Are you a walker or a fast-traveller?
I’ve been playing The Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) since 2015.
I’ll return to the game after not touching it for ages, find myself wanting to play very little else for several months, then gradually step away and leave it for some time. There’s always some external factor which sees be going back though and the title has become something of a mental refuge over the years.
ESO formed the basis of gaming nights with Pete, friend-of-the-blog Phil and Ellen from Ace Asunder for a very long time. We’d get together in the evening to battle our way through a few dungeons, clear out a dolmen or two and moan about the working week. It would usually end up descending into chaos when somebody invariably tried to pickpocket a guard in one of the towns and got caught.
But in May, we decided it was time for a change. Although we were still enjoying ourselves hanging out online, the game had become a little monotonous when scheduled events weren’t taking place and the dungeons were now too familiar. We wanted a new challenge to entertain us, new lands to explore and new monsters to take down, and so begun the search for a new game to play.
We tried Lost Ark, but that only lasted for around two hours as the fact certain character classes were gender-locked and over-sexualised really put us off. We then jumped over to As Dusk Falls, streaming through Discord so we could chat about the decisions we should make for the protagonists, but this obviously only lasted for a couple of nights. And then we decided to pick up Guild Wars 2, which was fun – before Pete started moaning about how many trees he’d have to chop down and why there wasn’t more fighting.
The feeling of a digital land slowly opening as you travel through its locations and uncover its secrets is one of the most exciting elements for me.
You can probably tell where this is going. Not only did we end up returning to ESO this month, but I also found myself renewing my Plus membership too. This was due to a solo session in Vvardenfell with a new Dragonknight character I’d created during a day off work. Bethesda know how to suck you in with that Craft Bag: instead of worrying about how you’re going to manage just 60 slots in your inventory, you get unlimited space for crafting materials. It was impossible to resist now we were playing again.
Alongside my attachment to the Craft Bag, there was something else I noticed about my playstyle during my time in Vvardenfell alone. My other-half will make use of a fast-travel option as soon as it’s offered and to its fullest extent. He’d much rather be wrapped up in the energy of a battle than slow down to explore every inch of the world. His argument is that he doesn’t have enough time to play nowadays thanks to adult responsibilities, so he wants to cram in as much as possible whenever there’s the chance.
At the other end of the scale, there’s me. I’m not so bothered about being involved in constant action and play games more for their stories and immersion. The feeling of a digital land slowly opening as you travel through its locations and uncover its secrets is therefore one of the most exciting elements for me personally. A slight hint of a new quest, mystery to solve or path to follow through the trees is enough to make me forget about the main objective for a while and wander off into the wilderness.
I guess my perfectionist tendencies and the fear of missing out has a lot to do with my frequent reluctance to resort to using fast-travel options. Whenever I pick up an RPG, the worry about failing to see something constantly niggles at the back of my head and is enough to get me traipsing across the map on my feet. I’ve experienced some lovely scenes in open-world releases in recent years and probably wouldn’t have seen them if I’d opted to zip across the miles in the blank of an eye.
Take the time I came across a fisherman sleeping on the ground while a cheeky mudcrab tried to steal his catch drying on a nearby wooden rack. Or when I discovered a poor fellow in a delve who’d clearly been unable to escape when a rock-fall had crushed him to death. And then there was a house filled with the meows of many cats, each of whom had left the offering of a lifeless rat by the front door. As expected, there are also a few skeletons with arrows to the knee dotted around the environment too.
The ability to teleport across the map in an instant hides the size and layout of the digital world and, when you think about it, is kind of at odds with the usual epic-quest-premise found in most RPGs. The Cambridge Dictionary defines ‘quest’ as ‘a long search for something that is difficult to find, or an attempt to achieve something difficult’. Does this mean it transforms into something more like a task on your to-do list if you can reach your destination in a few seconds behind a loading screen?
The risk of the mechanic is that it reduces the in-game map to something almost like a diagram of the London Underground. You run a few errands in town, gossip with the innkeeper for a while and then hop back onto the Fast-Travel Line. Jump off a few stops later to hand over a parcel to a non-player character (NPC), pick up a bite to eat and get your weapons fixed. Just remember to take your belongings and tap your Oyster Card on the Autosave before you head above ground.
RPG environments can become more about these hubs of activity, and less about finding your way to the next one while exploring the distance between. I can’t deny that Pete has a good point though and I understand where he’s coming from. When life is full of adult commitments, you might not want to spend an hour walking between locations for nothing much to happen. The fast-travel mechanic offers a convenient shortcut which allows you to squeeze in as much of the best parts of a release as possible.
A good RPG for me is one where you’ve never really lost, because there’s always something new to see waiting around every beautiful corner.
However, it’s not always about practicality and accessibility. We gamers can be an impatient bunch and there are many players out there who want an instant hit of adrenaline and power-fantasy fulfilment – and there’s nothing wrong with that. We’re all unique and get our enjoyment from different elements of gaming. For people who are more interested in keeping the action continuous, fast-travel is appealing because it cuts out all that boring walking or riding from one side of the map to the other.
But this gives rise to a follow-up question: why do we find it boring? A developer’s objective should be to find a fix for any boredom as fast-travel feels more like a workaround than a cure. Perhaps it’s something of a catch-22 situation though. If you know most players are interested in those hubs of activity mentioned earlier, that’s where you’re going to focus your efforts. But failing to create a journey full of smaller and interesting moments means fewer gamers will be enticed to make the long trip.
I’m not saying that fast-travel is a bad thing or that I’ll never use it. It’s certainly useful when I’ve only got 30 minutes to spare and want to get somewhere quickly to finish a quest and pick up the loot before having to turn off my PC. But my preference is always to hit the road using my feet so I can take in all the sights during the journey to my next destination. A good RPG for me is one where you’ve never really lost, because there’s always something new to see waiting around every beautiful corner.
So now over to you: are you a walker or a fast-traveller? Are you more likely to use a Wayshrine or head off on your feet, and why?
Frostilyte4 months ago
For me it depends entirely on the game in question. I’ve found that, overwhelmingly, fast travel is used as a bandaid fix for bad map design. You don’t have to put as much work into making the space fun to explore, or easy to navigate if you dot the map with fast travel points. When you combine that with how most games implement a lot of copy-paste content, the result is a game I’m not terribly inclined to spend time in because the development team couldn’t be bothered to either.
The real question is what factors do or do not contribute to this and… honestly I don’t think I could tell you. At least, not off the top of my head.
Kim4 months ago
So if a game has bad map design, you’ll play it but will make use of fast-travel much more? Or is it enough to put you off playing completely?
Frostilyte4 months ago
In the past when I wouldn’t drop playing games for being unbearable, yeah. Now it’s a coin flip on if I’ll just stop playing the game outright. I view my time as being a lot more valuable then my money.
Kim4 months ago
That’s definitely a behaviour I’ve noticed in myself as I’ve gotten older. I don’t seem to have as much patience nowadays, or as much free time, so I’ll more quickly stop playing a game if I’m not enjoying it. Sometimes I feel bad for having a pile of games I’m never going to complete but at least the chance of finding those I do like increases.
I’m still trying to figure out if a bad or boring map would put me off playing a game completely. I guess I don’t really play enough RPGs to be able to tell, or at least I quite like the maps of those I do play.
Dryad4 months ago
It really depends on how much time I’ve spent in the map. Games like Genshin or Guild Wars where I’ve spent hundreds of hours I tend to waypoint around. But even then every once in a while I make the journey without a waypoint. Small little things I haven’t seen before and a beautiful view I definitely cherish still pop up. Especially with games with day-night cycles, running into a view with a different time of day can change how things look and I love it. As long as the world is interesting enough, I’m willing to take a walk.
Kim4 months ago
So the more familiar you are with a world, the more likely you are to use fast-travel. That makes complete sense. I do like the way you still go for a walk every now again though, to see things from a different perspective or time of day. Sometimes it’s nice to take the slow route in a game and just be a part of the world. 🙂
Rakuno4 months ago
For me it depends on the genre. With MMORPGs I am definitely the fast traveler type. As beautiful as their worlds may be I find it hard to appreciate the sights when the side of the roads are packed with creatures that want to murder you the moment you enter their sights. Or when there is a naked elf called “xXxDarkShadow666xXx” dancing in the middle of the road. Or when you are in a dungeon and the group just want to get from one end to the other as fast as possible and everything in there also wants to murder you.
On single player open world games like Skyrim I prefer to walk. It is a lot more easier to immerse yourself in there since the sides of the roads aren’t as packed with things that want to eat your face. Plus there were a lot of of times where I went off the beaten path just for kicks and found either a dungeon or a quest or some other cool thing which made it all feel like an actual adventure.
Kim4 months ago
I love the description in your first paragraph. You’ve just summed up our weekly ESO nights in a few lines and yes, there’s always at least one naked elf dancing somewhere!
Do you think you’d still walk if the Skyrim map didn’t contain those little hidden secrets? It’s these things which inspire me to take the long road. Sometimes I don’t mind walking even if I know there’s going to be nothing to find if the scenery is nice and I just want to take it easy, but I do love that feeling when you stumble over something unexpected.
Rakuno4 months ago
If the scenery in Skyrim just felt copy pasted, I’d probably wouldn’t take my time walking no. But even when I started playing Skyrim I was using fast travel a lot. I had to force myself to relearn to walk places and appreciate it.
I am not entirely sure what led me to do that. If it was talking with a friend about Morrowind, a game that didn’t have fast travel, not the same way Skyrim does anyway, and it was a gem for exploring and finding random cool things. Or if it was because I was installing mods to change or add to the scenery and I felt I had to do some exploration to appreciate them.
Kim4 months ago
I’ve played a lot of ESO and Skyrim, but I’ve never picked up Morrowind. It’s the exploration element that I like the most about these games so I’m going to have to give it a try. Thanks for the tip. 🙂
charlesfwh4 months ago
Interesting read. Here’s my slightly long winded answer with no real answer.
As many games have pivoted towards some form of open world hub of sorts, it depends entirely upon whether the design of the particular environments are of any real interest or engagement. If they try to recreate mundane activities or the smallest minutia for example RDR2, in the ‘real world’ when you are commuting to use that analogy I tend to block the world out anyway losing myself to a song or day dreaming and missing the army of rats on the tube or crazy people walking the trains.
Equally, if the world is to fantastical or an environment you can’t fully comprehend I’ve certainly found myself skipping to parts that ‘make sense’ For example in DA:I the mystical ‘zones’ are kind of neat looking for crystal shards or herb quests and such but I enjoy the politics of the cities and character interactions more and spend more time there exploring.
That said, I really enjoyed the open world recreations of London in WDL and ACS and found myself following routes I’ve used in the real world to see how faithfully they had brought them to life. Which led me to both a frustration and understanding I suppose of travel dynamics. Using London in gaming as an example, huge parts are pretty boring, random alleys or back streets for example so easier to create ‘hub’ points such as Westminster and surrounding them with a virtual wall so you don’t find yourself exploring the suburbs.
Which I suppose leads to a round about answer. I enjoy exploring worlds that makes sense, I really enjoyed exploring virtual cities I’ve visited in the real world, but parts of those real cities can be boring, and I’d happily miss trapsing through faithfully designed vast woods and forests to get to the good bits. But then, its also fun getting lost in your thoughts and a good forest at times.
Kim4 months ago
I’d only considered fantasy worlds while writing this post, and you’re absolutely right when it comes to those based on real-life locations. There are plenty of little streets in London which are kind of interesting to explore at first but gradually merge into one. That’s not exactly the content you want in a video game. It feels like there might be something here for a post about invisible walls!
Tonda2 months ago
I love this topic as I have rather strong feelings about it.
I’m the unrealistic idealist and fervently zealous slow-walker. (This often even extends to mixing in actual walking and running as is situationally appropriate in-game. Not always easy when some games require the lightest touch on an analog stick to refrain from the character going into a full-on sprint.
However, while I do sometimes run, I will rarely ever use fast travel and will only ever consider it if it’s flavorful and makes some practical sense like a tram system or other realistic mode of transportation. If I have to decide between an hour hike across and open world and “instantly warping on a minimap” then I’d rather walk. And if the game/music/atmosphere and occasional content along the journey is not enough to make that hike bearable then I will move onto another game. I’m rather patient, so that works for me but I do totally get that for most people that time is just better spent elsewhere either doing something more rewarding in-game or outside the game.
But for me, the real reward is in the (longest) journey.
Kim2 months ago
A fellow walker! And I see what you did there with the reference at the end. 😉