FAST-TRAVEL SINGLESERVE BLUES (your mom edition)

You’ve read fantasy novels. You know what makes them Fantasy. There’ll be dungeons. There’ll be dragons. If there aren’t both it’s only to avoid copyright infringement. It may not be Middle-Earth but it’s definitely got the same landscaping company. And the head landscaper just can’t wait to show off what he’s done with the place.

First he hands you a map. Then he walks you through it. You follow along with him, seeing what he wants you to see when he wants you to see it. There might be beautiful things to see. You might even get to have an adventure. But when he says On Your Right, you look right. You have no agency.

That’s the problem with novels. That’s why we play video games. They give you agency. They let you go where you please, talk to whom you please, kill whom you please (and then sell the entire contents of their house at the nearest convenience store). The newest fantasy games have worlds so big that Tolkein would need GPS to find the bathroom. Sometimes they even give you a blank map, and let you go and fill it in yourself. They build a world, and then they give it to you to explore.

And then they give you a fast-travel system. And the world stops being huge, and it stops being realistic, and suddenly your private playground is nothing more than a sightseeing tour. It takes your map and turns it into a subway grid.

If you don’t know, a fast-travel system means that you can, at any time, go from anywhere on the map to anywhere else. Really. Just like that. It’s a taxi cab and teleportation and the Great Eagles all rolled into one.

It’s too much agency. It breaks the realism. It breaks the game.

Sometimes it has limits. The most common is that you can’t fast-travel to a place until you’ve ‘discovered’ it – that is, walked up to it the old fashioned way. So you still get to be an explorer. You’re just an explorer that lays railroad tracks behind you everywhere you go.

Why would the developers give us this shortcut? Their reasoning is easy to follow. We’ve got this whole big world; we don’t want to make you traipse across it over and over again. That’d be boring. Doubly so after you’ve already seen all the sights and cleared all the baddies and harvested every flower in the land. So we’ll let you just skip from place to place. Keep it all fresh. Keep you exploring, the world getting smaller and smaller with every step. Keep you exploring, until there’s nothing left to explore.

And that’s the problem. Sooner or later you’ve been everywhere once, and there’s no reason to go anywhere again. At that point the game is pretty much over. Repeat tourism is not encouraged. Fantasyland is a Single Serving World.

It’s good as far as it goes. You can still get tens, even hundreds of hours of fun out of these games. It’s not bad. But this is 2013. At this point, at this level of technology, and with the kind of return-on-investment a game like this can see… we can do better.

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. Because if there’s no challenge, you’re not really playing a game.

Fast-travel systems are not absolved from this requirement. Far from it. Their game-breaking quality means that 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 in, and getting out, as well. 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. He’s always telling people how to do their jobs. 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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