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Travelling in Video Games

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Tuesday, May 5, 2009

For an artistic medium that focuses heavily on mimicking real life activities, video games still have a few activities that they still seem to struggle with keeping entertaining. Games have been able to make shopping entertaining (so long as it’s for armor and weapons), getting dressed entertaining, and even going to work marginally engaging for a person. So why does driving in a car or traveling long distances cause people to complain? Tim Stone, in an essay on flying in Microsoft Flight Simulator comments, “There are two kinds of boring simulations. The bad kind bore because they fail to replicate some or all of the interesting aspects of their subject matter. The good kind bore because the activities or machines they recreate contain elements that are inherently boring.” Stone’s acknowledgment that some things are inherently boring is interesting because that’s technically true of almost any activity outside run and gun gaming. What makes shopping entertaining is finding out all the gear you could potentially have to improve your game. What makes getting dressed entertaining is creatively improving your appearance and stats. Even going to work has the minimal benefit of generating cash or some other perk for the player. What are the pitfalls of traveling and what are the ways games can make it work through benefits?


Traveling in games comes in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Luke Maciak at Terminally Incoherent identifies three main types: instant public transportation, real time public transportation, and instant map based transportation. Everything else is just using in-game means to get around. Maciak praises Morrowind’s system because it created an intricate commerce and bus route, which makes it so learning how to travel is a part of exploring the game. That’s consistent with the RPG elements of the game and something that Oblivion and Fallout 3 hold onto by requiring the player to find the location personally before they can fast travel to it. The complaint many people have about fast travel is that it’s both immersion breaking and discourages discovering missing quests or details. When you just insta-travel everywhere, the game world ceases to be really relevant or necessary. The problem for many players is that many times there isn’t anything left to discover and they’re just trudging to get on with the game. JRPG’s are able to circumvent this by making any form of travel beneficial due to getting cash and experience from random encounters, but that can easily become just as mindless once the monsters are inferior. The other alternative Maciak notes is World of Warcraft’s real-time public transportation, where you literally watch the landscape go by as you travel. In my personal experience, the most interesting part about taking the bus or subway is fighting for seats and watching crazy people. MMO’s typically provide the latter on their own but there’s always room for playing with the former.


The other, much larger kind of travel is the means given by the game. The first title that pops to mind is naturally Grand Theft Auto and the series has defined itself by giving the player a world to travel in. The games themselves opted for a curious solution to travel boredom by creating a huge number of radio stations to pick from. It ameliorates the boredom of traveling by providing the activities we typically do ourselves. Just like driving in real life, when you get in the car you tune out by listening to music and hearing the news. Saints Row and a few other mob games experimented with this by adding hostile zones where you’d be fired at for traveling into as well. The issue this is resolving is that often these games don’t make getting into a car wreck game ending, which means a chunk of the tension in driving is missing. An inherent sense of risk, however mild, adds to the focus required from the player and means they can’t tune out and become bored. That’s the concept that Far Cry 2 seized on by abandoning the radio distraction and focusing purely on the hostility. The landscape is literally unconquerable, meaning you will always be shot at and always plowing through guard posts. The game also borrows from the Morrowind design by filing the map with diamond briefcases that can be found with your GPS unit. The consistent issue at work is keeping the player focused on the game and engaged with traveling. It’s customary for walking or driving to not engage us, people can space out and often use the time to think about other things. In Stone’s essay he comments that this in of itself becomes a pleasure, to have a game accurately create that same meta-leveled escapism. The farther you plan to travel in a game, the more you have to accept that boredom is a part of the experience itself.


The incentive to create huge, open worlds that we can explore is very appealing on paper, but the method by which we explore and inhabit that space is still very much under consideration. Is it okay for you to ever get bored while playing a video game? Is the medium designed purely to alleviate boredom or can it just channel the sensation in strange directions? Should people just be allowed to fly or skip everything if they want to? There’s the Freelancer system, which allowed you to flip on afterburners to travel at high speeds or use a series of rings to travel through the universe. Or Final Fantasy 7 that made you trudge through the entire world map once before handing over the airship so you could go anywhere. Bobby at GameCulture Journal cites two key concepts to travel in real life as outlined by Michel de Certeau. ‘Synedoche’, when you describe the whole of something by referencing just one part, and ‘asyndenton’, or when you leave a conjunction out of a phrase. The point Certeau makes is that when we discuss traveling we often remove the actual travel part of the description and just describe the place we’re going to. Bobby comments, “The space traversed is often ignored; the destination is often represented by a single symbolic piece.”


So perhaps traveling is always conceptually going to be a backseat concept for players. The goal of traveling in a game should not necessarily be about entertainment or alleviating boredom but instead just fleshing out the experience of the game itself. If you’ve created a world where there might be something they missed or some hidden treasure yet to be found, the world will communicate a sense of discovery. When you’ve created beautiful vistas , you will create a sense of wonder. And when you’ve trudged through miles of forest and desert to get there, you will have created the sense of tedium that makes the final pay off worth it all. Whatever form the game is using, it’s helpful to remember that nobody really goes anywhere without first some kind of destination in mind.

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