On Traveling

Words: 3671 Approximate Reading Time: 25-30 minutes

I’ve been playing Cyberpunk 2077 recently, and a lot of issues have been coming to mind as I play.

But the thing that first struck me as I was playing was how annoying it was to simply get around in the game. I wrote about this subject a bit in my post on open world games, but I thought it worth revisiting, because it’s useful to use Cyberpunk as a pointer of how some of these things can feel off.

There are a few different elements of travel that are important here. There’s the actual process of getting from Point A to Point B in real time. Think of that as simply “movement.” And then there’s the larger process that involves getting to different places on the map and then returning to a hub area. Call that something like “exploration,” although it doesn’t necessarily require exploring per se.

I write this piece because I think the major failing is that CDPR basically did a kind of copy and paste of their system from the Witcher games. And it makes sense, since it worked so well for those games. But the problem is that not all games and maps and modes of travel are created equal, and those systems were not as well-suited for Cyberpunk.

Movement

Cyberpunk has two methods of movement. There is walking/running, and there’s driving. In a sense, it’s very much like Witcher 3, in that we’ve A) replaced the horse with a car, and B) made running around a bit more free.

But there are a few problems here. I’ll use Witcher 3 as my point of comparison here, being CDPR’s previous game. The world in Witcher 3 is fairly flat. There’s a bit of vertical space here and there, but not a huge amount of it to contend with, and primarily you’re doing that in the city spaces. But Cyberpunk is set in Night City, which is, of course, an enormous cityscape. And if there’s one thing you can kind of trust in a video game city, it’s that it will have a lot of verticality to it. So you’ll have underpasses and overpasses and portions of the city built under or over one another. And then you’ll also have buildings that get in the way of the straight line between Points A and B. All of this creates a series of obstacles that you have to contend with as you try to get from where you are to where you want to be.

Since Witcher 3 was fairly flat and didn’t have as many obstacles, moving around was built more as a series of straight lines. Want to go check out that question mark on the map? Then just put a marker on it, get on your horse, and ride. You can follow the road, or just head straight there. Or you could run, if you don’t feel like calling your hose (maybe the marker is close enough that you feel it isn’t worth getting your horse).

In Cyberpunk, these obstacles create a sort of antagonism between the map and the player. Want to head to a question mark on the map? Then put a marker on it. That will show up as a useful marker on your screen about where the destination is, plus you’ll get a helpful line to show you the pathway towards it. The problem is that the game’s method for determining the “best” pathway isn’t really built around how your player can actually explore. So while the minimap tells you to go around a building, there might be a series of crates you can climb over instead to create a shortcut.

It can be fun to find those shortcuts and essentially outsmart the game, but after doing it for so long it becomes hard to trust the game’s own systems. Is there a faster way to get to my destination than what the game is showing me? It’s telling me to go in the opposite direction, but could I find a place to climb that allows me to run straight there? This kind of antagonism between the player and the game isn’t what you should be having with something as basic as movement. Some kind of antagonism would be fine in other contexts, in order to try and make a player think about how they’re playing. But for something this basic and this prevalent, it creates a massive annoyance.

So that’s getting to your destination on the assumption that you want to walk. But you don’t have to walk. You can get a car. And cars are fairly easily available. Just press a button and it will call your car, much like the horse from Witcher 3 (which basically just pops into existence somewhere out of your view).

It’s handy, but still limiting in two ways. Firstly, because being in a car basically forces you to work with roads. So you’re pretty much stuck with the pathway set by the game to get to your destination. You might be able to find a few shortcuts here and there, but most of time you’re just going to be following the path.

Second, and much more important, is that the driving does not feel good. Even the best cars in the game feel sluggish in their turning and handling. Driving at high speeds can be a bit nice, but when you’re in the city you have to contend with traffic and all sorts of other hazards that can get in your way. Not to mention that you can be going so fast that you can miss a turn you were supposed to make because you get very little warning about where to go. And it gets even worse if you try to go off-road in the desert areas, where you may as well kiss any hope of traction goodbye.

So driving becomes a pain that sometimes feels like it’s not worth doing, unless the stretch is so long that you basically have to. The idea that you’re basically fighting the car to be able to go where you want creates a major hassle.

I imagine that part of this setup might have been the product of trying to make the cars feel realistic: if the car was too snappy and easy to control, that could break a player’s sense of immersion.

However, insofar as that might be the case, then let us imagine that there is essentially a tradeoff being made between realism and good gameplay. But if that’s the tradeoff being made, then I would argue that making the choice of realism, especially when it’s ultimately serving no further purpose (i.e. the game isn’t exactly “realistic” in other senses, so it’s not like the game is building itself on the idea that everything is like real life), then it’s basically sacrificing something important to gain nothing in return. Because there’s no real value to the driving feeling realistic to the point of being annoying, but there is a point to the driving feeling good – it’s something so integral to how the player is expected to get around Night City that you want it to be something the player actively enjoys, or at the very least, doesn’t find aggravating.

I will note that there are a couple of things that CDPR did to try to make driving less aggravating in some of its smaller details. Traffic lights can often be annoying, since running lights should result in having the police follow you. So CDPR programmed traffic lights so that when you get close, they automatically turn to green, even if they literally just turned red. I don’t know if there is an in-universe explanation for this given by the game or not, but regardless it’s actually a good way to deal with a nuisance for gameplay.

So what would need to be done to fix these issues? With regards to the foot travel, I’m not sure how viable a solution there could be without a major overhaul of how the game figured out its pathing for waypoints. Because the only way to really fix that issue would be for the game to basically figure out every surface a player could walk on. Then of those surfaces, which ones a player can actually access (because you don’t want the pathway, say, trying to take you to the roof of a 30-story building with no entrance). And then of those accessible surfaces, the game would need to figure out the best path.

Then, of course, the game would have to contend with a bunch of variables. Is the player in a car? Because pathing would have to work very differently. Does the player have access to a double jump or high jump ability? Because that might alter which surfaces are accessible. Are there any hazards in the way, such as hostile zones with enemies or barriers that block progression?  And how do you make sure the pathing doesn’t screw up, such as by trying to send the car into a building or the player onto a surface that isn’t accessible? All of these issues basically mean that making a working pathway system is going to be extremely tough, even in the best of cases.

How about the driving itself? That I think is more capable of being fixed by trying to make things like car handling more “snappy,” if you will. There are a bunch of fine tuning things that could be done, but there’s a basic test that could be done: how easy is it for a driver to weave between cars in the street? The current cars slide too much, so turning just a bit – especially while going at a high speed – is almost guaranteed to send your car spinning out of control.

So good driving, at least for the purpose of an open world game (as opposed to a dedicated racing game), should essentially give players a degree of control over the car that makes it fairly easy to weave through traffic. It doesn’t, of course, look terribly realistic, but from a gameplay perspective it feels good and makes driving fun.

Exploration

Arguably the far bigger issue in an open world game like Cyberpunk is how the player explores the world given to them. “Exploring” here can mean different things, depending on how that exploration is structured. In some games it might literally mean going into an uncharted part of your map and finding out what’s there. In other games, it might mean going to marked locations that have some sort of side content. CDPR’s games tend to lean more toward the latter form here, which I don’t fault them for.

But in terms of getting from Point A to Point B, there’s not just mere movement, but also ways to skip that movement process entirely. Which brings us to the topic of fast travel. Albeit, again, as I covered this topic in the open worlds essay. But I revisit it here to show where it becomes a problem.

Cyberpunk’s fast travel system is essentially a remodeling of the fast travel system from Witcher 3. There are specific points on the map that are designated as fast travel points, and you can initiate fast travel by going to any of those points and teleporting to any of the points that you’ve currently unlocked (by finding them in the course of running or driving around).

In the earlier essay I gave praise to CDPR for having a fairly good system for implementing fast travel in Witcher 3, though I didn’t quite come down on the side that it was ultimately the best way to do such a system.

But there are specific reasons why that system worked so well in Witcher 3. Since the terrain was mostly flat and had very few obstacles, you could easily draw a mental line about where you would need to go: you could follow the roads, or go in a straight line to your destination. In addition, since your horse was easily accessible at pretty much all points (calling it would cause it to spawn very close to you, from just about anywhere you were on the map), getting around quickly wasn’t really a hassle. So the system had a level of intuitiveness that made navigation fairly easy to manage.

Those same elements don’t quite exist in Cyberpunk. Because Night City is much more layered, it’s much tougher to draw out that mental map. When you look at a map, you’re generally thinking in 2D space, which means you’re going to draw a straight line from a given fast travel point to your destination. It’s hard to tell what the pathway is actually going to look like. But because it’s hard to tell these things simply by looking at the map, you can end up choosing a fast travel point that looks closer, but ends up taking more time than one that was farther away.

But generally, fast travel isn’t much of a hassle within the city, because there are quite a few of them. At the very least if you make a mistake, you aren’t out too much time. The bigger problem is when you start traveling the outskirts of the city. At that point, the fast travel locations are much fewer and farther between, and that makes them much more important as a kind of anchor point for your exploration.

Add into that the unreliability of your car. Obviously if you’re in the outskirts, you’re generally driving on dirt, which often means driving is even less fun than it already is. But more importantly, the car is more limited about where and how it can spawn compared to Witcher 3’s horse. I can’t quite tell, but it appears that the car generally needs something that the world recognizes as pathway to spawn, which means it can end up spawning your car a fair distance away from you. Which adds a step to the whole process that makes getting around the world just a bit more annoying.

Explaining all of the little foibles individually is tough, but I can sum it all up by saying that exploration starts to feel tedious after a while. There are so many little hiccups in the process – identifying your next destination, figuring out whether you want to go to a fast travel point or just go straight there, if you want to go to a fast travel point which one is the closest to you, which fast travel point is closest to your destination, plus having to manage your inventory to make sure you aren’t going to be carrying too much once you pick up any guns/armor/items from your destination or on the way (which might mean another little trip). Then add in all of the other little things: want to go clothes shopping? There are a bunch of different stores, and who knows if any one store will have everything you want or even anything you want, so you’ll probably need to visit most or maybe even all of them, which means identifying a store as your destination, then figuring out whether you want to go to a fast travel point or just go straight there…hopefully you get the idea at this point.

All of this adds up to making the process of just going somewhere feel kind of like a chore, something you have to get done so you can do something fun instead. Add to that what I said in the previous section, how basic movement isn’t all that fun or interesting, and a core part of the game’s premise kind of falls flat.

How could this have been avoided? I think what CDPR should have done is allow players to fast travel from anywhere instead. Keep the fast travel points (perhaps they could keep the same number, perhaps they could take a few out), but just allow players to teleport when they want to those anchors. It cuts down a good degree on the hassle of figuring out all of these logistical problems, which shouldn’t ultimately be what the exploration is about. The exploration should be about doing something – completing a quest, discovering a new area, fighting new bad guys, and so on.

I think the logic of using Witcher 3’s fast travel model made sense, but every game is going to be unique and have its own demands. That particular model worked well in that context because of other factors at play, but with a new game you have a new set of factors, and so you have to start from scratch. It may indeed be the case that you can stick to some extent with what you have, so you don’t have to do too much revision (in this case, I don’t think the alteration I’m suggesting is all that different from the system that currently exists, but nevertheless would mark a significant improvement to the player experience), but don’t simply stick with what worked in the past because it’s what worked in the past.

Concluding Remarks

So what can we take away from all of this? Was Cyberpunk doomed by having all of that fancy parkour and a big city? Should CDPR simply stick to making flattish worlds with horses to get around, like with Witcher 3?

I think that would be the incorrect lesson to draw from all of this. The problem isn’t that we should simply stick only with what has worked before, or that issues with traveling are about trying to avoid making games in cities. The solution lies in thinking carefully about the ways players get around.

The major hurdle is to see traveling as a potential hazard for players. That is, while it won’t be true for every player, for a significant portion traveling will be more of an annoyance, unless it is specifically made to feel good. Which, admittedly, is tough to accomplish, since there aren’t too many opportunities to make things like running or driving around particularly interesting. Not that there’s no way to do so: CDPR could have incorporated some form of experience system for driving that encouraged players to get more used to the system and played with the mechanic more (try to drive close to vehicles, drive on the wrong side of the road, etc.). Not that they should have done so, but it would be a way to make the actual process more engaging.

But the alternative to making the movement systems engaging is allowing players to find ways around that movement. In other words, the process of getting from Point A to Point B is something you don’t want players doing too much of. Or perhaps put a different way, you don’t want them doing it too much unless the player wants to do it.

Which means a few things. It means making sure that when the player has to travel, that traveling doesn’t take too long. And if the player is going to travel to multiple different points, the distance between those points shouldn’t be too far apart. Which means figuring out how to space content, particularly side missions and the like in an open world game, in a way that tackling different objectives is easy and doesn’t take much time. Because when you have a big game with a bunch of objectives scattered around, getting to those objectives is going to be important.

It also means letting the player not travel if they don’t want to and don’t have to. Which is why a good fast travel system is so important. Because basic movement is generally going to be incredibly dull, especially in comparison with whatever is at the player’s destination. That is, if you want to head to a side quest, there’s presumably something that you find interesting or expect to find interesting. But actually getting there isn’t going to be interesting. So letting players skip the boring stuff and get to the interesting stuff is necessary. Those skips don’t have to be so easy as to make the whole movement process obsolete. So doing things like requiring players to unlock fast travel points before making use of them is fine. But the point is avoiding excessive traveling.

And finally, it means that when the player has to travel, the method of traveling is in some way engaging. “Some way” is very vague, and really the only way to describe it is avoiding the player feeling that it’s a chore that needs to get done. So if a player needs to travel to a new area to get a quest, are they going to feel excited, annoyed, or have no feeling either way? If the player is annoyed, then there’s a serious problem. If the player doesn’t have any feeling about it, that’s fine, though there is a fair chance that it could turn into annoyance eventually. So what would need to be done here? Lots of little things: making sure the environment is interesting to look at, providing little things to do along the way, making the movement mechanic engaging on its own, making sure the movement mechanic feels good, etc. Not all of these things are necessary at the same time. But something needs to be there. Movement ultimately cannot sustain itself.

I’ve used Cyberpunk here as a model for explaining some of these problems. There are certainly other games that run into similar problems, to different degrees. But the nice thing about Cyberpunk as an example – at least in its current, initial release state – is that there’s a lot here to help point out how the movement feels wrong. There are a lot of ways that any game can have a good movement and travel system, and ultimately there’s no single right way to do it. Instead, as I mentioned before, it depends on the game itself. Hence also why Cyberpunk is such a useful example: so many of the problems stem from feeling off in relation to the game that is given to us.

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