Does fast travel help or hurt games?

Take a moment and imagine you have a 30 minute commute. You jump in the car, back out of the driveway and go into autopilot mode. It’s the most boring part of your day. You have it memorized down to that deer that’s been lying on the side of the road since November. You make the trip twice a day and not only know all of traffic light patterns but the other cars that make  the trip with you (if that lifted F-350 tailgates you again, you’re going to lose it). Not too difficult a world to imagine right? You’ve probably drifted off just reading this intro. Tomatoes! Are you awake again? Good.

Now imagine if you could teleport. Instant transmission a la Goku. No more commute. No more driving stress. No more weekly emptying of your wallet at the gas station. More time to do the things you actually enjoy in life. This would be a dream come true for the average commuter. In the world of gaming, it's often a reality in the form of a fast travel mechanic.

Fast travel is a tremendous convenience that can also detract from a game's fun in a big way.

So When Is It A Shortcut Not Worth Taking?

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First, unless your gaming dream is to play the NPC fisherman who earns his living the hard way, a regular commute is not going to be part of your video game career. No, in-game fast travel is less like skipping your daily commute and more like going on a family road trip where instead of spending hours of quality “fun” time in the car you all arrive at your destination without a single argument or ham and cheese sandwich sloppily made from a cooler. Congratulations, you just lost half the good memories of your childhood.

So is there a case to be made for fast travel? Many open world games where traditionally you would travel by foot between civilizations offer a fast travel option. One of my favorites is Skyrim, a game with a world built for exploration. In Skyrim you can fast travel to a destination as long as you have been there at least once before. Maybe this seems tempting if you are looking at the journey as a chore, but I would like you to take a moment to realize everything you would be missing.

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Quests, combat, and the scenery come quickly to mind. Many of these open world games plant quests in between towns that can only be triggered when physically stumbled upon while hoofing it. These quests encourage players to fully explore the world the developers have created. Completing these storylines also adds depth to the world you are visiting making the game that much more immersive. Finally, the experience you gain from fighting hostile characters is invaluable. You will definitely be thankful for taking the long road once you come face to face with a Legendary Dragon.

In addition to the smaller quests and combat that you miss there are some games that include necessary destinations too small to be included on a full world map. In Fallout 3 andFallout: New Vegas, for instance, essential locations often need to be found by listening to directions from NPCs and exploring a specific area in detail.

A Hybrid Model 

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Not everyone plays a game looking for the same experience. For those who are hungry to unlock achievements or who play on a tight schedule fast travel may be a valid option. While it may help them to “beat” the game to their satisfaction they will still be missing out on  much of the gaming experience. To combat this dilemma some games include fast-ish travel options.

Horse-riding is a common solution in fantasy RPGs which manages to combine the best of both worlds. You still gain a complete tour of the world and retain the ability to participate in quests and combat, but at a greater rate of speed than walking. Grand Theft Auto has drivable cars that allow you a fast way to travel between destinations while again still allowing you to stop and follow a new objective if you so desire. This seems like the most elegant solution for when you need to travel distances farther than you would want or have time to travel on foot.

Modern graphics are reaching incredible levels of realism due to GPU advancements and cutting-edge graphic engines. Game developers and artists are able to immerse a player into the world of their choice on an amazing level. Looking ahead to projects like Oculus Rift and Microsoft’s HoloLens, virtual reality is truly getting its foot in the door for an even more immersive gaming experience. Who knows, in a few years we may literally be stopping to smell the roses while in game.

If I were a developer I am not sure if I would include the option to fast travel at all. I wouldn’t want to give players the ability to skip over all the hard work I put into the game and just complete the big quests. In practice though, it all comes down to making games appealing to the masses, so developers aren't likely to remove the feature altogether.

What do you think? Should games be played slowly and thoroughly or should players have the option to skip the “good parts”?