The Road Fast Travelled: How Fast Travel Can Affect an Open-World

‘Somewhere ages and ages hence 

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –

I took the one less travelled by

And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost – The Road Less Travelled

Since the dawn of enlightened man the history of our relatively young species has displayed a long tradition of voyage and discovery. Be it for survival, as shown in the migration patterns of our earliest ancestors; for conquest, as did scores who marched under the banners of expanding empires; or for the sake of the arts, as with the journey-inspired verse of the 18th century Romantics such as Wordsworth and Coleridge. Travel has always been a factor in our lives and as the world shrinks the majority of us will step on ground our forefathers would never have dreamed of.

Modern technology has compressed our world so it is now smaller than ever. Thanks to technological advances in our own field, the scope of our game worlds has increased exponentially. You could lose hours rambling around the snowy peaks of Skyrim and still have hundreds of quests to indulge in; dragons can wait, I’ve got goats to catch. Assassins Creed: Brotherhood offers an expansive Renaissance Rome through which to track and trap those pesky Templars, but that bell tower looks suspiciously like a Fifteenth century climbing frame, it would be rude not to scale it. When offering an expansive world to investigate, a great deal of the joy is found in losing yourself in it. All of us have a few hidey-holes tucked away in a sandbox that house some very personal memories: be it an unassuming inn, a Florentine backstreet or an long abandoned cattle ranch.

Therein lies the reason that a small section of roleplaying aficionados are repulsed by the notion of fast travel. Hidden quests, cunning Easter eggs and intriguing characters can all be glossed over, forever lost in an electronic wilderness that nobody could be bothered to traverse. This is a temptation we’ve all fallen prey to. Each one of us has cut that little corner and magically flung our characters across miles of virtual scenery, but you shouldn’t feel bad about it. It’s not your fault.

  “when our sandboxes become deserts we need a means of navigation that doesn’t leave us dying of exhaustion by the side of a sand dune”

Fast travel is a necessity. With a growing trend for larger sandboxes there needs to be a way of navigating the world at a pace that isn’t glacial. Not everyone has the time to fastidiously trudge through every acre of scenery to cap off a petty quest. It may immerse you deeply in the game world but it often won’t fit around our commitments in the real world. The act of fast travel itself is not the problem: more so the way it’s presented. When one can pick and choose an instant destination it can often feel inconsistent with the game’s established universe, smashing through the sense of immersion built up to that point. It may be coated with a thin veneer of justification – such as in-game time passing – but its presentation can often leave you feeling that a divine presence has plucked your avatar off the map and flicked them to the nearest exclamation mark touting NPC.

When you reach your desired quest-dispenser, the way in which they deliver their task can also subtly tempt you into cancelling your walking tour in favour of the more convenient option. On the one hand, they may be part of an on-going saga that has just started to pick up its pace. If so, then it’s very likely your task will be portrayed as being desperately urgent (despite sometimes being half a world away), in which case it makes perfect sense for you to unravel the predicament as quickly as possible. If you opt to take on a draconic apocalypse it seems senseless to spend the majority of your time orienteering around Skyrim’s lofty mountaintops, especially when a few miles away otherworldly creatures are gorging on the bones of the innocent.

On the other hand, you may have the complete opposite problem and the quest may seem pitifully worthless. We’ve all been left staring dumbstruck into the dead of eyes of a gormless NPC who thinks flagging down strangers to deliver their pocket detritus to other continents is perfectly acceptable behavior. When such minor irritations can be sailed over with a few simple clicks it’s only natural to want to avoid a great deal of the drudgery.

 “In Morrowind, the island of Vvardenfell maintained an impressive network of transport links that would leave any city councillor green with envy”

When we take a detailed look at some of the finer systems of fast travel, it soon becomes clear that there are three tenants that the best of examples stick to rigidly. Firstly, the way in which the fast travel is presented must be consistent with the world that it is housed in (for example, the early 20th century trains and carriages of Red Dead Redemption). Secondly, it must, under no circumstances, hamper the feeling of immersion that the world is trying to establish. Thirdly, and most obviously, it must act as a quick and convenient way of journeying around the landscape, whilst at the same time not destroying a players desire to explore the environment around them.

When fast travel is presented correctly it can function as both a means of navigating the world at a faster pace and an aide to the sensation of in-game immersion. When presented badly, it can shatter that feeling of immersion and seem entirely out of place amongst the game’s established setting and technology. For an example, let’s take an in-depth look at the evolution of fast travel within the Elder Scrolls series. Throughout its three latest installments, Morrowind, Oblivion and Skyrim, the travel system has developed with a few variations based off what gained praise in one game and garnered criticism in another.

In Morrowind, the island of Vvardenfell maintained an impressive network of transport links that would leave any city councillor green with envy: the imposing Silt Striders, a coastal medley of ships and the teleportation services of the Mage’s Guild would all help you along your grand adventure. Each could be hired at a small cost but would only take you to a particular town, where, hopefully, another travel service would be available to deliver you near your destination. A small chain of connecting journeys (reminiscent to anyone who’s ever experienced train travel in the United Kingdom) was necessary to get about quickly. While this may not be as swift as selecting a waypoint to warp to in an instant, it does obey the three golden rules that all fast travel methods should uphold: it’s consistent with the world around you, it doesn’t break the sense of immersion, and it still requires some amount of exploration to be truly effective.

Fast-forward to Oblivion and the interconnecting travel links are a thing of the past. In their place we find a new system in which from the very outset you can select any of the major cities on the map and fast travel to it without hindrance. In-game time will pass in an attempt to simulate the length of the journey, but ultimately it still feels like we’ve gained the power to teleport fresh from the dank bowels of the Imperial Dungeons. Where in Morrowind you could use the fast travel system and still maintain a modicum of roleplay, in Oblivion, the act is so effortless it can often eliminate the need to walk anywhere, contrary to the nature of an epic-fantasy RPG. Teleportation may be consistent with the world of Tamriel – having appeared in Morrowind – but it was the work of an artisan, not a skill common amongst rag-clad sewer rats, even if they are the chosen one.

 “A popular argument against fast travel is that when it’s exploited you risk the loss of exploration vital to a successful sandbox”

With Skyrim, the latest offering in Bethesda’s flagship series, we’re presented with a compromise that offers a dichotomous system of fast travel. The first avenue is the horse-drawn carts. A route that sticks to the three rules mentioned earlier: consistency, convenience and immersion. Yet, still present is a slightly tweaked Oblivion system. You’re still permitted to instantly journey to the major cities, but on the condition that you must have visited them once already. With Skyrim we’re presented with a scenario that, in theory, keeps everyone happy. Those who wish to roleplay can ignore the instant fast travel entirely and can instead elect to use the carriages, only walking from city to city when feeling particularly committed. Those who are apathetic to the pitfalls of fast travel can fall back on the reworked Oblivion system, leaving both sides sufficiently appeased.

A popular argument against fast travel is that when it’s exploited you risk the loss of exploration vital to a successful sandbox. To this argument’s credit, I charted every sector of Vvardenfell but there are areas of Cyrodill completely alien to me. Despite this, fast travel and exploration need not be mutually exclusive. It’s still entirely possible to institute an effective means of convenient travel whilst not sacrificing the element of discovery that makes an open-world experience so memorable. One of the finest examples of this is the flight master system used in World of Warcraft.

Much like the horse-drawn carts of Skyrim and the various means of travel available in Morrowind, the flight master’s avian sky-taxis are willing to carry you along as long as you’ve got the coin to pay for the privilege. Once the money has changed hands the journey begins. Instead of fading to black and dropping us at our destination, we’re presented with the voyage in it’s entirety. We swoop over the world and get a good look at the contrasting environments along the way. Whilst being incredibly immersive, this system also seamlessly blends fast travel with game world exploration. We’re granted a Wyvern’s eye view of the world below us, if we spot an interesting valley or cavern we’re perfectly free to explore it later, safe in the knowledge that the long hike into the wilderness will be worth the effort.

As our game worlds expand the need for more effective means of fast travel becomes ever more pressing. Without it the potential hours spent dragging yourself from one mission to the other would put off a great deal of those who simply don’t have the time to feasibly invest in games with such a grand scope. After all, when our sandboxes become deserts we need a means of navigation that doesn’t leave us dying of exhaustion by the side of a sand dune.

One Comment

  1. CraigBamford

    NIce piece, Chris. I’m absolutely seeing the upsides and downsides of fast-travel in my current playthrough of the Elder Scrolls series. In Daggerfall and Arena, it was absolutely essential; the games literally couldn’t be finished without them. Morrowind really is different, forcing you to focus on using the existing travel system or simply going yourself, and it’s a very, very different feeling. 
    (Oblivion’s ubiquitous fast-travel was, ironically, much more like these older games. You skipped over most of the continent in Daggerfall, too. You pretty much HAD to, or the game would take decades to finish.)