Can Fast Travel Harm a Game?

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As open-world games continue to be popular, one increasingly present subject I see brought up is how to handle fast-travel. It’s sort of a weird issue because of how it pits convenience against… well the experience of playing the game.

I personally don’t mind a lot of the criticisms people bring up against games like Skyrim (combat, world design, bugs), at least not enough to stop playing it. Like a lot of people though, I use its fast travel system as seldom as possible. It’s pretty much as close as you can get to perfect convenience without breaking the game — the ability to instantly zip to any major place, so long as you’ve been there before.

The obvious reason for not using it is that it puts a large artificial shadow over something that’s supposed to feel like an organic world. Bethesda probably wants you to run around in the fields and paths of Skyrim and discover things within them, not spend the whole game teleporting from town to town. Some people however argue that having this sort of fast travel can lead developers to ruin a game’s quest structure.

There are a lot of instances in games like Skyrim or Fallout 3 where you might start a quest, and the destination for the next objective is almost on the other side of the entire game world. If it’s a place to which you can already fast travel and you choose to do so then it’s not really a problem. If you choose not to use fast travel too much though, then a quest that has you zipping back and forth across the whole game world can get very tiring.

This is why some people are concerned about CDProjekt Red’s decision to implement the same fast travel system in their upcoming The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Hopefully CDP is smart enough to write the game’s quests to be more localized — objectives rarely straying too far from their origin point. If you’ve read the Witcher books the open-world structure isn’t really a bad fit for the universe depending on how CDP ends up writing the quests and designing the world.

The way I handle it in open-world games is to generally only do quest objectives as I near them. If I’m given a new objective on the other side of the game, I’m just gonna wait until I happen to be around those parts to actually do it.

The other side of the coin is how Japanese RPGs have handled fast-travel for a while — essentially only giving it to players very late in the game, after they’ve explored most of the world. I think this has a lot of advantages depending on how a game is planned out.

This year’s Ni No Kuni is a textbook example. You walk from town-to-town completing quests wholly in the area surrounding each town, and eventually you get progressively cooler and more liberating modes of transportation until you eventually get fast-travel, which is usually contextualized in the story somehow. Your world expands when you finally get control of a boat, and once again when you get the ability to fly. It’s basically enhancing the atmosphere of the game through restriction.

I think Dark Souls is one of the most impressive examples of efficient travel and world design in a recent video game. You travel everywhere by foot, and there’s no teleportation (except from the tutorial area), but getting from one location to any other never takes an extremely long time because of how many shortcuts are in the game. Dark Souls’s world much smaller than Skyrim’s, but it’s really insane how intricate it is. It’s always surprising to find a secret stairway or elevator in one area that physically links it to a much earlier area of the game. That game’s predecessor, Demon’s Souls, did a good job of this too on a smaller scale. Instead of straight-up checkpoints from which you continue every area, that game has unlockable shortcuts. It’s a pedigree of level design that I think is sorely missing in many of today’s big-budget games.

The only restriction a lot of western RPGs and open-world games seem to have is places you haven’t been to yet, and the only contextualization that seems to be there is a few hours automatically passing in game time. For some this may be enough, and the choice to use or not use fast travel may also be enough for a lot of people. Ultimately though I think the issue lands with how a developer designs a game’s world based on its mechanics.

BULLETS:

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2 thoughts on “Can Fast Travel Harm a Game?

  1. Fast travel in open world racers is useful to me. I don’t want to drive for a half-hour to get to a race, I just want to start the thing already. Forza Horizon is good in that regard, it gives me a fast travel option, but only after finding the outposts, to encourage exploration. The fast travel anywhere option costs money to unlock, but it’s completely optional.

  2. L. Palmer says:

    I like the late-in-game fast travel system. That way, it’s easier to stock up on health supplies and weapons for the Big Giant Final Battle.

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