Fast Travel

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Travel is a common mechanic in nearly every game. Moving pieces in space is a powerful symbol for changing the state of a system. Walking is a familiar experience, and draws us into the game world.

However, computer games commonly enforce a strict method of transit, with the player’s experience lasting as long as the character’s. Say you want to walk to the doughnut shop. You’ve got to walk down the drive way, go a ways through the neighborhood, travel a few blocks through the commercial sector, and finally walk through the parking lot (maybe you should have driven your car!) to the doughnut shop. Maybe it’s fun the first time… maybe. Even that description was a bit bland. After a few times, this becomes grind.

Now, board games have a good way around this. In Chess, for example, you can move your bishop square by square across the table, or just pick it up and put it where you want it. This is the heart of Fast Travel. You know where your piece is, and you know you can get it safely to where you want it.

There should be a way to mark paths as “safe” or “normal” and then attempt to perform fast travel along them. If that path is clear, the travel succeeds. If not, then you’re dropped out of fast travel to deal with the obstruction. This is actually a lot like the mechanic of “random encounters”, except without the uninteresting walking. This shouldn’t just allow travel between “fast travel nodes” but instead anywhere that the character can reach. Why not do this in computer games?

There are only two reasons to prevent fast travel: mechanics, or design. The first is simple, where the move desired is actually “illegal” or not possible. It is reasonable to force the player to guide their character at least once from one location to another. But after that fast travel should be an option unless the transit is actually impossible. Maybe your character knows this and the game informs you before hand. Perhaps you don’t know until you are standing at the bridge that was washed away. Maybe you get harassed by bandits half-way. But at least let the player skip the boring parts!

The second case, disallowing fast travel by design, is rarely justified. Perhaps you want to force the player to experience part of the game over and over. Perhaps you want to build suspense where the character could be ambushed at any moment, but the player doesn’t know where. However, for any design case, a partial fast travel should still be allowed. At least let the player try it, until their character is alerted to the fact that not all is as it seems. In this way, pulling the player out of fast travel can actually enhance the experience.

Fast travel is how we actually perceive the world anyway. When you drive to work but don’t remember any of the trip, that’s fast travel. When you get to the refrigerator, but fail to see the sink overflowing with dirty dishes, that’s fast travel too. Let the character develop habits! Otherwise you’re just punishing the player for playing your game (instead of driving to work, or doing the dishes).

I’d really like to see more robust and interesting fast travel in computer games. Denying fast travel altogether, or forcing the player to only travel to “hubs” or “fast travel points” is begging the player to go do something else more interesting than your game. No matter how innovative and beautiful your game world is, it will never be so attractive that the player will want to walk through it for the thirty-ninth time on the way somewhere else.

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