I’d like for people to consider this article also a bit of a call for assistance, especially from people who specialise in old-school games – what is the first game you can remember that featured fast travel? Or the earliest? Please leave a comment if you think you can help (especially if your answer is particularly obscure!).
When you think of fast travel, as a monolithic mechanic, what’s the game that comes to mind? For me, it’s The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion‘s fast travel system. It’s one of the first games I can recall that generously allowed me to go basically wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted, with no cost or time penalty. In many ways Oblivion struck me at the right time in my childhood, but this one’s quite tangible. By including pretty liberal fast travel mechanics, it didn’t test my (limited) patience in the same ways that other big open-world RPGs (including its older brother, Morrowind) did.
Yet this mechanic remains, at least among enthusiasts, a little divisive; to many, it represents a diluting of some essential immersive experience of the role-playing game. In order to better understand its legacy, I wanted to do a little dive into the history of the mechanic and its origins, to understand how it’s evolved over time and what that means for our collective conception of both the ‘open world’ genre – to which it is inextricably tied – and the gaming world at large.
It’s probably best to begin with a definition. When I tried to research the history of fast travel, I got a few results – a couple of Reddit posts asking the same thing, a GiantBomb tag link which contains a broad spread of games with the mechanic, and many, many articles deriding the ascendancy of fast travel as a generally Bad Thing. I gather this was a spicy topic in the Hot Take-o-sphere a few years ago, and recall many forum posts of this kind many years ago when forums were still a thing that I used. But I digress – how do we define ‘fast travel’? There are many examples over the years of games containing the ability to rapidly move from location A to location B, or even to different levels in the game. In this case I’m thinking of things like Super Mario Bros.’ warp pipes. Though these are in some ways an ancestor of modern fast travel, I’d argue that shortcut mechanics, or access to hubs of discrete levels, aren’t really fast travel as I will define it here. Other forms of fast travel which share a different space in the imagination are, for example, purely linear ones – teleporting between two points.
Fast travel as I understand it is synonymous with movement around open worlds. In this sense, its clearest and most direct ancestor in widespread videogame understanding is likely the Moon Gates of Ultima. First appearing in the year 1983 with Ultima III, these are really an example of what I think of as point-to-point fast travel. Maybe there’s a better, more technical term somewhere. The main difference with this ancestor-mechanic is that (of course, being a Richard Garriott invention, there is a peculiarity) which other gate they will transport you to is defined by the phase of Britannia’s two moons. Ultima often comes up as a common predecessor in the case of many modern RPG mechanics, so it’s no surprise to see it as an oft-cited answer to the ‘which games invented fast travel?’ question.
Speaking of that all-important question of origination, I may well have to be boring and suggest that there is no one ‘unique’ inventor. If there’s an obscure game which seems to have had the full-fledged fast travel experience before anyone else, please inform me (genuinely, it’d be fantastic to get more detail available on this subject). However, it seems like fast travel has evolved separately, largely as a gameplay consideration and convenience, into how we think of it today.
If I was to point the finger at one game that’s particularly influential in what I conceive of as ‘full-freedom’ fast travel, it would be Dragon Quest III, released in 1986. While previous DQ games featured series-staple spell Zoom, they only allowed you to return to the game’s central castle. It was here that – with a mana cost – the player was allowed to use the spell to teleport to any previously visited town for the first time. This has since become a staple mechanic of the DQ series, allowing players to traverse their vast-for-the-era-worlds in a timely manner. While it isn’t quite the same as clicking an icon on a map and being instantly loading-screened to any location you desire, we’re really getting somewhere (literally) with this one. While many Western RPGs continued on with pretty punishing exercise regimes of walking and wandering, this titan of the JRPG genre was content way back when to let convenience trump immersion.
Whether this reflects a more immediately number-driven hit-level-99 quintessence of JRPG or is another casual-appeal artifact of one of history’s most popular entries in the genre, its influence was doubtless felt across many other games. Notable by its absence is Final Fantasy, which first introduced a point-to-point system in Final Fantasy X in 2001. Classic FF games, of course, don’t feature vast open words, strictly speaking, instead offering a selection of towns and dungeons connected by an overworld. There are other methods of, er, accelerated locomotion, like airships – but if we started counting vehicles as ‘fast travel’ we’d be here forever. While this is often understood as a JRPG-specific mechanic, many classic RPGs feature world maps which are fundamentally reminiscent of these.
What is the world map of isometric Fallout titles, after all, if not an overworld connecting instances, with random encounters in between? While I’m not going to argue that games like Fallout or Wasteland have secret JRPG inheritances, I would like to use them to introduce what I think of as the last discrete category of fast travel. For lack of a better term, I call it click-and-go, where a destination is selected from a world map and the player proceeds there. This one is a little tenuous, in that it’s hard to see where normal travel ends and fast travel begins, but variations on this theme also feature explicitly as fast-travel mechanics in games like The Elder Scrolls: Arena and Daggerfall, though Morrowind would ditch this mechanic in favour of the point-to-point Silt Striders and endless brown trudging (which I’m told has its own charm).
As a mechanic, fast travel still remains somewhat divisive. While clearly useful for its convenience, mechanical purists argue that the ability to travel quickly across the world is detrimental to senses of scale and importance. Certainly the languid pace of travel in a game like World of Warcraft before its expansions, as well as other classic MMOs, was one of the main elements that battered you over the head with the size of its gameworld. Now, with its myriad, cheap flight-paths, ability to use easily-available flying mounts anywhere and common teleports, player convenience has been prioritised over a completely integral sense of world-space. You used to have to seek out a Wizard and pay them money to open a portal for you – a touch of convenience-seeking player interaction that could be an article in itself.
Though it has a complex lineage, the way that various games utilise fast travel can’t be separated from their overall design. It’s tempting to understand fast travel solely as a means of achieving convenience for the player, but really it’s another cog in the massive machine that is a game’s interlocking systems. Almost every game will continue to use a variant of this mechanic, too. There’s no chance that games will be designed for those scarce few purist trudgers, determined to walk or ride the whole way.
Knowledge of the methods by which players will move throughout an interactive world permeates every aspect of a game’s design, from combat encounters to quest design. If fast travel isn’t available all the time, is the act of travelling somehow meaningful? If it’s always-on, will the player miss much of the game’s experience by using it (after all, time-saving is always an active incentive)? Which particular method of fast travel jives with you, and which you might think goes too far in the direction of convenience, will be up to the individual player and the structures of meaning and reward in the games around them.
If you want to read some more cartographical content, why not check out Nevi’s evergreen Hollow Knight article, or his piece on the map of God of War? You could also take a look at my games of the generation piece, if you’re interested in my bad opinions.