Monday, June 23, 2008

Counterpoint on Travel and Immersion

I have been known to rant about travel on occasion, and I'm not alone. While I was out, Sandra at Elder Game voiced similar frustrations with one of WoW's more travel intensive questlines, and Blizzard launched a new PTR phase which promises non-epic ground mounts at level 30. Well, having been largely offline for nearly three weeks, I've been reading some actual books, and I feel obliged to offer equal time to a counterpoint.

I'm currently most of the way through Guy Gavriel Kay's Fionavar Tapestry trilogy. Like many other fantasy epics (see also Lord of the Rings, or George Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series), the action is set in a vast kingdom, with the reader's viewpoint jumping from character to character to account for what's going on elsewhere in the world. Kay takes the changing viewpoints further than usual, often adding a sentence or two to point out exactly WHEN the page we just read occurred relative to other events in previous or subsequent chapters, jumping to other characters (sometimes minor ones) halfway around the world just to show the reaction when a message is received, and in a few sections actually freezing the action at dramatic moments to retell it from one or more different perspectives before finally allowing time to proceed. Anyway, the point being that distance MATTERS. It is significant to the story that the army is this far away from the crucial battle, that some of the leads have gone off on a side mission that takes them far away from the central action, etc.

Until the second volume. Don't get me wrong, I respect the concept of the timely arrival. Tolkein used it repeatedly in LOTR. J. Michael Straczynski once remarked that spacecraft in Babylon 5 traveled "at the speed of plot", meaning that they would arrive, or not, based on what the plot required rather than calculations of how far away they were and how fast they can travel. It is possible for the characters to overcome some ordeal so great that their once-in-a-lifetime travel at speeds greater than humans could manage is justified. It becomes a problem when multiple characters develop a variety of means of teleportation, flight, etc. Much like the threat of characters dying ceases to have meaning if the characters always live, the threat of characters falling off the map for half the book and not arriving in time for the climactic battle if there's always a travel shortcut that gets there in time.

I've actually enjoyed these books a great deal, I just thought I'd note that this is what developers mean when they talk about "breaking immersion" or "making the world smaller". I still stand by my other points (once you're handing out hearthstones to every single level one character, the immersion ship has already sailed), but I will concede that travel can affect the story you're trying to tell.

Two further comments on gaming travel
- I'm not sure whether a big, mostly empty world is worse than a small, well-populated one that isn't to scale. LOTRO made the decision to put the entire landscape into the game, but the downside is that a character can run from the Shire to Rivendell in under an hour (even while staying off of the road for fear of Nazgul). Age of Conan chose instead to make their world the "correct" size and use zone lines (and thus the presumption of off-camera, non-instant travel) to separate the geography. The quirk there being that the character just walked/rode a long way without anything of note happening (no questgivers, no mobs, no loot), and then suddenly the landscape was littered with stuff to do at their destination.

- Though our hotels in Budapest and Vienna didn't think to hand out hearthstones when we checked in, both cities have great public transportation systems; there was maybe once when we had to spend more than 30 minutes traveling somewhere within the city. It never occurred to us to complain that the devs of Austria-Hungary had made their world too small. ;)

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