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15 July 2015

Horses, teleportation, and pocket-sized cheese spaceships: the best ways to travel in videogames

Silly steeds and casual cruising.

By Phil Hartup

Thirty years ago, a videogame appeared called Mercenary: Escape from Targ. This small wonder of software design was an open world adventure game featuring wireframe graphics and a free roaming, non-linear story with several different ways to complete it.

In Mercenary, your spaceship had crash landed on a planet in the midst of a civil war, to escape you’d have to make money by playing the games two factions off against each other, carrying out jobs for them so as to repair your ship or acquire a new one. It was a staggering piece of work given the systems that it was able to run on, but this is not why I bring the game up. No, what brings me to Mercenary is its cheese.

You see, there was cheese in Mercenary. Well, one piece of cheese. You could pick it up and drop it, much as you might expect from a piece of cheese, but what made this particular piece of cheese interesting was that it was also an armed spaceship. You could drop it, board it, and go flying around the world at incredible speed.

At the time I thought this was great. Not Dogtanian great, but certainly Cities of Gold great. And I still kind of do, because that cheese, that big transparent wireframe that could get into low orbit from having been dropped on the floor in a matter of seconds, it represents an evolutionary step in game design. The cheese is the first solution to a design problem that has been growing in significance as rapidly as games have been growing in size, namely, what is the best way get from A to B across a giant open game-world?

Looking at the best way to travel a game world we have to look at just what a game wants to do with its travel mechanics and this is where things get technical. Looking back a generation we can look at Skyrim as an example, this is a game which has an incredibly powerful fast travel system for the player. Open the map, click on a previously visited destination and subject to a couple of caveats, there you will appear.

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A system like this speaks to a level of self-awareness in a game about its inability to sustain attention in its world. In short, this is Skyrim knowing that walking across the map or even between established fast travel points can get boring. That it can be a chore. Skyrim has horses, but even with them travel between two points is generally a case of lining up a waypoint on your compass and walking until you get there. Now of course things may happen along the way, adventure and discovery can lie in wait, but you’re still essentially running everywhere and it can be a fairly tedious proposition before too long. This is something of a step back from Morrowind, which allowed players to fly or jump vast distances using magic, while eschewing Skyrim’s fast travel.

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Contrast Skyrim with how The Witcher 3 handles fast travel and we can see how the mechanics are intended to shape the experience. In The Witcher 3 you have signposts near important locations so you can fast travel between them once discovered, but not all of the signposts are especially close to a given destination and you still have to be on foot, standing at a signpost to activate it. There is no reason why the system needs to be limited in this way, the game could have you teleporting from anywhere to anywhere if the designers wanted it so. Instead what we have here is a fast travel system that is designed to have flaws and complications in order not to be your number one means of covering long distance.

The preferred alternative to the fast travel system in The Witcher 3 is Roach, your mighty, occasionally silly, steed. Roach is a clever horse, she is nowhere to be found unless you whistle for her, she can’t seem to die and she’ll even follow the roads without any help from you. She’s like some kind of equine smart car. The developers seem to understand with this game that there are times you’ll want to teleport around using fast travel, but they wanted to make the prospect of just trotting through the world soaking up the ambience as enticing as possible, and it is. Not since Red Dead Redemption has a game been able to make the business of riding a horse from place to place such a pleasure. Riding Roach (not to be confused with Roche) you can avoid any combat you don’t want to get involved in and just drink in the world. Her ability to follow roads automatically further feeds into this, allowing you to look around as the world rolls by.

Having mounts of some kind or other isn’t new by any means. While Red Dead Redemption brought great levels of details in the animation and control of such things they have existed in games going back decades. Usually mounts in games, especially online RPGs, served to provide a speed boost to the player, there was little tangible sense of them being separate entities. Early game implemented mounts in such a way as they seemed a bit like those ostrich costumes with the fake legs, you had such total, precise control over the animal that it felt it was just an extension of the player character. More control is usually a good thing, but in this context it undermines the idea that the mount is a separate creature and thus limits the fun of riding around. In games like Witcher 3 and Red Dead Redemption we can see the horses not merely as a necessary way to get around the map, but as elements of the game that the designers have tried to make fun.

Another series which shows a strong desire to make travelling within its world enjoyable is Grand Theft Auto. Ever since the first game everything about the GTA series has been about making it easy to just grab whatever vehicle is nearest and hit the road. The GTA games have always excelled when you’re in a vehicle chasing something or being chased for some reason. For everything that has been added over the years the meat of GTA, the bit of the game that keeps fans coming back, is in the vehicles. Take that away and you’ve just got a sloppier Max Payne. But there is more finesse to the driving experience of GTA than simply running people over and shooting.

The emphasis in GTA is also on driving for its own sake and this is illustrated by the radio stations, which have always been a staple of GTA. Not all of them are playing the sort of music you might want to car chase too. You’ve got the fake talk radio, you’ve got adverts, you’ve got laid back, often nostalgia-heavy tunes, the game wants you to be able to just sit in your car and enjoy the drive. Sometimes the right song comes on as you’re cruising through the right part of town, maybe the sun is setting or you can see the lights of the city at night and it just works, it’s that freedom of the road that most driving games with their fixation on racing and time trials never get anywhere near. So often in GTA games, even dating back to the old top down ones, what happens between points A and B is much more interesting than what is there. This is emphasised even more by the other vehicles in the game, the planes, boats and bikes which allow you to wander the world at your own pace and from your own preferred perspective.

Systems for covering significant distances in games can be a problem when introduced to series where they haven’t previously been needed. We can see an example of this in Batman: Arkham Knight. The previous game in the series, Arkham City had an open map but a much smaller one and as Batman or Catwoman the player could get across it very rapidly using a combination of climbing, gliding, swinging and leaping. The game gave you enough speed to cover the distances fairly quickly, but not so much that the world ever felt particularly small, which is a good balance.

In Arkham Knight however the world is much bigger and this necessitated a couple of changes, the first of these is making Batman much better at getting around under his own power. The grappling gun can now be used to propel him up and over buildings at great speed and his cape can now be used to almost enable him to fly. In the game this plays quite well, although I can’t help but think in practice it would be incredibly undignified, not to mention nauseating, to be constantly switching between rocketing through the air on the end of a rope and then trying to glide off it. I can imagine Batman landing in a giddy, bilious state and having to take an apologetic minute to lean against a wall and collect himself on landing in front of a room full of perplexed Penguin goons before starting a fight.

The counterpoint to Batman’s new and improved flight capabilities is the Batmobile. What makes the Batmobile interesting is that travelling in it becomes almost an entirely new game in its own right. Suddenly groups of enemies on foot are no threat, but drones and vehicles will seek you out. Meanwhile all of Batman’s stealth and cunning is traded in for a rocket powered tank that handles speed like an armful of live eels and will cheerfully bulldoze chunks out of concrete walls, safety rails and passing cars if you can’t keep it under control.

There’s plenty I didn’t care for with the Batmobile and how it is deployed in the story of the game, far too many boss fights and bizarre races whose presence makes absolutely no sense at all. But as a mode of transport it manages to be both optional and entertainingly different and that’s a very good thing.

If I want to play Batman like a floating ninja, dropping in on baddies to pummel them into submission then I can do that. If I want to play the game with Batman operating as a one man army crushing all before him, that works too. The game won’t punish me for pursuing either or both paths. Few games manage to balance two such completely opposite modes of play while keeping such a fine line between them but Arkham Knight makes it look easy.

In some ways the Batmobile is similar to the Mako from the first Mass Effect game, it’s a fun vehicle to drive and at times in the story its use really feels apt, but at other times it is too cumbersome, too far removed from the controls and systems that make up most of the rest of the game to sit right with every player.

Players when confronted with such a vehicle will sometimes feel displaced, like this is a whole new game, one they didn’t sign up for. This problem crops up with Arkham Knight during the aforementioned boss fights. Players who avoid the Batmobile or who just have no aptitude for it, no matter how good they are at the rest of the game, are going to find themselves in a world of explosions, the bad kind of explosions that are followed by a game over screen.

As games get bigger and bigger it will be interesting to see how they adapt. The addition of vehicles, mounts or flight systems might work for some but not for others, and from a budget perspective it can’t be easy to accommodate the costs of such substantial new game elements on top of building the bigger game worlds that demand them. Some games will play it safe like Skyrim and others will double down on their new toys as Arkham Knight did, and maybe, just maybe, super-powered pocket cheese spaceships are due for a comeback. We live in hope.