Travelling: Exploring the Interstitial Spaces
Exploration is one of the most appealing attributes of video games. Inside this media we have the power to vividly construct fantastical, alternative virtual worlds that we can travel to with a tap of a button. The act of playing games is in itself a journey.
Perhaps it is because we find this aspect of virtual worlds so appealing that we seek to travel even within them. Travelling is the quintessential example of exploration that sparks curiosity and excitement within players to fuel their motivation throughout the gameplay experience. However, if the travelling component brings so much potential to video games, how is it that so few have managed to truly capture it?
Brief Historical Overview
Traditionally, the mode of travelling as something separate from the core mechanic have not been employed primarily due to the size of the virtual world, limited by their contemporary technology. Also, the initial arcade games were also designed specifically for replayability; hence much emphasis was put on abstract level progression and immediate player feedback. However, as the technology rapidly advanced and the mass audience gradually shifted from the arcades to their home consoles, games eventually came to incorporate the element of travel within their gameplay, as exemplified by the original Legend of Zelda (1986) and Pokemon Series (1996)
Even so, due to the sheer breadth, scale, and scope that exploration entails, travelling as a major component of a game have predominantly existed within the domain of MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game). It was simply just not financially realistic to invest in content creation at that scale for single player experiences.
Now, in lieu of exponential technological progress and the unprecedented affordances it lent to indie developers, we have seen an emergence of games, such as Journey (2012) and No Man’s Sky (2016), that have put the mode of travelling as the focal point of player experience.
Modes of Travel in Games
Let us first examine and analyze the different modes of travel within video games. In general, there are three main methods in locomotion: 1) Magic, 2) Object, and 3) Location.
Magical locomotion involves using the built-in ability of the player’s character as the main method of travel. This special skill is usually attributed to characters within fantasy context, such as magicians or time-travel scientists, that accounts for the strangeness of this inherent ability.
In contrary to this inner ability, location-based transportation lends an exterior alternative for traversing the virtual landscape. As seen in real life, these locations are represented as physical transit hubs, such as train station, airports, ship harbor, or taxi stops.
Lastly, travelling facilitated through personal possessions, such as enchanted objects, vehicles, or animals, is wildly popular in a variety of contexts. Since these are portable “assets” that can be easily obtained and discarded throughout the game, they lend most flexibility and convenience to the player. In addition, they are less specifically anchored to a character or a location.
Like in real life, an individual’s participation in transportation can be seen in two ways: 1) Automatic public transportation 2) Manual personal transportation.
When we call Uber to go to a party, or hop onto a business flight at the airport, we are doing so either for the convenience and expediency or just due to the sheer amount of effort and expertise required to traverse continents. The same can be observed in video games, where public infrastructure allows the players to bounce between locations without voluntary effort in travelling itself. This category of “automatic” locomotion can be further broken down into three subcategories: a) Instantaneous Teleportation (ex. Physical portals), b) Scheduled Transportation (ex. Train schedules), and c) Unscheduled Transportation (ex. Loading screen).
On the other hand, for the most part, we like to have direct control over our means of transit, most commonly seen in cars. In video games, this can be categorized as “manual” locomotion; it requires active participation by the player, and the result depends on the player’s level of proficiency in handling the given transportation mechanic. Although there are many more depending on the context of the virtual world, these are the most common examples of manual travelling mechanic: 1) Walk / Run, 2) Drive / Control a vehicle (ex. Cars, horses), 3) Fly (ex Planes, hanggliders), and 4) Swim.
Now that we have a library of knowledge in regards to the different modes of travelling in games, let us dive deeper into how travelling could not only enrich and reinforce other aspects of the game but also in and of itself be a unique, rewarding gameplay experience.
Giving Meaning to Travelling
As addressed in the introduction, we have an automatic emotional response when we imagine venturing into unknown lands. However, we are not intrigued just by the idea of reaching the destination, but also of the journey that one takes prior to. It is about feeling a sense of tedium when one trudges through a long terrain of forest so that the reward is all the more worthwhile. It is about feeling a sense of discovery and surprise along the path so that one feels the authenticity of the experience. It is about encountering beautiful vistas that elicit a sense of wonder and awe.
This would all depend on how well the modes of transportation is incorporated into the narrative. For example, if it’s a magical world (such as in Bioshock) where you can rapture a gap in timespace to traverse time and space, then it is perceived as more grounded into the context and hence “believable.” It is ultimately a matter of whether the players notice the strangeness of the world around them.
In certain cases, even boredom can be incorporated into the experience of the game, given the appropriate context. It may give players refuge amidst the adrenaline-pumping flow of the game, or allow room for social interactions with total strangers. Or it may be the complete opposite; a wild whale might suddenly surface and wreak havoc on players abroad the ship.
It is perhaps safe to say that reaching a destination is only a goal of travelling, but perhaps the least relevant in terms of the player’s experience. The possibility exists in the interstitial spaces, between the departure and the arrival point, within the ambiguous space that we call travelling.