In my last game design article I talked about Options vs. Freedom. There are a lot of game features that are really bad for games. Many of them are more or less obvious: live service model, microtransactions, overly grindy gameplay, needless backtracking…
But there are a few game features that many players hold in high esteem, when they’re actually ruining games all around.
Today, let’s talk about fast travel and why it’s bad.
To clarify, fast travel usually refers to some method of moving from one place to another very quickly. Most often by some kind of teleportation (even if the game doesn’t refer to it as such). There are also some alternative methods, which I’ll be talking about later.
The problem with using fast travel is that it just makes you only focus on a list of tasks, instead of enjoying the adventure or the game. Keep reading to see what I mean.
Fast travel in Elder Scrolls games
In Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, you can fast travel (essentially teleport) to cities that you’ve already been to.
All my best memories in both Elder Scrolls: Oblivion and Skyrim are from ignoring that possibility.
For example, the first time that I traveled from Skingrad to Anvil in Oblivion. At this point, I had more or less just started the game and was probably around level 1.
And what did I find there on the road?
Well, I came by a few guards who were patrolling the road.
Neat. But nothing special. So I kept going. What next?
A friggin’ minotaur.
Just standing there on the road.
Yes, it took me down with just a few hits.
Reloading my previous save, I had a few options. I could just go around the thing, obviously.
But then I remembered the guard patrol. They were moving straight towards the minotaur. Maybe with their assistance I could beat it?
So I snuck to the woods near the minotaur and waited.
As the guards noticed the minotaur and engaged it in combat, I joined in to smack the thing in the back.
It took out two of the three guards, but we managed to beat it. Not only did I get to loot the minotaur, but the two other guards as well. It was great.
Elder Scrolls could be better without fast travel
I mostly stopped having these kinds of experiences in Oblivion once I had found all the cities and just kept fast traveling from place to another to get things done as fast as possible.
I think that if Elder Scrolls games didn’t offer fast travel, they might also feel more satisfying. It would add an additional layer of weight to every quest you accept, and every item you decide to pick up. You might genuinely think “I don’t want to treck back to that town, so no”. You would have to prepare for your journeys, and regret running off without doing so.
It could push the game to a direction where you won’t even think about looting things that you just can’t carry. Instead of stopping there to mull over what you can and cannot carry and think about how to take it all back to a city (by teleporting there and back), you’d instead continue your adventure. Additionally, it gives you ample opportunities to appreciate your surroundings, combat, and the journey you’re on.
Fast travel in Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord
So, Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord doesn’t exactly have what’s considered “fast travel”, but something similar. Basically, whenever you enter a town or a village, you have two options:
- Enter and explore the town/village
- Talk to a notable person in town/village
So with the first option, you can enter the town and run around. The notables are there, somewhere in the town, so you can go and find them. Or you can choose the latter option to just talk with them instantly. (The talk option doesn’t actually take you into the town, it just initiates a talk with the NPC.)
Seems great, right? No need to run around massive towns and villages looking for the right person?
Why was this feature added (aside from plain convenience)? Well, some of those notables are shopkeepers or people relevant to quests.
However, quests don’t usually reward you with all that much. You get a little bit of reputation (not for a whole faction, but for just that person) and maybe some money. Also there are hundreds of notables in the game.
That means you’ll be doing a whole lot of quests (if you want to be on people’s good side).
And there aren’t all that many different types of quests, so you’ll be repeating the same kind of quests many times over.
That’s a factual problem. One that really needed a solution.
So being able to quickly talk to notables makes doing quests much faster! Great!
And… there’s my problem.
It’s the wrong solution.
Bannerlord could be better without fast travel
If you’ve played Bannerlord and explored any of the towns or villages, then you know this:
Those places are incredibly beautiful.
There has been a lot of love and effort put into making the towns and villages.
They were meant to be explored, traversed and admired.
And… being able to hop into talks with the notables completely removes you from ever experiencing any of that.
You don’t even teleport to the person in the town (which would allow you to continue exploring the town). You just talk to them in the map view.
As I said, I believe it was a wrong solution to the problem.
The correct solution would have been to embrace the exploration. The simplest fix would have been to drastically increase the quest rewards. That’s a good incentive for having to traverse the areas looking for people.
Also, in many quests, you are quite literally saving someone’s life. Why are you only rewarded like 5 reputation (out of maximum of 100) for that? The person should be eternally grateful just for doing the quest once.
Can’t you just ignore the fast travel?
In fact, I have.
When playing Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, I made a conscious decision to avoid fast travel as much as possible.
And I can promise you, it was an incredible decision. If I ever go back to playing Oblivion or Skyrim again, I’m going to stick to that decision there as well.
Actually, BotW offers several other solutions to fast travel. Solutions that actually take advantage of the beautifully-crafted world around you. You can climb up mountains, glide down from high places and shield surf down slopes. You can also ride horses, and if you do, you can tell the horse to stick to roads for you without you having to manually steer. That’s great, because it allows you to focus on looking around at your surroundings.
Only very late into the game I broke away from my decision and used fast travel to farm for certain materials. And I noticed the effect pretty immediately. I stopped having fun.
But what if I like fast travel?
I remember hearing Alpharad mention in one of his videos that Breath of the Wild became a lot more bearable for him once he had a bunch of fast travel spots unlocked. It seems that he wasn’t enjoying the game all that much without them.
Maybe we’re different
First of all, look. People are different. We enjoy different things. That’s why there are so many different types of games. For a player like Alpharad, I can very well imagine that he prefers being able to accomplish things rather than enjoy the atmosphere.
But at the same time, you can be wrong about what you think you enjoy. There are times when I’ve thought that I like doing things in a specific way, and I was mistaken.
For example, some 15 years back I thought I was a pretty bad player. So whenever I had the chance, I played games on the Easy difficulty setting. Then one day, on a whim, I decided to try playing No More Heroes on Normal difficulty.
And it was amazing. The game was a much better experience on all the higher difficulty settings. I already liked the game for its characters and world, but now I could enjoy the combat as well.
Same goes for Kingdom Come: Deliverance. Sure, I enjoyed the game on Normal, but the Hardcore mode with all negative perks turned on felt like this is the way the game was meant to be played.
Same with fast travel: I started enjoying open world games a lot more when I just stopped using it.
But secondly, there’s a little thing I want to warn about. From my experience, you can very much get something of a gaming fatigue.
Games are basically “condensed success simulators”. That’s what’s great about them, but also it means that you’re feeding your brain with a lot of dopamine.
And so, I’ve felt this gaming fatigue many times. A big indicator for me is that I start using fast travel too much. Doing that ruins the game. I’m not having fun anymore, I just have my list of tasks and I try to get them done. It doesn’t even feel like “work”, it’s just an unnecessary grind.
So nowadays whenever that happens, I know that I need a break from games. It’s best to just focus on other things for some time.
Fast travel makes us faster at… what?
Yes, fast travel makes us more efficient. But at what? Arbitrary gameplay tasks?
Why would I need to be faster at those?
Is that why I play video games? To finish lists of tasks that have no meaning outside of the game?
To finish as many games as I can as quickly as possible?
If I find myself using fast travel, it means I’m in a hurry. And if I’m in a hurry, I’m probably not playing a game to enjoy it.
It’s a different situation if you’re, for example, a youtuber who needs to make their next video. You need enough video material and then need to edit and upload it all. That takes time, so you want to be more efficient.
But if you’re not playing games for work: stop.
Take a step back and consider if you’re still enjoying what you’re doing.
Is there ANY game where fast travel works well?
There are games where I don’t mind the fast travel.
Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin is one example. You can exit any stage at any point and hop elsewhere. Since it isn’t an open world game and you’re often in a hurry to return home to tend to your field, I don’t feel it’s as much of a problem. But then again, the game is very much about preparing for the next day by deciding what meals to eat and checking the weather and preparing fertilizer beforehand and so on. So it does feel a bit strange that the game doesn’t take that theme to its full extent by making sure you need to exit a stage properly if you want to return home.
While I do like the game very much, I do think the game could have been designed to work well without fast travel.
Alternatives to fast travel
There are also games that offer alternatives to fast travel that I really like.
World of Warcraft (Vanilla/Classic) is a prime example that has plenty of options. There are flight paths, boat rides, zeppelin rides and a tram. All of them are methods that feel like they’re a natural part of the world. They’re not just instant warps for the sake of convenience. There were quite a few other ways to teleport around, but I was very fine with them due to their limited availability and most of them fit well into their respective classes:
- Hearthstone – An item held by every player. Allows you to teleport to a specific inn that you’ve chosen as your “home”. It has a 1 hour cooldown.
- Astral Recall – Shaman-specific spell. Same as Hearthstone, except with only 15 minute cooldown.
- Portals and Teleports to City – Mages could teleport themselves or conjure a portal that lets anybody pass through to a specific city. These require a reagent to cast and are only available to mages.
- Ritual of Summoning – Spell available only to warlocks. Allows you to summon a person to your location. Requires a Soul Shard AND two other people to complete.
- Meeting Stones – Obelisks that stand near dungeons. Allow you to summon players in your party to the stone. Requires two people. Sometimes there’s still a quite a way to walk from the stone before you get into the actual dungeon.
Additionally there were many ways to increase the speed at which you move. Anyone could buy a mount at level 40, and a faster one at level 60. (But they were expensive!) Shamans could turn into a Ghost Wolf, druids could turn into various animal forms, shaman could grant Water Walking to allow passing over water (running is faster than swimming), mages could Blink (teleport) some ten yards forward at a time, rogues could Sprint for some ten seconds, and so on. Not to mention some more inventive but more situational ways, like paladins could jump down from high places safely using a Divine Shield spell.
(If I forgot anything, feel free to mention it in the comments. Though, keep in mind that I haven’t played the game in over ten years.)
Do we know what we want?
I’m all about giving quite a bit of freedom to players.
The player wants challenge or make the game easier? Give them those options.
The player wants to skip dialogue or cutscenes? Let them.
Stealth instead confrontation? Magic instead of weapons? Ranged vs melee? Why not?
Markers to tell them where to go? Okay.
Teleports to major spots? Sure.
But all that freedom comes with a price.
Like I already mentioned before, it took me some time to understand that I actually enjoy games when they’re not at their easiest, and when you can’t just teleport around the world. And if the game offers multiple playstyles, I really have to try all of them out to find out what suits me the most.
A lot of times, it feels like we players don’t really know what we want.
This remains true today for me, even after playing games for 30 years.
We think we know. We choose to use features that are available in games, because we think we want to. But then those features end up hurting the overall experience.
Would many games be better if fast travel was not possible in them?
Personally, I think so.
The games might have to be slightly different in their design, but they would probably be better.
Fast travel (especially when combined with quest markers) makes sure that the player spends all their time looking at objectives and none of it admiring the details of the beautiful hand-crafted world of your game. It takes away having to plan ahead and prepare for your journey. It takes away from finding unexpected things, and getting into trouble.
Most of my best memories are usually born from getting into trouble!
And so I ask: Where is the adventure in these games if you just go and skip it?