Fast Travel and Narrative Elision in Skyrim
Skyrim uses a fast travel mechanic that allows the player to quickly traverse from one location on the world map to another known or previously visited location.
In huge, open world environments, especially one like Skyrim, where the landscape is mountainous and impossible to traverse 'as the crow flies', fast travel can be an incredible time saver, saving the player literally hours of gameplay that would otherwise be spent walking (or running) from one location to another.
But does the fast travel mechanic ruin immersion?
What's Wrong with Fast Travel?
For a minority of hard-core role-players, fast travel is seen as a sort of insidious evil, a concession that developers make for 'console gamers' that prefer a 'fast food' style of gaming. For these players, the use of fast travel is synonymous with cheating, and players that use it are unworthy of the title 'role-player'. Fast travel allows you to move instantly (like teleportation) from one location on the map to another location, which may be literal miles of in-game distance away. It defies logic, breaks immersion, and allows the player to avoid the sometimes perilous and resource-draining nature of long, overland journeys. But is it really a 'cheat'?
Narrative Elision in Literature and Film
In literature and film, narrative elision refers to events that are left out of a narrative. They occur during transitions from one scene to another, where characters move from one location to another location, or traverse a period of time (which may span years) in which nothing of much interest happens. It is a fundamental device of film and literature which makes it possible to discern the meaning of a work of art just as white space makes it possible to discern the words on a page.
Narrative Elision in Games
Linear games employ narrative elision all of the time. These are scene changes which work more or less exactly like scene changes in movies: the protagonist (player) 'beats a level' and, after an optional short ending cinematic, suddenly finds themselves in a new environment with a new set of objectives.
In linear (or narrative-driven games) these sorts of scene changes are accepted without comment and do nothing to ruin immersion since they are an accepted convention. For obvious reasons, game developers can't tell the entire story of a protagonist's life, so only the most salient elements are chosen and these are developed in detail and form the body of the game. So why are role-playing games different?
Role-Playing Games vs. Action Games
Although role-playing games and action/adventure games are frequently synonymous terms in the mind of the public, they represent two fundamentally different types of gameplay.
Action/adventure games depend upon plot (narrative) as a motivating force: without the impending threat of cataclysmic events, there is no reason for the protagonist (player) to act, and without obstacles (non-player characters and environmental hazards) there is no challenge or enjoyment in acting. Players are moved serially from plot-point to plot-point along a track of (hopefully) well-orchestrated interactive events punctuated by cinematic interludes in which the plot is explained and advanced.
In role-playing games, the player's motivation isn't typically provided by the events of the story, no matter how well written or engaging. While the player may enjoy the story and feel compelled to see it through to the end, the player's primary objective in playing a role-playing game is to live an alternate life in which they get to write their own narrative. In a 'good' role-playing game, the player is never forced to follow a preconceived path. Generally, more than one path is offered, and the player is allowed to choose whichever path best suits what they imagine their alternate self's personality would dictate.
Role-playing games are really closer in spirit to simulations, like flight or racing simulations, in which the chief pleasure in playing is derived from the satisfaction of mastering an inherently difficult task; in this case, that happens to be surviving in a fantasy world filled with hostile and powerful enemies. Narrative, for a role-player is a 'nice to have', but is not the meat and potatoes that nourishes them while they play. Fundamentally, then, role-playing and directed narrative are opposing forces.
This doesn't mean that they can't work together (and Bethesda has done a masterful job integrating them in Skyrim) but more of one will always mean less of the other and striking a balance that satisfies the majority of players is always going to be a difficult challenge.
The Marriage of Plot and Freedom
Skyrim (and Elder Scrolls games before it) bridges this gap between narrative and choice through the use of game mechanics which allow the player to decide how much or how little narrative they would like.
The stage is set in the first phase of the game, during the introduction, or 'tutorial dungeon', in which the rules of the game are explained to the player. The rules are embedded in the narrative which is intended to be as compelling as possible in order to entice the player to pursue the narrative through their own volition. Once the tutorial is done, the player is given one or more quests, providing the player with objectives and destinations. Quests are offered as suggestions (sometimes strongly exhorted ones) but are never imposed on the player as obligations. The player is free to choose to ignore any and all quests entirely, even the main quest, which is the main story arc of the game. At this point, at almost the very start of the game, plot can no longer be counted on to deliver experiences to the player. Plot becomes merely one device among many to deliver one experience among many: in this case, a dramatic, narrative experience.
To assist players who enjoy a directed, narrative experience, Skyrim offers several game mechanics: a map and compass so that the player can orient themselves in the world; a journal to collect quest-related information so that the player always knows what is expected, where to go, and who to talk to; map markers (or quest markers) to point out locations or characters that the player needs to visit in order to progress a plot; a wait function to advance time to bridge transitions between events within a quest; and fast travel so that the player can skip over potentially tedious and repetitive travel and focus on the pursuing the current narrative without unnecessary interruptions and delays. Each of these devices is designed to enhance the narrative (plot) structure of a given quest and are necessary tools for implementing narrative in an open, sandbox experience.
It might be argued that fast travel is somehow less fundamental than the other devices (map, compass, markers, journal) and more of a convenience than a necessity but it is integral to a complete implementation of narrative in an open world environment. In a directed narrative (or linear game) the player is shuffled unceremoniously from location to location, introduced to only the characters that they need to speak to, and given explicit instructions about what objectives must be completed. The player never really has to wonder about what to do next: the objective, in fact, is to remove most of this uncertainty so that the player can concentrate on enjoying the dramatic turn of events which is the primary reason they are playing the game. This play style is fundamentally opposed to role-playing, in which the player derives satisfaction from making their own decisions and suffering (and overcoming) the consequences and enjoying the fruits of these decisions. For hard-core role-players, being told what to do where and to whom is the antithesis of pleasure; it is an imposition they will rail against.
Why Some People Hate Fast Travel
Which brings us to the point of the article, which is the use and (perceived) abuse of fast travel.
Undeniably, for players who enjoy dramatic narrative, fast travel is a convenient device. It removes the tedium of walking, running, or riding everywhere and allows them to get on with the story. For 'serious' role-players, however, fast travel is worse than cheating because it not only removes the challenge associated with planning for and executing long, overland journeys (a fundamental element of the fantasy genre) but it commits the cardinal sin of breaking immersion.
The fact is: you can't use fast travel without being aware that you are consciously employing a game mechanic. You are choosing to interrupt the normal temporal flow of the game in order to save yourself some time as a player. And I think it is this conscious act of 'breaking character' that irks hard-core role-players and which is why many of them never use it.
The mechanic of fast travel can be ameliorated a bit by providing a plausible explanation for its use: for example, the silt striders and intervention spells in Morrowind (a tactic they departed from in Oblivion). Bethesda has returned to this in part in Skyrim by providing a carriage service, but even with this service, there are still players who would prefer an actual working coach that moves the player from place to place in real (game) time.
Should There Be Fast Travel?
So how can we 'fix' fast travel? Gamers who like fast travel (and many serious role-players, who understand its function as a narrative device, do) will tell those who don't that they don't have to use it. They can ignore it and just get on with the game. And this is what the people who don't like it end up doing. But some people find the mere existence of the mechanic in their game to be immersion-breaking to one degree or another. Just knowing that it's there and seeing the interface that supports it every time they open their map is enough to spoil their enjoyment just a little. So how can we help these people without ruining a perfectly good mechanic for others?
The answer, I think, is simple. In Fallout: New Vegas, players could choose to play in hard-core mode and were awarded an achievement for completing the main quest while in this mode. I think many of the gripes that people have with fast travel could be eliminated simply by implementing a 'No Fast Travel' achievement. Players could choose at the beginning of the game to disable fast travel, removing it as an option from the game, and receive an achievement for completing the main quest without it. That way, people who like it can use it, and people who don't won't be distracted by it in-game, and will receive a reward recognizing their accomplishment. Making a change like this would be trivial, so it's clearly an option for developers to consider.
I don't think the conflict between proponents and opponents of fast travel is an either/or dilemma, but an implementation detail. Clearly, it's not going to go away because it is simply too useful a feature to have in a world where not many people have the time to walk across miles of virtual landscape to get to the next stage of a quest. At the same time, since it seems like a relatively easy issue to fix, I don't see why developers can't address this issue simply and cleanly in future games. The best solution, I think, is to combine a No Fast Travel mode along with sensible in-game mechanics like the carriage service, mark and recall, and a teleportation guild.
Where Do You Stand On Fast Travel
So where do you stand?
Personally, I never use fast travel unless I am testing one of my mods, but I have no problem with people who do.