Let’s talk about travel! Some of us will likely be traveling to visit family or friends, and others will be traveling through virtual spaces and the spaces of our imaginations. Travel is a bit contentious in games; in theory, they’re the perfect means to explore new worlds and do things you could or would never do in real life. In practice, travel can be a chore in bloated open worlds and same-y forests as you move between dungeons. But virtual and tabletop travel can also be a wonderful thing, as our Sidequest team can tell you!
Do you have favorite locations in games? Are there locations you love visiting in games?
Melissa Brinks: Orzammar, for the fine Dwarven crafts, naturally. I could probably come up with a definitive answer for this if I gave it enough thought, but right now my answer is the wide, open spaces of Red Dead Redemption 2. I enjoy just being in those spaces without anything to do; they’re beautifully designed, but they’re also just so open and interesting and full of potential. There’s also the fact that so much of those spaces is now developed for human use, and the way the game presents it as teeming with life, dangerous to humans, really gives you a sense of how much was lost with colonization.
Zainabb Hull: My favourite game location is the Irish village in Broken Sword. The scenery and backgrounds in that game are beautifully illustrated and so often perfectly capture gorgeous golden and pink sunlight, and the Ireland setting wins out for me even over the picturesque Parisian backstreets. Entering that part of the game is my first memory of feeling that sense of boundlessness that video games can often provide; there’s a sense of a rich world beyond the three or four screens you’re confined to.
Like Melissa, I really enjoy it when games allow you to explore that world freely. My favourite part of Skyrim was the landscape, and I always wanted to just go hiking off the map in Dragon Age: Origins. The only place I still visit, though, is Journey‘s glittering desert dunes. I love that I can just sit peacefully if I want, and the light is always perfect.
Wendy Browne: I am typically not a bustling city type of person, but the first location that came to mind was Jeuno in Final Fantasy XI. Until the later expansions, it was the hub of the game. All the airships left from here. The White Mages hung out, waiting to teleport players for a fee. Mules lined the streets selling the wares their mains had crafted or hunted. It was the gathering point for many events and leveling parties, or just the place to leave your finely dressed character standing idle so everyone could inspect you and see how awesome you were.
Kate Lyons: I love, love, love the interstellar travel in Mass Effect: Andromeda. The game has flaws, but they killed it with their spacescapes. I would just spend time in orbit around my “real” destination just admiring the universe. It gave me a space to really soak in the lore and gave my Sara Ryder time to appreciate her new home.
Nola Pfau: I’m also gonna dive into Elder Scrolls, which I’m not really as into as I used to be, but in Oblivion there’s a spot in the forest where there’s a pond, and it’s where the unicorn likes to hang out. I don’t actually care about the unicorn, but the spot is beautiful. There’s usually a couple of monsters you have to kill there, but once you do, it’s just… nice. To sit there.
There’s also a quest in the same game where by some magic means you end up going into a painting. The environment in there is small—it’s like a little U-shaped place surrounded by trees where you fight some trolls, but because it’s inside a painting, the trees, the trolls, everything has this impressionistic effect. They’re different models than the rest of the game, and it’s a delightful little touch.
If you could go on vacation anywhere in a game, where would you go?
Zainabb: I’m not a beach holiday kind of person and I would only be able to manage one night camping, so I would have to pick a city. Illium from Mass Effect actually has enough neon to keep me satisfied, and the game’s map isn’t too limited so there’d be plenty left to explore in person. I would gladly travel all over Ivalice from Final Fantasy XII, preferably accompanied by a dude with a steampunk pistol and a problematic bunny girl.
Melissa: I agonized over this question because I couldn’t think of anywhere that would actually be relaxing. Illium is a great choice—I was thinking more of fantasy places, but it has a pretty sweet sci-fi vibe that would probably be very cool in real life. I’d also love to visit the Citadel because it’s almost utopian in its presentation of the universe. It’s obviously not actually utopian, but it has that air to it, and I think it’d be neat to experience in real life.
Kate: Can I say Elvhenan? If not, Halamshiral before the fall of the Dales. Dragon Age has some of my favorite elven lore and I’d love to see the wonders the ancient Elvhen were capable of for my own eyes. Sure, I’d probably be ostracized at best as just a shemlen but it’s worth it.
Nola: I’m with Zainabb—Ivalice would rule. Also Stardew Valley. I wanna hang out on my farm!!!!
Melissa: Popping back in to say that I made a huge mistake and my answer should have been the entire world of 80 Days because goddamn do I want to travel that world!
How can video games balance a fast travel mechanic with encouraging you to explore the world? Do any games do this particularly well?
Melissa: Random events that flesh out the world! Scenery that’s actually nice to look at! I can’t conceive of fast-traveling through Red Dead Redemption 2 because, in my opinion, the best parts of the game are the parts when you’re not actually playing through story missions, but rather when you stumble upon a nice bit of environmental storytelling or one of the stranger missions that help make the world feel like it’s full of actual people rather than a bunch of NPCs who just pop in to give you a quest. I’m often hesitant to return to the main storyline for long periods of time just because I’d rather look at the scenery and experience the side stories than go rob a bank or whatever.
Zainabb: I agree, the possibility of random events definitely helps with travel fatigue, even for me, someone who loves to Slow Travel. I prefer to walk between quest points in open-world games like Oblivion, Skyrim, and—back in the day—GTA IV just to feel immersed in the world. It helps that all of those games constructed the feeling that if you spent time in the world, you might come across something cool, like a random sidequest or hidden area that can only be accessed on foot. The world does need to be pretty and dynamic enough to make slow travel feel worthwhile, though. If I’m going to be in the world, I want to feel like I’m in a real world with its own spirit and flow.
Wendy: Guild Wars 2 did an excellent job of encouraging the journey by rewarding it. They planted “vistas” around the world that granted experience points, but also a breathtaking expansive view of the surrounding area when you clicked on them. I became obsessed with visiting all the places to find them and reveal the complete map. The obsession has extended to other games that have map unveiling mechanics. I am compelled to traverse every corner.
Prior to that, it was Final Fantasy XI again. They made you work hard for the fast travel options by first making you get to them by foot, and even then, not every area had them. Sometimes you still had to walk or ride a chocobo to get to your final destination. But every map was worth the journey, no matter how many times I had been there before.
Kate: I actually really dislike fast travel most of the time. I appreciate the utility but it just wrecks my immersion and makes me feel like I’m just checking items off a list instead of adventuring and living in the world. Even Skyrim I try to only use the in-game carriage system to fast travel because it’s a good compromise between “I don’t want to walk around this fucking mountain” and “I can magically teleport wherever I want.”
Dragon Age: Inquisition is another world I’d far rather wander and explore than fast travel through. Going from Ferelden to Kirkwall to the far side of Orlais in a day is immersion busting enough; by Andraste I’m going to walk through the world and pick that damn elfroot. If anything, I think DA:I goes too far in making fast travel an unattractive option—there’s so much stuff that’s borderline necessary that you miss out on even just by riding a mount. No companion banter? No way to pick up resources? Guess I’m walking across the Hinterlands again.
Nola: The best games give you free overland travel whilst also providing fast travel locations if needed. For all their other flaws, the Elder Scrolls do this, and so does Breath of the Wild. When I’m doing objectives, I like to take the quickest route, but when I’m just out screwing around in a game’s environment, it’s fun to see where I can go and what I can do on my own time.
Have you ever had a particularly good travel encounter on the way to a main mission while playing a tabletop game?
Melissa: My elf eco-terrorist once decided she needed to stay awake too long to flirt with an NPC on our group’s way to an actual mission. She fell asleep during her watch and ended up getting the entire party killed by not noticing the approaching enemies and missing every shot thanks to fatigue.
Kate: As a player, we don’t frequently spend a lot of time on travel—we’re a high enough level now that we can afford to teleport everywhere. Before then, though, we had an entire arc that was essentially all travel. Our half-orc rogue’s parents got kidnapped by a band of devil-worshippers, and we had to chase them across the continent before they set sail on their warship. It was tense and exciting and made us think about more than just defeating each encounter. The more time we spent fighting owlbears, the farther ahead our quarry got. It was basically the Aragon/Gimli/Legolas plotline from The Two Towers and we ate that shit up.
Nola: As a player I love travel because I feel like that’s the ideal time for those big character interactions. I’m in a Star Wars tabletop game right now and we spend as much time on the ship between destinations as we do at those destinations, which leads to a lot of sometimes very tense interpersonal dynamics, and a lot of hilarity in other regards.
As a GM, how do you keep traveling fun and interesting for players?
Melissa: I looooove random tables that I’ve customized to appeal to my players’ playstyles and interests. I like to leave little mystery breadcrumbs—maybe a weird statue they stumble on in the woods or an NPC who pops in to say something weird before passing by—and let their interest dictate whether that becomes a legitimate plot thread or just a bit of flavor. I don’t want all encounters to be combat-based, nor do I want them all to be plot-related; I want them to stay on their toes so they don’t feel like they’re just being shuffled from one encounter to another. I also like giving them a bit of agency to dictate how the story goes; if they get really into that weird statue, maybe it reveals a secret or a plot thread they’re not quite ready for that we can follow up on later.
Kate: In the first Pathfinder campaign I ran as the GM, we had a Long Travel as the party went towards their next quest. I tried to balance it between the party having time to goof off and actual events. A year later our dwarf is still fiercely protective of his perfect walking stick that he rolled a Nat 20 to find and has even gotten it enchanted to find the nearest tavern.
On the other hand, in the spirit of player choice, I let them choose the route: the river, guarded by a river dragon, or the abomination-strewn planes. Of course they slayed the dragon before immediately going off course into the plains to try to avoid further dragons. Which they did, but the manticore wasn’t much better.
These days, I’m with Melissa—give me a random encounter table and let’s go. Maybe they’ll find a cute kitten to play with, maybe there’s a heist.
Nola: Random tables are a godsend for that kind of thing. I also like to throw other fun stuff in the mix—an overwhelming force that players have to sneak around, for instance, or run, if they fail that sneak. I did a pretty fun chase sequence through a forest once, with randomly generated traps and pitfalls. That party is now on their way back to the city where they started, and I keep throwing a lot of little tidbits out at them and letting them decide which ones they want to take the bait for.
Has game travel ever pushed you to think about travel differently? For example, thinking about travel as colonialism, travel as environmentally destructive or irresponsible, or what it might mean to travel from a marginalized perspective?
Zainabb: Mass Effect first got me reconceptualising travel as a form of colonialism because of the game’s grounding in imperialism. As much as I loved being able to travel around the universe exploring these beautifully realised settings, I was still travelling as part of a military force. That made me reckon with what it means to fantasise about space travel or quests through fantasy lands or versions of our real world, where your (usually white or white-coded, English-speaking) characters might encounter unfamiliar cultures, people, and practices. Many of these encounters are either hostile or exoticising, reflecting real-world attitudes towards non-western and Indigenous people, culture, and land today. The Normandy crew travels with a power that often goes unacknowledged and unspoken; westerners choosing to travel do the same in real life.
Not everyone has that freedom or choice, however, and I’d be really interested to see more games exploring the experiences of travel—both in mundane and epic fantasy settings—for marginalised people, like disabled folks, refugees, and undocumented people.
Melissa: Red Dead Redemption 2 has actually made me think a lot about this. The characters you play are invaders to these spaces they inhabit—they’re colonizers, even if they see themselves as rugged outlaws. From their perspective, encroaching civilization is actually a threat to their way of life; throughout the story, the characters malign the loss of the old, lawless ways of the west without (at least as far as I am into the story) engaging with the fact that they’re also products of that system. Coupled with the really conspicuous absence of indigenous people from the game both visibly and behind the scenes (there are just a few, and most of them are not named), it just reeks of hypocrisy. I don’t know for certain where the story is going or whether this is something the game wants to engage with, as it does with the treatment of Black people in the era, or if I’m simply meant to let it go after the early conversation about how the white colonizers stole the land of the Native people.
As I’m riding my horse through these large, open spaces, hearing dialog about how “our” way of life is under threat from civilization, it’s hard to ignore that the places we see Native people in the game most often are in stories, their names written on gravestones, as if they are largely a myth of the past rather than a living, breathing culture threatened by the way of life the heroes are so desperate to protect.
Nola: I’m with Zainabb, Mass Effect has made me think about this! In particular, Mass Effect: Andromeda is very specifically about traveling to a new area of space and establishing base camps on various planets. You’re cut off from the communities featured in the original ME trilogy, you’re out there alone, and you’re moving in on inhabited planets, dealing with locals. It’s interesting, but it’s also clear that not as much thought was given to the dynamics of that situation as could’ve been. It’s unfortunate because instead your intrepid science crew winds off fighting against a larger, more explicitly conquering force, which ends up feeling a bit like a cop-out; the player is given a mildly xenophobic “the enemy is bad!” scenario where the player character is positioned as the “well we tried” hero, even if leaning generally renegade in nature.
Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.