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Are you a walker or a fast-traveller?

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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?

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