Challenging Conventions is a biweekly column by Jeffrey Matulef that discusses the conventions of games design, whether regards the games that subscribe to these conventions or those that try to overcome them.
Life’s too short. There’s so much I want to accomplish in my time on Earth: go skydiving, see Paris, learn to play a musical instrument, etc.. That’s why it makes me so angry when a game wastes my time. There’s enough drudgery in day-to-day life that it needn’t effect my virtual escapist fantasies too.
This makes it odd that my favorite series in gaming, Zelda, has opted for slow-paced vehicular travel between destinations, removing all the wonderful combat and puzzles along the way. By all accounts I shouldn’t like the sailing in Wind Waker or the rigid locomotive in Spirit Tracks, but against all odds I do. While there was little to do while sailing the ocean blue in Wind Waker, I learned to enjoy observing the tranquil waves and gloriously detailed weather effects. There may not have been much interaction besides looking around, occasionally feeding fish in exchange for lore, and scavenging for sunken treasure, but it helped immerse the player in the world. Seeing an island slowly come into view across the horizon is a sight that makes one giddy with wonder and anticipation. I felt like I was an actual pirate in search of adventure and mystery, rather than some boy in a silly green hat mindlessly hacking his way across the same tired terrain. This made me realize that there’s something to taking the scenic route that’s been lost in an age where fast travel has become the norm.
When Bethesda released Elder Scrolls 3: Oblivion, they allowed for fast travel to any major city from the first time the player set foot in the outdoors an hour or so into the game. Initially I wanted to explore, but quickly found out that I’d get killed quite easily. Being impatient, I opted to warp to the nearest town. While this instant gratification saved me a lot of time and made the adventure very fast-paced and addictive, I couldn’t help shake the feeling that I was cheating (even if it was something the game allowed). Being able to instantly hop from any locale to another took away any sensation of being a real explorer, instead reminding me that I was just playing a game.
Of course you can still explore Oblivion, but if given an out, the temptation to take it is overwhelming. Not everyone has that kind of willpower and I feel like often the best experience we can have are the ones we wouldn’t choose on our own. Sometimes it helps to be forced out of the comfort zone a bit. Interestingly, my favorite memories of Oblivion were after I completed the main campaign and sought to explore the rest of the map. The melancholy music playing as I made my way through a forest at sunset gave me goosebumps more than any supposedly epic scripted battle.
For Bethesda’s following game, Fallout 3, fast travel was restricted to only places you’d already been. I felt this was a great compromise, though my favorite moments were early on, before fast travel was introduced. Trying to navigate the maze of subway tunnels that made up the downtown DC area, never sure if I was heading the right way, created a sense of being lost that would not be possible in a more linear game. Once I got my bearings and fast-travel became a practical means of transportation it then suffered the same problem as Oblivion.
It was later erroneously announced that Fallout: New Vegas would nix fast travel altogether. Reactions were mixed, but I remained hopeful. Perhaps this would call for tighter level design laden with nifty secrets à la the Metroid series. It could have made for a colossal failure, but the thought of keeping one consistently engaged in the nuclear wasteland without the benefit of warping away from sticky situations certainly piqued my wannabe rugged survivalist instincts.
Allow me to contrast this with a game that uses fast travel in all the wrong ways: Fable 2. That game didn’t have a world map, so you’d simply go through a loading screen until you arrived upon your destination. It felt woefully disjointed and drastically took away from the adventure.
I wouldn’t propose that all games do away with fast travel. Even Wind Waker had a few warp points that open up later in the game allowing for a good compromise between fast travel and immersion as you’d still have to dock your boat. The first Metroid was particularly grueling to slog through with no quick means to get from point A to point B, something rectified in Castelvania’s later stab at the formula. But these games make you earn their warp spots and they still only function as shortcuts rather than allow the player to defy the space-time continuum to their hearts’ desire.
There’s an episode of The Simpsons in which Bart gets excited about a virtual reality yardwork simulator, when real yard work makes him run for the hills. I have a curiously similar reaction involving virtual travel. Put me in a car for more than an hour and I get restless, but making Link do the same allows me to revel in anticipation. My theory behind this is that, a) even a long trek in a videogame is rarely more than a 5-minute excursion, b) Great music and scenery transform what would be a slog to a meditative stroll, and c) games can be paused allowing for convenient bathroom and snack breaks. Traversing terrain in games is still playing them after all, with all the audio/visual benefits the medium allows.
Taking time to get from place to place builds up a sense of anticipation that is ruined with fast travel. Teasing the player with their destination in sight, off in the distance, allows them to get excited while withholding the prize. While instant gratification is nice, sometimes there are benefits to stop and smell the virtual roses.