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Journeys In Games: Let’s Talk About Fast Travel

In Defense Of Slow Travel

I first noticed the feeling when I stopped at an inn. They had a roaring fire, plenty of food and wine, and there was a dog lying at my feet. Skyrim had never felt more welcoming. I was replaying the game with some mods installed. One mod took away all the dragonborn stuff and left me starting as a simple bandit schmuck. Another mod made the world of Skyrim cold and harsh to survive in, so I had to light fires to keep myself warm and make sure I didn’t fall into any water lest I catch my literal hypothermic death. But one of these mods had a side option, which was to turn fast travel off. On a whim, I did. It was only days later, in the warm glow of this inn that the feeling began to come over me. And I realised something. Something that all my gaming life I’d never even thought about.

I HATE fast travel. Let me tell you why.

My goal for this playthrough of Skyrim (you can find the resultant article here) was to do a grand tour of the four Orc strongholds on foot. And if you did something like this yourself, here is the route you might take.

Partway through, it dawned on me that I was having a much better time playing Skyrim a second time because this time I actually felt like I was going on a journey. There are a few reasons for this (and some I’ll go into later) but mainly, the lack of a fast travel option seemed to make every trip between towns that bit more intimidating.

There’s a word used in games all the time: quest. It’s a word that has become undervalued and misused. Look at your quest log in so many games and you’ll see basically a big To Do list. Memoranda virtualis, to use a famous latin phrase I just made up. Many of these entries are petty things. Find a missing doll, deliver a talisman to the guards, deal with a wolf that’s been bothering the villagers (and here I always imagine the wolf, doorstepping peasants, asking to talk to them about Jesus).

To my mind these odd-jobs are not what a quest is. A quest is a huge sprawling journey that takes you from one place to another and spans months, years or even decades. I looked up the definition for quest on a few websites and I think I liked Google’s the best. It reads: a “long and arduous search for something”. To me, that qualifier - “long or arduous” - is important.

In all literary quests, for example, distance is the main thing. Fast travel, removes all sense of real distance. After all, you can instantly warp to wherever you want (within whatever rulesets the game allows, usually it deems you need to have visited at least once before). This immediacy of transport leads to the weird phenomenon of players treating the map of Skyrim like a map of the London Underground. You pop your head up at Whiterun, do a few errands about town, get back on the Fast Travel Line and disembark at rural Falkreath. You do a few tasks, earn some coin, and then get back on your commute bound for Markarth, scanning your eye over the Tool Tips Evening Standard between stops.

Like living in London or any major city with a metro system, living in Skyrim becomes about heading to hubs and never really exploring the distances between very thoroughly or knowing your way from stop to stop “above ground”. And I think that’s a shame. Because a trip on the underground might be ‘journey’ in the dictionary sense of the word, but it is never a ‘quest’ in Google’s sense, and certainly not in a literary sense.

Before I go into the benefits of fast travel, let’s look at another example. In the first Dark Souls you push and die your way through the world of Lordran. Because it is an essentially repetitive game, and because every opened shortcut is a huge relief to your efforts, you get to learn the geography and architecture of the game ludicrously well. If I told veterans of Dark Souls 1 to draw a map from memory of the world leading out from Firelink Shrine, the main starting area, I would get scarily accurate maps. Except if you’re me. In which case, this is as far as I got before I needed to look things up.

But even this is kind of accurate. There is Firelink Shrine, there’s Undead Burg, there’s Ash Lake. There is… I don’t know, what is that, a dragon? Anyway, It all makes sense in my head, even if it looks like garbage to you. I remember my way around, more or less. (Here is what a proper map looks like, for the sake of fairness).

So far, so good, you’ve heard this all a dozen times before. Frankly, you’re SICK of journos harping on about Dark Souls. But just humour me for now.

When you make your way from place to place in Dark Souls 1, there’s a curious atmospheric side effect. The further you get from the beginning - from Firelink Shrine - the more fearful and oppressive things become. Sooner or later you realise you are miles deep underground and it is dark and lonely and you have never felt further from home. That’s because it isn’t just a quick hop back through a map on a menu. You’d have to actually walk back. You can think back and imagine all the places you’ve passed through. You can visualise the slog.

This is exactly what I had to do once. I needed some poison arrows and as far as I knew only one lady, very near the start sold them. But I was miles away. All the enemies I had killed had regenerated and I would have to wallow back through them all, like a crab through treacle. I undertook the trip anyway and I remember, as I finally approached the woman after more than an hour of fighting and pushing my way back, being so relieved and rewarded at having made it back without dying (often). I approached that creepy old crone like she was my own mother, waiting for me behind that slimy grate in that wretched sewer passage. Welcome home, son. Good to be back, mum.

My point is that it actually felt like a journey. About two-thirds of the way through the game, you get the ability to fast travel. Okay, so whatever. It feels like that is a reward for your patience. For the most part in the first Dark Souls, you are confined to where your own legs and courage can take you. Not so, Dark Souls 2 (as Marsh Davies pointed in his recent Fail Forward video). In the sequel, you get fast travel from the first moments and, in my view, it entirely spoils the game.

In fact, if you look at the links between areas in the first game and the second game you’ll notice the first is a much more finely crafted, in geographical terms, than the second. There is far more “interconnectedness” more “verticality” to use some slightly wanky words. A lot less folk are going to be able to draw a map of Dark Souls 2 from memory, in any case. I suspect this lapse in the sequel is because developers, once they know fast travel is to be included, automatically have to assume players are going to use it. So they concentrate less on the in-between spaces. Wouldn’t you?

Think about it. Not many people are going to see those spaces, or they are only going to see them once. So focus on the hubs. And leave the rest of the world alone after getting it OK. What’s the point in putting in all these amazingly clever shortcuts - lifts and pits and staircases and pulleys - if people already have a super efficient shortcut: going to a bonfire and selecting their destination on a dropdown menu. But this does not necessarily make for a better game. And it definitely detracts from any sense of journeying.

You can see why game developers make these decisions though. Videogame players, we’re impatient people. As a demographic, to use another wanky term, we are after instant gratification and power fantasies. We want to do mad things and we want to do it now. Fast travel, in these terms, make sense.

But that’s not everybody. That isn’t me, for example. For the right game, I can be very patient.

DayZ is a game with a reputation. In the post-apocalyptic, zombie-infested land of Chernarus, when you die, you die. You lose everything you’ve scavenged and will never find it again. You start again, in t-shirt and jeans, and not much else.

The bad news is that other human players are around and they might want all your shit. The good news is that the game world is very large. You can go onto a half-full server and play for four or five hours, going from town to town, and never see a single other person. A lot of people think this sounds pretty boring.

But this lack of human interaction means that when you do meet somebody the intensity of the encounter is sky-high. It’s stressful to run into somebody on the road. You meet someone, you both freeze and a cacophony of thoughts rushes through your head. Do they have a gun? Do they have food? Do they want food? Do they want my food? Do they have friends out there? Where are their friends? Where are MY friends? Shit, I don’t have any friends.

It’s unpredictable and it’s scary. Which is exactly what encounters on a really good journey ought to be. You remember them because of their rarity. And this is why I would entreat developers to cast off fast travel, even if it makes the player impatient sometimes. You cannot have a true journey, a real quest, without some boredom. Quests need to be tough. Or, to put it another way, they need to be “long and arduous”.

Now, let’s consider some counter-arguments.

Okay, the argument against scrapping fast travel still stands. People will get bored of walking. You might say that. But I would simply ask, why are they getting bored? It is the developer’s job to fix that boredom, not by giving you this quick and easy way out, but by making the journey interesting, even if it isn’t always eventful.

There’s a truism in games criticism, which is that you can have the biggest, most open, most expansive world, but if there is nothing interesting inhabiting it, your game is not going to be any good. A lot of the time, this is really good advice. Personally, I would sooner have smaller, tighter, shorter games if it meant keeping the ratio of Cool Stuff To See relatively high. But big worlds are big business and “filling the world” has become a rock hard pillar of good game design. Sadly, this sentiment sometimes leads game franchises down wacky paths.

Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag is, by all accounts (including my own), one of the better AssCreed games. But it still suffers from Ubisoft’s undying formula, which includes fast travel but also takes the “fill the world” mantra to uncivilised levels. Sail the sea anywhere in the world and 90 days out of a hundred there will be nothing on the horizon but water. Sail the sea in Assassin's Creed and there will be approximately 6-7 ships within mortar range at any given moment.

It’s a fun game. The storms are great. But sailing from Nassau to Havana to Tortuga to Kingston does not feel like crossing a wide sea channel, like a journey across the waves toward an inevitable end. Or a journey through the years or months of history, as AssCreed games so often attempt to convey. No. It feels like navigating a busy highway. Always in sight of something and always with something to do. And it’s the same variety of things all the time: fight a ship, board a ship, spear a whale, pick up loot, climb a tower and reveal the bloody map.

That’s Ubi’s formula: variegated repetition. Once you’ve seen the menu, no new meals are going to come along. Nothing unexpected is going to happen on the high seas, no long or arduous searches, no albatross moment where the sky and sea and the sea and the sky lays like a load on your weary eye.

So, of course, even people like me will go back to using fast travel, not because it is an excellent tenet of game design, but because the alternative is not just simple boredom - a lack of events - it’s tedium, which is a lack of motive. Why, you ask yourself, am I even doing these same things, over and over again?

A better argument in favour of fast travel is a much more practical one. Time. Obviously, not everyone can devote five hours to walking through Chernarus only to have nothing much occur. Some people have children and, you know, tamagotchis and stuff. When you have a busy life, using shortcuts like fast travel are less about taking the easy way out, or avoiding boredom, and more about squeezing in as much of the best parts of the game as possible before you have to go and print those other 50 fucking wedding invitations.

That argument makes a lot of sense to me. But this means that the best approach, from a designers point of view, is to compromise. Put in fast travel as an ‘option’. Something you can even disable if you want. It worked for Skyrim. You don’t have to use it, right?

Well, it may have worked for Skyrim (the modded time I played, anyway). But for most other games, it still feels like a half-measure. As soon as the developers, as a group, know that fast travel is going to be a part of their game, it is already too late. Because they won’t design the game first and then strap fast travel to it afterwards, like a jury-rigged bicycle pump (which is sometimes, how the first Dark Souls feels). They build the game knowing players will probably use it as much as necessary from the outset. That’s why, even in Skyrim, nobody ever seems to comment on the distance you would have to go to complete some of their petty questicles. At least, I can’t remember any NPCs who said: “Gee, listen, I know it is like 40 kilometres away, but would you mind checking on granny? Haha, yes, it’s super far.” No. They don’t care. They all seem to know you have fast travel. And why in God’s name do they live so far from Granny in the first place? Geography, within these tiny narratives, seldom makes sense.

There are some smaller things a game can do to make travelling through their worlds more like a bona fide journey. Surprisingly infrequently, for example, designers hit upon this idea of recording the player’s trip. If you remember, I said I enjoyed Skyrim much better the second time. But switching off fast travel was only one part of that. The simple fact of my recording the journey in a diary of notes, for the purposes of my article, made it more enjoyable.

Clearly I don’t expect everyone to keep a notepad by their desk when they play. But games sometimes include this idea by themselves, almost as an afterthought. RPG games probably do it more than any others. At the end of Dragon Age: Origins, for example, you get a rundown of all the decisions you’ve made - a kind of record of your life as it occurred. It’s small but it’s something.

In Crusader Kings II they recently added a feature that posts a post-game chronicle of your entire dynasty when your game ends - a brilliant move. (It’s only sad that some of the most meaningful things to you are not the same as those the game itself considers significant. But it’s a good start.)

But even if open world games like Bethesda’s behemoths incorporated this kind of feature - say, a recorded map of your travels, and a visible chronicle of your meaningful encounters and decisions - that sense of having been on a journey, although increased, will still be hobbled by fast travel. It is one of those parts of videogame language that we have come to accept. Like stuffing your face with chocolate bars in the middle of a gunfight to restore your health, or punching a tree to attain perfectly serviceable pieces of wood, without ever considering the effect this language has on the overarching tone of the game.

After all I have said, I’m not totally dogmatic about it. Obviously, I don’t expect games like Far Cry 5 to cut out fast travel. But that’s likely to be a game about blowing things up, not a game about questing or journeying. If people want to blow things up faster and more often than before, who am I to argue? I enjoy blowing things up in quick succession. It calms me.

But I do feel like fast travel, as a mechanic, should be more thoughtfully considered before including it. Maybe then, if designers stopped to think just a little bit longer about the places they create, instead of always giving players the magic power of spontaneous teleportation, they would focus on making the world itself worth walking through.

This article was adapted from a talk for Q-Con, Belfast.

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