Wide World

Ten days ago, I drove 500 miles. It took ten hours. I listened to music and podcasts and ate crappy diner food and watched the scenery slide by interminably at great speed, fields turn to mountains turn to forests. Quite frankly, I had little appreciation for the scenery because there was just a whole goddamn lot of it and most of it was in my way.

Today, I took an airplane going the opposite direction. I saw everything I drove past and more spread out beneath me, indistinguishable brown patches washed over with gray, diners and gas stations invisible landmarks. I imagined a tower so tall it reached up to me in the sky, an impossible tower where one could look down upon the tightly bounded infinity of the world.

Somewhere right now, someone has clicked on the fast travel button in a game. They blip from location to location, like they’re a Star Trek away crew. The place they were has suddenly become a different place. Not travel, just a change of locale, like a change of pants on a grand scale.

I haven’t played World of Warcraft in some time so I don’t know if this is still true, but when I played  the ability to quickly travel between areas was limited to hiring flying beasts to ride on. It still took perhaps 10 minutes to travel the long routes, which many people (including me, at the time) complained about. It is frustrating to have a game take up your life with travel time when there’s no technical reason, such as the inconvenient and arbitrary laws that physical existence imposes upon us in our daily lives, not to instantly go from one place to another. It was somewhat baffling that, in a game designed so aptly to reduce the customary frustrations of the MMORPG genre, Blizzard seemed to be dedicated to this inconvenience.

Nevertheless, I admire that the designers stuck to their guns here. I don’t know whether it was the correct decision, overall, but I believe that they did perceive correctly that, if they did allow players to instantly travel around the world, something would be lost. The grand world that made exploration a thrill would be compressed; like hearing a symphony over a cell phone. Being able to instantly relocate oneself invalidates the entire ideal of travel. All of those trite and true cliches about how it’s not the destination but the journey– what happens to them when journeys are made obsolete?

There is some grounds for concern, I think, in how the power of technology to give us what we want begins to undermine our opportunities to discover the things we didn’t know we wanted. Out of many, one: It’s often taken for granted that this kind of unity, this connection, will make us less lonely, but if it’s also a force for global homogeneity then won’t we just be alone together?

All this is to say that, as with everything in game design (and yes, this has been a running theme on the blog) fast travel systems are a trade-off. Obviously there’s some loss of verisimilitude, and some people avoid it on this basis, but far more insidious than problems of plausibility is the issue that it compresses your world, collapses it into a single stack of alternate background locales. With some games it doesn’t matter, you just want to set whatever stage is necessary for your chosen scenarios to play out, but if you want to create a sense of a vast world this will undermine you.

It makes me wonder… I’ve never lived in a time when instantaneous communication wasn’t possible. The world of communication has collapsed into a kind of singularity. I’ve never felt what it’s like for communications to take effort and time and space. This is possibly a feeling I will never truly understand.

Oh well. It’s a small world after all– and getting smaller every day.

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