Fixing Fast Travel

I miss the lack of fast travel from Morrowind, and it's not just blind nostalgia. I went back and played it recently, and though some of the mechanics felt dated, walking between my destinations hit me like long forgotten fresh air. There was a moment when I stepped into the kitchen after pausing a long session, and I was surprised to find that it wasn't raining. It was raining in Morrowind, but that was just a game, yet the game had tricked me into feeling like it was raining. As if I were a kid walking out of the Rain Forest Cafe.

I found it peculiar. Both Oblivion and Skyrim still had weather effects—better weather effects even—and yet this old timey RPG, with early 2000 graphics and limited voice acting had captured my mind the same way it did when I was young. The effect, I would later realize, could be attributed to the absence of fast travel.

In Skyrim, when I needed to meet with a quest giver in a town, I would teleport inside the town, race to my destination (which wasn't hard to find, given the objective markers) and then instantly teleport out once the conversation was over. It might be raining, but I would never get a chance to feel like it was raining, as my time in any one location was fleeting.

Morrowind still had fast travel, but it was limited in use. The game would only allow you to travel from specific points—silt striders, usually—to other towns. The game was then able to modulate its expectations about your use of fast travel, modulating its necessity. Many quests could be performed without use of the silt strider network, and most quest lines only required you to travel to a new location if you were expected to stay for a while.

The need to walk to and from cities made me more familiar with the world of Morrowind. Skyrim cities are beautiful, but I barely see them from the outside, as I tend to drop in the middle of them. In Morrowind, you can only initiate fast travel from inside the city, and only to the inside of other cities. As far as the countryside is concerned, it's a trek. You become familiar with your surroundings, the landscape, its pathways and features, and, in a way, you become more familiar with the cities themselves.

Many people would miss fast travel if it were removed today, especially adults like myself, who's time to dedicate to a walking simulator is limited. When I say that I want a game without fast travel, however, what I'm really saying is that I want to play the game that Bethesda would make today, if they set out from the beginning to avoid implementing fast travel.

There are many annoyances they would need to fix, but they are all fixable. The transit system would need more drop off locations than in Morrowind. The caravans in Skyrim were a nice touch, but caravan extension mods which extend the network still improve the experience. The best mods add caravan drop offs all along roads, so that you can arrive at your intended destination without having to glue your thumbstick forward.

Some issues can be fixed by extending the in-world fast travel, but other issues could be fixed with clever game design. Regenerating Health and Magic already alleviate the need to fast-travel as a form of respite, and the only other major concern I can think of is to ferry items back and forth. Sometimes the player needs to travel to sell or store loot, so that they have room to carry whatever trinkets need pilfering. And sometimes they need to seek a quick repair on a sword that the smith warned them wasn't looking good but they just wouldn't listen.

These instances might require more effort to fix, but they are fixable. Imagine if your horse could have storage space and carry capacity. You would then only need to travel to your horse to be able to swap whatever you need. There could also be more inns along the roads, and traveling merchant caravans, just in case you get into a real bind. Or, more simply, your followers could be given the ability to sell or store items on your behalf. Then the trade off wouldn't be travling all the way back to town just so that you don't have to leave that sick staff of blinding, but to temporarily lose your follower while you continue with the fun stuff.

Many of the old systems in Morrowind could have been improved by now, if they had continued to be necessary. For example, directions in Morrowind were freely given. They had to be; you had no compass. But directions today could have been dynamically generated to save time, and to allow for more locations to be on the roster for which the player to receive directions. The interaction would have required text, but that's no different than bartering being in the form of a menu. Some actions are performed metaphorically in games. So too could directions.

Limitations can be frustrating, but they can also be a source of ingenuity, both for the developers and for the players. Imagine if bandit camps were more plentiful, but if the bandits didn't necessarily attack on sight. If you think about it, it's rather odd that all bandits in the land of Skyrim are rabid murderers, frenzied by the mere presence of another human being. Imagine if a charismatic player could persuade bandits into bartering for goods, or allowing the player a bed to rest in. These features will never see fruition, because without limitation, they serve no purpose. Why would the player need to think on their feet, if their feet are boundless.

Even alchemy is very nearly a waste of time. Picking herbs and crafting concoctions often takes longer than fast traveling to the most remote location, sprinting to the nearest potion seller, and buying out the shop. Alchemy should be a skill you can fall back on in a pinch. Being bitten by a rabid dog, or bandit, should result in the player hunting around for just the right rose petaled, blue thorned plant to save the day. Instead, any of the players ails may be alleviated from any of the finest establishments in the land, and all it takes is the time to sit through a couple loading screens.

My willingness to hunt for newt-root should depend on the speed of my hard-drive. Smithing is already a boring enough skill as it is. It would be slightly less boring if I was occasionally forced to improvise my own weapons in a cave because my broad sword snapped. None of that happens unless I'm truly on my own, and I'm not on my own unless, well… you know the rest.

Lacking fast-travel is outdated, but so is universal fast-travel. It's possible to build a world which limits the teleportation, and it may even have positive effects on gameplay. Hell, the player might even be expected to anticipate encounters, plan ahead, prepare for journeys, and occasionally, improvise in the face of immanent peril. You know, Role Playing.