For me it’s the little things in open world titles that make the experience shine. In Fallout 4, I can recall coming across a teddy bear who appeared to be furtively reading an old newspaper whilst answering the call of nature. In The Witcher III, I would find overturned shrines, villages ravaged by monsters, and moisture-slick caverns. All of these features made me feel like I was part of a world that existed regardless of my presence, yet still reacted to me as I travelled through it.
It is why, for the most part, that I refrain from using fast travel mechanics. It is often said that life is not the destination but instead the journey and nowhere is that more true than in the world of video games. Often in many of the biggest titles, the ending can end up feeling a little flat or unfulfilled. Mass Effect 3 up to a point is one of my favourite gaming experiences for its intensity and direction, but fumbled its ending so spectacularly that my opinion of the final installment of the original trilogy was certainly knocked down a bit. Fortunately, the game’s beginning and middle were so engrossing that I did not feel as betrayed as some certainly did. The core of the experience for a game like Mass Effect is the character interactions and learning more about the galaxy and its denizens. Most of this is hard to miss, and a lot of it is linked into the many side quests that to most are simply essential to complete as the main content. This differs fundamentally to most open world games as the meat of the world building is in the various random encounters that you run into. The overall feeling that is attempted is that of a living, breathing environment. It is not enough though to simply make a massive world and fill it with stuff, as we saw with No Man’s Sky.
Take two more modern examples of open world games that have been released: Final Fantasy XV and Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Both games have large open areas to be explored challenges to encounter which is a tantalising prospect for fans of the two franchises. Breath of the Wild opens up the entire map to the player from the offset, challenging them to forge their own path to defeating ‘Calamity Ganon’ which makes for a much more personalised experience. The game simply feels alive with possibilities and to many has become the definitive Zelda experience due to this very important freedom of movement. The inclusion of fast travel in this instance is to remove the sense of wonder and to blunt the feeling of exploration. A game like Breath of the Wild thrives on being unmanageable and difficult to tame, convenience mechanics only serve to fight that. Final Fantasy XV on the other hand is able to capture the feeling of a road trip, while still being a grand gaming experience. Fast travel rears its ugly head here as well but for the most part the game encourages exploration in a much more integral way. The simple inclusion of the constant companionship of the supporting cast members is able to fill the spaces between combat and story.
For me, it is the most important thing for a developer to accomplish when building a world, namely building a world worth going to! For all of the flaws of a game like Horizon: Zero Dawn it was still able to create a world that I was aching to discover more about. Too often, a developer will create a universe that is tied together with many different inter-connecting quests and characters but leaving vast stretches of empty land. Whilst playing Jade Empire for example, I would walk past a clearing with some different looking pots or perhaps a mini pagoda. I would immediately think to myself ‘random encounter’ or ‘I’ll be coming back to this spot later’ and of course I was right every time. It’s rare for RPGs to simply just be there that it makes the world seem ultimately hollow. A world that players will happily fast travel through is a world not really worth visiting anyway.
We have all experienced the lackluster feeling of victory when being praised for saving a world from an apparent certain doom. Your character will look out upon the crowd of ten or so revellers and act as if he/she is looking out at millions. Computational limitations aside, the feeling is not helped when the world appears to have only come into existence at the same time that you pressed the ‘new game’ button. Worlds are often vastly under-populated, or over-populated with the same three peasants with eerily similar voices.
On the complete other side of the spectrum, take a game like Bloodborne. In Bloodborne the world looks ravaged, cruel and out to get you. You cannot simply fast travel to escape the horrors that the game spews out to challenge you, but instead must learn of new ways to progress through its grim passageways. Each twist and turn through the game is a new possibility for an enemy to strike out from a hidden alleyway or to burst from an unseen trap door. The world seems alive simply by virtue of its determination to end your life. Compare this feeling to the otherwise mindless experience of playing through an open world RPG like Skyrim. Now, to be fair, Skyrim does in fact have little bits of content strewn about the place that can be found throughout the world and so it is not completely guilty of being empty. Though be that as it may, the world still feels fairly empty despite this. Moving between caves, mines, forts and towns doesn’t make for an interesting experience but simply an aimless time sink. A lot of this feeling ultimately comes down to the lack of vulnerability in the player character. As long as the ‘Dragonborn’ has loaded up with enough health potions, the largest of threats will eventually go down. A game like Bloodborne never allows you to feel so safe.
The happy medium between the two is the wonderful world of Witcher III for both its threat to the player character and its open world of possibilities. Often I would find myself walking into dangers that I was unable to defeat or have well-laid plans turn into brutal slugfests with monsters and mercenaries. The world felt alive but also felt like I had an impact on it, that it reacted to my presence. This is helped considerably by the variety of monsters that make up the world of Witcher, they are not simply damage shaped into a different sprite but a different opponent and a different strategy.
Further, take two more modern examples of open world games that have been released: Final Fantasy XV and Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Both games have large open areas to be explored and yet both are filled with areas to explore and challenges to encounter. Breath of the Wild opens up the entire map to the player from the offset, challenging them to forge their own path to defeating ‘Calamity Ganon’ which makes for a much more personal experience. Sadly, Breath of the Wild does have a fast travel mechanic which can indeed spoil the experience of open exploration but the world itself feels alive regardless of its inclusion. Final Fantasy XIV on the other hand is able to capture the feeling of a road trip, while still being a grand gaming experience. Fast travel rears its ugly head here as well but for the most part the game encourages exploration and the constant companionship of the support cast members is able to fill the spaces between combat and story.
Now you might all be wondering: What has this got to do with fast travel in open world games? For me that question is answered by asking another one: Why do we have fast travel in video games? Most would say that we have it so that we are not wasting our time and can continue a story quickly without the filler of having to travel between story beats. That answer however, reminds me of the ability to skip the travel time between missions in Red Dead Redemption and how much it made for a weaker experience. Some of the best dialogue in the entire game occurred during those travels along the dusty trails and it saddens me to think that some people missed out on them wishing to skip straight to the action. The same can be said of being able to fast travel to major landmarks in open world games. The experience of trekking across vast distances to finally arrive with the message, the relic or the sacred sword makes for a greater feeling of accomplishment than simply warping to and fro, bankrupting postal services everywhere. A world that players will happily fast travel through is a world not really worth visiting anyway – in the end – and as much as we might complain that using the eagles to fly to Mount Doom would have been a lot easier, would we have read that book?