Traversal in games is fun.
Not a lot of people will agree with that statement completely. To some it is found in the joy of exploring Zebes in Super Metroid, others will cringe at the many, many sailing trips made in The Wind Waker. Still, it should be fun in essence. It just depends on how the game treats it.
Having picked up Red Dead Redemption, I found myself to be stuck to running and riding my horse pretty much for the entire game. Getting around on the horse is good in itself. You can enjoy the country side while trying to maintain a proper speed and pick up all kind of side missions in the meantime. Yet, it doesn’t even come close to the joy of my latest completed game: Infamous 2.
See, it’s rather obvious developer Sucker Punch made a couple of platform games before embarking on the Infamous series, as they treat traversal as a fun element of the game itself which is enhanced as you progress. You get super-human climbing skills, can grind on electric wires and hover great distances while in the air.
Cowboy vs. Superhero
OK, so it’s a crap comparison. Redemption tries to be realistic open cowboy world and Infamous wants to be a contained superhero comic. But it is obvious traversal is more of a pain in Redemption when the game allows you to skip it altogether. It’s a bit of a cop-out induced by the invoked realism of the setting. In Infamous, getting from one side of town to the other can be a fun in itself; there’s skill and timing involved rather than keeping a button pressed while steering.
Not that Infamous 2 is perfect about it. One of the best traversal-powers is unlocked at the end of the game. Which is always something stupid to do in my opinion as it would have been much more fun to use said power during the other 95% of the side missions I already completed.
Most games that actually do have proper traversal skills fall into this trap. Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow is the absolute worst: putting the one enemy that provides you the best traversal-power in the game right before the final boss. Gee, thanks for nothing.
It’s odd, but somehow being able to enjoy traversing a game world feels so powerful that many game designers put it right at the end of the game. Why? Why not hand it out halfway, giving players a bit of both and providing them the feeling they’ve earned said power.
To fall back to Super Metroid: it teaches you a specific traversal trick (wall jumping) halfway during the game. At that time it’s new, but you quickly realise it has been part of your skill set right from the start. When you then start the game anew, you’ll use this trick way more often, occasionally speeding up your progress (or better).
Maybe it’s time all games started treating exploration and traversal as something the player should enjoy rather than using it as the main drive behind expanding game time. If anything, if a game allows players to be quick about it, they’ll come back to play it again. If only for the feeling of control it provides.