPGs we must mention Ultima Online.

    In UO you could use a Moongate which new characters often used. It had “phases” that coincided with the moons. If you didn’t know that you just walked entered it over and over until you arrived at your desired location, but it wasn’t random. If you busted out a spyglass it would tell you the phase of the moon which indicated where the Moongate would take you. But the world wasn’t flat so you could enter it and it would be more advantageous to wait outside the city of Moonglow versus the city of Transic if you were trying to get to Minoc.

    Then there was the boats! You could tell the NPC tiller man which direction to go… which is a fine motor skill. Or your could bust out a chart and plot a course and give it to the tiller man and he would take care of it.

    The mark/recall spells kind of killed the immersion I’d say. But as an adult with responsibility, I can’t sit on a boat for a half an hour just so I can tame draging on Fire Island.

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    gritz says:

    Making the long sprint to Fort Teth in the Direlands of Asheron’s Call and praying that no Gold Wasps or Ash Gromnies hit you along the way.

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    Ninja Dodo says:

    Open world games have gotten quite good at slow real-time travel now (Witcher 3, AC Black Flag, Red Dead Redemption, Beyond Good & Evil, Journey), but for long hauls to distant places arriving into the unknown, there’s Little Big Adventure (taking the ferry to Desert Island or a spaceship to the moon), Grim Fandango (from El Marrow to Rubacava, to the end of the world), Deus Ex (from New York to Hong Kong)… or more recently: Mass Effect (docking in the Citadel for the first time, landing the Mako or a shuttle on its many worlds).

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      Ninja Dodo says:

      edit: ok Journey is not an open world game, so make that “Games have…”

    • caff says:

      I agree with Deus Ex. I really felt like I was a dystopian cybernetic Michael Palin. Hong Kong in Deus Ex was one of the most definitive worlds in PC gaming for me.

  13. caff says:

    Thanks Richard, an enjoyable read as always.

    It’s nice to see your mention of Zak McKracken – it was the first thing that went through my head when you mentioned travel in games. I’d love to see an actual modern sequel to it (but very much doubt it will happen). Never mind though, every time I fly these days I still think there might be an opportunity for me to use an egg in a microwave.

  14. Cerzi says:

    Everquest will always be the game that comes to mind for me when I think about meaningful, immersive travel. Making the trek from Freeport to Qeynos was the classic tale – passing through forests, plains and mountains, with only a small keep in a mountain pass to safely stop at along the way (and even that keep’s basement was infested with goblins, and evil high-level players farming the human guards and vendors didn’t help either).

    You mention the boats in WoW, but I remember being distinctly disappointed that they teleported across the ocean after zoning out of the harbour area. As much of a buggy hassle as EQ’s boats could be, they really made the continents feel, an actual ocean apart. And it meant that, say, if you saw a dwarf – or an Iksar – in Antonia, you knew they’d travelled far. Characters hinted at a story just by virtue of their location.

    And as brutal as it all was, once you’d achieved a high level (which was an achievement, not just a matter of time), you’d gain power over travel – whether it was inter-continental teleportation in your own spellbook, or one of your friends. So there was a sense of mastery, as the wilderness became tamer and the world became smaller.

    Vanguard was the only MMO to really attempt a similar emphasis on travel as gameplay, adventure as travel. But instant teleportation was thrown in hastily while the game flailed around at launch. I don’t think many people realized how incredible that game’s world actually was, though.

    • Danley says:

      For all its problems with giving you busy-work, Archeage is by far my favorite experience of boating between continents. Definitely recommend.