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Starfield is a reminder that fast travel is interesting and often weird

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starfield frontier ship taking off of earth at dusk
Image credit: Eurogamer/Bethesda

Starfield is the sort of game that starts conversations, and one of the conversations I've been hearing a lot over the last few days has to do with fast travel. This is one of those elements of games that has become so common as games have gotten bigger that it can be easy - for me at least - to overlook how interesting it is in the first place. Now that I'm thinking about fast travel, I suspect it's one of those fascinating, unsolvable conundrums of game design: an idea that will always be in flux. It's convenient, and when games hit a certain size - Starfield with its thousands of planets certainly counts here - it becomes pretty much essential. But it's also one of those mechanics that can become part of a game's philosophy, part of its approach to how it handles things in the game world, and how it truly thinks about the game world. Fast travel says something about what the designers value in a game. It feels like this is a conversation worth having.

So, to begin with something obvious: Starfield is huge. You're dropped into a spaceship and there's a good chunk of galaxy to explore, with hundreds of planets, systems, and all that cosmic jazz. Starfield wants to be as realistic as it can be about space, and that means it has to deal with the fact that space is awkwardly, infuriatingly massive. It takes an absolute age to get anywhere in space. Even things that seem close are separated by huge gulfs. Starfield needs to create a sense of all this. It wants you to understand that our sun and the nearest sun are not really that near each other at all. If you want to travel in a place like this, you're dealing with massive distances. But massive distances are annoying when you're following the thread of a storyline. So Starfield uses fast travel to get you from one place to another.

I've only played a bit of Starfield so far, but I've started to realise that fast travel is intoxicatingly simple here. You're on a planet and you can fast travel to your ship and then jet into space and pick a route to the stars. Or, I think you can often just stand on a planet, pull up the menu, and jet yourself somewhere else without bothering to head to the ship first. It makes a massive game like Starfield, with quests that send you across the galaxy, less unwieldy, but like a lot of conveniences it comes at a price.

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And the price is that, if you're not careful, you can turn a space game into a menu game. You move from planet to planet and cut out a lot of the space travel stuff. Starfield's designers were open about this in advance: it's not a No Man's Sky or an Outer Wilds where you blast off in your ship in total control, swoop up out of the atmosphere and then swoop down onto a nearby planet all by yourself. Starfield's a bunch of discrete spaces, separated by loading screens and animations. Animations are where the spaceship takes off and lands.

This is one of the game's crucial choices. If you want seamless, immersive space travel, play Outer Wilds, where everything is handled by the player: you buckle up, blast off, use your thrusters and pick a location, and once you're there it's up to you to land. The trade-off, and it's a trade-off that Outer Wilds is supremely happy with, is that you're dealing with a single solar system. That's cool because that's what Outer Wilds is doing: it's creating a handful of beautiful, hand-crafted things to play with. It's close-up work. Every moment counts.

Starfield, and other games like it, goes in the other direction. Space is huge, but because it's so huge you need to use fast travel to essentially hypertext your way around it. On the plus side, lots of quests and side-quests! On the negative side, there can be a loss of immersion, of the feeling that you're really in space, blasting off, landing, flicking those overhead switches space pilots love to use.

starfield ship overview of frontier ship
Starfield's space hardware is so chunky and gorgeous I often want to fly it around for myself. | Image credit: Eurogamer/Bethesda

I'm tempted to say that Starfield's designers use fast travel in a way that encourages the player to truly take control of their own imaginative experience and make sure they're getting what they want out of it. You can linger in your ship. You can admire it on the launch pad and take it into dogfights. But, as with so much in a role-playing game, you have to put in the imaginative work too. You have to keep in mind that this planet you've just appeared on is not the same as the planet you were on a few minutes ago. You need to keep a part of your brain building the mental space that you're travelling through.

And this for me is where fast travel actually becomes really interesting. However it's employed - and many games use it in very different ways - it's a negotiation between the tangible and the entirely make-believe elements of games, a reminder that reality within a game actually exists on a spectrum. I'm walking around a planet on Starfield, and really, all I have to do is look at the screen and watch that unfolding to understand it, but I need to imagine the journey I took to get here if I want that journey to have had meaning for me, if I want it to truly be part of the game's fiction.

In this way I'd argue that, well deployed, fast travel can open up the imaginative space of a game in interesting ways. You are your avatar for most of the game, but now and then, when you're fast travelling, you have to imagine your avatar moving through unseen space without you. It's tempting to link it back to that tunnel in Pac-Man back near the start of everything - the wraparound tunnel that took Pac-Man from one side of the screen to the other, but crucially left a little pause in there when he was off-screen to account for unseen travelling time. Elsewhere, I see this same handshake between the visible and the imagined in the level transitions for something like Jet Set Radio Future. If I want to get to Pharoah Park, I need to head to this particular highway. I skate into the distance and the game takes over, and then I skate out into Pharoah Park once the loading is done. I'm suddenly somewhere else. These are fascinating moments: moments where seen and unseen video game space converge.

Again, I'm still early on in Starfield so I can't say how much the fast travel trade-off is going to affect my sense of being able to believe I'm travelling through the universe. I suspect I will be fine, because this is a Bethesda RPG, and I've basically wrapped my head around the idea that what I'm in for is a Bethesda RPG arranged in a space-like format. It's all quests and locations and characters and Easter eggs, and space only needs to be the illusion that sticks it together.

Sometimes it doesn't always work this way, though. At the start I said that I think that when designers adopt a mechanic like fast travel they're also adopting a philosophy that fast travel represents. Sometimes this philosophy of fast travel - convenience, speed, getting to the good bit faster - grinds against what the designers want the game to be about. And there's no clearer example of this for me than millions of miles away from the planets where most of Starfield takes place, back on Earth, in New York City. Marvel's Spider-Man is an open-world game that offers fast travel across the different areas of New York. But if you do fast travel around, you're missing out on the game's main thrill, which is the joy of web-swinging traversal in a huge urban space. So you select fast travel, and the game mockingly reminds you that you're probably playing it wrong. You see Spider-Man, in costume, riding the subway, checking his messages maybe, crammed in with all the other commuters. Convenience, but at a cost.

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