FAST-TRAVEL SINGLESERVE BLUES (gamer version)

An open-world game lives and dies by its world. Some things will be obligatory: dragons and dungeons or starships and space stations, caravans and citadels, ruins galore. But it’s the big things that define a world, its New Vegas, Mount Rockmore, Citadel, Throat-of-the-World. These can be beautiful, heart-gripping, iconic. Discovering them on the course of your adventure is the stuff of which dreams are made.

Then the game gives you fast-travel. And the dream becomes a slide-show. And the game becomes a padded little cell.

If you don’t know, a fast-travel system means that you can, at any time, go from anywhere in the game-world to anywhere else. Really. Just like that. It’s a taxi cab and teleportation and the Great Eagles all rolled into one. Even in a syfy or fantasy setting it’s about as realistic as the loading screen which accompanies it. It takes immersion and snaps it like a twig.

Some games impose limits on this omnipotence. Sometimes you can’t use it when combat’s started or enemies are near. But the moment you’ve reduced all the local red dots to filet mignon, Deus Ex Machina Airlines is back at your disposal. Sometimes you can’t use it without paying a small fee, gold or credits or those Elder God Gonads you’ve been collecting one ball at a time. But it’s never more than a paltry sum, because the grind required to pay for your ride has to be far less than the time it would take for you to hoof it.

The most common limitation is that you can’t fast-travel to a location until you’ve gotten there once the old-fashioned way. And herein lies the dirty secret of the open-world RPG: once you’ve gone from Point A to Point B, you’ve done everything there is to do in the between. There’s no challenge to be had there, no benefit, no fun. That area might stay part of the world, but it’s no longer part of the game.

Say you’re a cheery Protagonist, staff or lightsaber or giant JRPG-cleaver in hand. You’re on foot. You’re exploring. You’re going to the next objective in your great quest for an ending cinematic. Along the way you’ll meet exciting monsters and then kill them. You’ll encounter fascinating people and then steal enough of their stuff that you could open an Ikea from your backpack. You’ll solve puzzles. You’ll manage resources. You’ll make choices. You’ll play a game.

Then you try walking through the same area again. It’s a ghost town. The monsters have gone south for the winter. The townsfolk have moved to Community Watch neighborhoods in the suburbs. There’s no challenge. There’s no game. You might as well fast-travel; there’s nothing else to do.

Sure they have big maps for you to explore. But these Fallouts and Elder Scrolls aren’t truly open-world games, for though the world remains, the game gets smaller and smaller. In some ways a Mass Effect or KOTOR has more in common with the old Sierra games, the King’s Quests and Quests for Glory of old. They start out huge, and then get more and more claustrophobic until they’re a padded cell just for you. Twenty years later, Fantasyland is still a Single Serving World.

This is the situation in which we gamers find ourselves. With games like these, we’d be crazy not to use fast-travel. But I say that fast-travel is a small bandage covering a very ugly wound. We shouldn’t be satisfied with this. We should demand better from game developers. They need to learn what writers learned a long time ago: editing isn’t just about taking out the bad, it’s looking for places which are opportunities to put in more good.

We want huge worlds. But we want them to be full of game. This is epic fantasy. Point A and Point B should be fantastical but it’s the space between where epic must be found. We should stumble upon new quests. Constantly. All the time. We should meet new people, and help them or bludgeon them as we see fit. We should have random encounters that do more than slow us down: they challenge us, and reward us, hand in hand. Any time you’re in the world and there’s no challenge, that’s the developer’s failure. Just as there should be no holes in the map, so too should there never be an absence of game.

I think there is a place in these games for accelerated travel. Not the instant teleportation we have now, but transportation that doesn’t lose the sense of bigness and realism that these worlds work so hard to conjure. They must be more immersed in the mechanics of the world, not less. Fast-travel should not only be realistic, it should be fun. Pressing the fast-forward button should never be more fun than hitting play.

Just the experience could be made so much more pleasant. Instead of instant travel, a thirty-second montage of the places you pass would give a feeling, not only of distance, but of grandeur. Being able to look around from the back of a cart is better than staring at a loading screen. But that’s just a passive improvement. There are so many ways that fast-travel could be made an active part of gameplay.

Need to ‘discover’ a place in order to fast-travel to it? Let’s make it something more real. Before you can fast-travel somewhere you need to set up a transportation hub, add the town to your grid. Maybe it’s a matter of repairing a bridge. Maybe it’s paying gold to rebuild a chocabo paddock. Maybe it’s clearing out the local bandits. Maybe it’s doing a completely unrelated quest just so that the local lord will trust you. Sure it could be grindy – but this is a fantasy RPG. You might as well complain that Mass Effect has too much alien butt.

You could turn it into an exercise in geopolitics. Skyrim would be the perfect setting for such a thing. Half the map is Imperial, the other half Stormcloak; let’s say that you have to pick a side and fight for it. Go with the Roman-looking chaps and you can only fast-travel to places where the imperial standard flies. Stick with the rebels and, for every city that falls to your armies, that’s another place added to your grid. You might have to lead the charge; every city you conquer earns you convenient transportation. Maybe cities can fall to the other side if not defended. Keep you on your toes. Keep you playing the game.

The actual travel could be undependable. You’re riding in a horse-drawn wagon when bandits jump from behind the rocks. You’re hunkered in the back of a tank when suddenly it strikes a mine. You’re marching with an army and another army attacks; suddenly you’re fighting, not just for your life, but for the strength and success of your cause. This isn’t just making the game longer; this is making the game itself.

Let’s say you’re in a hard science fiction game, The Old Republic, a new Firefly. You’re in space, halfway through a hyperjump, when something goes wrong. The ship runs out of fuel; you have to improvise an alternative. The life support malfunctions; you have to flag down another ship and bargain for a rescue. The captain has a heart attack; you must save him – or, if you know how to pilot the ship, let him die. Maybe you come out of warp-whatever at the wrong planet. Maybe this kind of random chance is actually part of the plot: not until a certain point in the main quest do you ‘accidentally’ jump to the wrong planet. And decide to investigate. And thus begin a whole new adventure.

There could be upgrades to the travel system within a single setting. In a universe like Fallout, the sky is quite literally the limit. Your first fast-travel option could be lashing a cart to some mutant three-headed water buffalo. Slow, stinky, prone to attack by biker gangs with unchecked polycephaly fetishes. From there you could set up horse routes. Caravans. Pony Express lines. Train tracks. Each one becoming faster, cheaper, more dependable. Hell, this is Fallout: by the end you could have every location on the map linked up to a spark-spewing monorail run by a chirpily psychopathic AI that makes GlAdOs look like SHODAN.

Maybe it’s not a matter of overcoming an obstacle. Maybe new forms of transportation unlock new bonuses. Set up a wagon train empire and collect a few gold here and there; run the region’s rocket car monopoly and you’ll be swimming in bottlecaps and credits and Kongbucks galore. Maybe it’s entirely aesthetic, and buying a private train car has no more gameplay value than building a pretty house in Skyrim. That didn’t stop people from buying Hearthfire so they could design themselves a mansion. And in an open-world game, you’ll probably spend a lot more time fast-traveling than you will sitting at home.

Open-world games have to remember they exist in four dimensions. Going to a place twice should be fun both times. Getting out can be just as much of a challenge as getting in. The road from New Hobbiton to Mordor-By-The-Sea might not be as exciting the second time around. But that’s a defeatist attitude. Some things get better the more you do them. Replay value is not limited to sex and Spelunky. A game that can only be played once has forgotten what it is to be a game.

David Axel Kurtz is a business consultant by day, scribbler by night. He lives at davekov.com with three lorem ipsums and his pet mudkip, Kinakuta.

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~ by davekov on 9 April 2013.

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