Nowadays, video game worlds aren’t only painstakingly crafted, but they’re also growing considerably in size.
People couldn’t believe the 3D, open world environments of Grand Theft Auto III when it first burst onto the scene in 2001, and certainly wouldn’t anticipate the crazy scale of The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind a year later. In 2004, Blizzard set the benchmark for MMOs with none other than World of Warcraft, boasting an iconic world that’s still growing with each and every expansion, and arguably, is still both the envy and aspiration of every MMO developer out there to this day.
Years later, we’ve had the privilege of roaming the western wonderland of Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption 2, blasted our way through the chaotic continent of Borderlands 2, and fought robotic creatures in the wastelands of Horizon Zero Dawn. The list could go on, and the sheer variety of games and their genres would get pretty mind boggling, but one thing seems to have cemented itself as near constant: fast travel.
Whether it’s hailing a yellow cab on Grand Theft Auto’s city streets or hopping on the feathery back of a faithful Pidgeot, getting around in the majority of open world games has never been that much of a problem. When I’m not politely declining Roman’s banterous advances for a game of pool (Ayyy, Nico!) or needing to soar to Viridian City sharpish, I can conveniently press the menu button and bring up Skyrim’s map. It’s bliss; there are as many icons blanketing the landscape as there are arrows in my bulging quiver. I can hover my pointer and bam –loading screen with revolving item – I’m in Whiterun.
For those of us in a no-nonsense mood, fast travel is exceptionally convenient. I can step out of the game for a second, dive into a menu like I’m commuting to work on the tube, catch the “Impossibly Fast” line, and wait patiently with my inventory tucked between my legs because I’ve done this all before – I know the etiquette round these parts. Give it a minute, and I’ll be hopping off the train, making sure to tap my Oyster on the Autosave before heading out into the wild again.
It’s effortless, I haven’t got the time or energy to roam about, I’ve got dungeons to crawl, chests to loot. Taking the underground is so much simpler, even if it’s not the most aesthetically pleasing journey, it gets the job done. And in worlds so vast, we couldn’t do without it.
Or could we?
Head backwards in time just a few years, and the struggle was real. If you wanted to partake in a team-based jaunt through the Scarlet Monastery as a member of the Alliance in World of Warcraft, it was something you had to book in advance. It was easy to view the aged opulence of the monastery through rose-tinted glasses (quite literally) and even if it was plonked nicely in the opposing Horde’s territory, it was still worth treading a treacherous path to get there.
Once you’d spammed “LFG SM” enough, you’d get the heartwarming ping of a pink whisper, leading into a hefty drum roll as the portrait of your dwarf paladin clunked into place alongside four other determined Warcraft folk. While communication was now easy enough, I was probably an age away slaying Kobolds, while “GnomenAway1994” and all the rest of the crew were selling oversized shoulder pads in the hustle and bustle of the auction house, or collecting materials to make that fabulous cloak that’s totally in fashion right now. It would actually take longer hammering it there on my Grey Ram and waiting for everyone to bloody touch the summon stone – “Come on buddy, got dinner in 20” – than to clear the Scarlet Monastery of baddies in the end.
Take the original Dark Souls. I couldn’t possibly fathom where I was meant to be going or what in fact, I was meant to be doing. There’s no minimap, there’s no compass, there’s no smiley pixie to give me a sparkly push in the right direction and there’s certainly no fast travel from the off. If you were to pluck Lordran from the screen and place it in a showroom, just like the complex innards of a intricately crafted watch, you’d be able to see every region fitting together in a beautifully seamless fashion.
Miyazaki trusted you to put the effort in and explore its swathes of secrets: getting hopelessly lost, enduring endless agonising boss runs and lengthy backtracking were part and parcel of the experience he and FromSoftware intended you to have. When you do finally receive the ability to warp between areas, it feels like an achievement, and falls into your hands at a point in time where knowledge of the world should be buried in your subconscious; every shortcut second nature.
I’ve got no problem with the likes of Roach trotting out of thin air at the quick whistle of a Witcher, or trolls riding garish raptors across the dusty plains of the Barrens. That’s because you’re still travelling across the world, able to soak up the land and immerse yourself in the game. Looking back at my experiences with old-school WoW and Dark Souls, they were arduous and frustrating, but I appreciated them immensely. Having to go to lengths to get around draws you closer to the environment, but also to the players within it. By clopping around on my steed, I was forced into interactions with others, participating in some hearty chatter about the game as we all made our way to the caverns we were about to explore. The connection is stronger and there’s a tangible, discernible significance to the NPCs you listen to and the bosses you slay.
Much like real life, you’re dropped into the thick of it and have to make the best of a situation. You catch the gigantic zeppelins that depart from outside the spooky Undercity and wait for the trams that zip underneath Ironforge’s towering halls. You rely on spells to give you a quick burst of speed, or just repeatedly bash the space bar to make your skip over mountains or through wastelands just that little bit more interesting. I can smell the flowers as I trample through the flora, and even if I’m not, I feel like I’m having some form of impact on the world as I simply skin a gazelle for leather.
Taking a detour off the beaten track often leads to discovering tidbits that developers popped in the game for fun, and to deepen your sense of being in an organic, living, breathing world. So imagine my horror as I turn away from the lake I’m sitting beside – dropping my fishing rod with a plop into the water – to discover that they’ve introduced dungeon finders and reams of accessibility through a mass of menu screens.
Allowing players to increase their productivity in a gaming session is fine, but only up to a certain point. That “point” being, for me, when it begins to hinder you from building and maintaining a believable relationship with a world, sending you crashing back to the overt reality that yes, you’re in fact, playing a videogame.
Thanks to the ability to quickly travel from point to point, I suddenly found levelling my dwarf paladin in WoW a breeze, going from level 60 to 90 in no time. Flying mounts, which at first were astonishingly helpful, quickly pared down my familiarity with the world. They enabled me to beeline to a destination as I plunged my cafetiere in the background, and when it came to dungeon crawling, all I had to do was navigate some menus and sit there electronically and physically scratching my arse for something to do as I readied myself to spring from the FedEx parcel I’d squeezed myself into as it shipped itself to the enemies’ doorstep.
Asking the myriad of players on the server if they wanted to team up? No need. Could I give you a recap of the routes I took, or the scenery I flew past? Nope. Do I care? Probably not. I went from a player who immersed himself totally in Azeroth and its inhabitants, to a grinding machine that became obsessed with budging a number in the top left corner of my screen onwards and upwards. The sad truth is, that this influx of accessibility became so ingrained, that I’m not surprised vanilla remains a sought after flavour from what many considered to be WoW’s golden age.
It’s a trade off between keeping players happy and detaching some from a world they’d totally lost themselves in. In the case of Dark Souls III in particular, I didn’t need to use fast travel, but I couldn’t help but feel the remnants of Dark Souls II and its less cohesive world seeping into my journey as a hitman hired to kill the Lords of Cinder. Fast travel almost felt necessary to work with Lothric’s design, as resorting to marching everywhere on foot didn’t have the same masterful transition from one place to another as the first Souls game. Still utterly engrossing? Yes. As memorable and seamless? In my humble opinion, no.
Games like Red Dead Redemption 2 and Witcher 3 do it right by giving players more convoluted methods of zipping around. It’s there, but it’s not all up in your face acting as a temptation to “skip the bullshit and cut to the chase”. For these games, it’s the “bullshit” that matters; you’re meant to ride your horse or switch off. To introduce a minefield of warp-pads would be criminal, and I applaud these games for asserting themselves confidently, pushing away those who cheekily want to jump the queue, and awarding the dedicated bunch who are committed enough to investigate every little nook and cranny.
Honestly, I believe it might be a little too tricky to completely eliminate what’s become a key component for so many games. But instead of shoe-horning it in as a tack-on, developers should keep finding ways to implement fast travel as a mechanic that ties to, and belongs in the game’s universe. Rather than giving us a marker and a classic fade to black, give us public transport that we have to rely on – like the L train in Watch Dogs‘ Chicago – or a mount that feels satisfying and fun to ride. At least this way I’m fully immersed as I whip out my map and find the nearest boat to sail across the ocean with, or griffin to float me over the clouds.
At the very least make me earn the right to cut corners. Give me an ability that I have to part waters to obtain, because when I do finally shift off, it’ll feel empowering, and although my feet won’t necessarily be planted, the rest of me will still be grounded in the game’s world.
Just as a big city or its resident dungeon is important, so is the experience of getting there. The tiny details that litter the map are an integral part of forming and bringing an environment and experience to life. I’d like to see games trust in their players more to commit, even if they’re afraid of alienating a playerbase that might not appreciate the time sink material that’ll require a hardier, more patient sort of mentality to play.
The next time you delve into Skyrim or any other massive open world game that gives you the option to fast travel, try and stop yourself. It’s tough, but I find that if I don’t succumb to temptation, my time spent with the game feels truly meaningful. Objectives begin to fall back into the shadows and instead you’ll find enjoyment in simply wandering about, dallying around and bumping into things you never would’ve laid eyes upon had you caved to that devilish menu screen. And if it’s a multiplayer experience, you might actually chat to another person too.
Perhaps everyone should heed Uncharted 4 director Bruce Straley’s words of wisdom tweeted in 2016 just before the game released: “Take your time…Don’t try to gobble it down in one sitting. Settle in. Enjoy the moment.”
This article was originally posted in May 2016. Minor updates have been made.