The Best Travel Is Hard Travel – PopMatters

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US: 8 Feb 2016

The world of Dying Light is harsh, and the world of its expansion, The Following, is even harsher. There’s no fast travel in the expansion, safe zones are few and far between, and there are significantly more Runner zombies than before. When I set out to do a mission, whether it be something major and story-related or it is just a minor collection quest, I gird myself with the knowledge that getting there is going to be tough. It’s easy to get overwhelmed. I have to be prepared to run away, to ditch my car for higher ground, and most importantly I have to keep track of the time, lest I be stuck out in the open when night falls and the real monsters come out. I have to be ready for all of this even though I’m fitted out with grenades, powerful weapons, and a wealth of med kits. Yea, the world of Dying Light is harsh, and it makes getting anywhere a pain in the ass. And I love it.
The brutality of the world forces me to pay attention to it as I travel, and because of that close attention, I come to see the character of the world. It stops being a space, an openness that only exists to be passed through, and becomes a place, a location with history and meaning.

Harran is a city in transition, a third-world slum on the verge of modernization. Its architecture portrays a clash of classes: multi-tiered shantytowns built along the hills versus the half-complete steel skyline and a single unfinished tower that sticks out like a broken nail. A highway passes directly over one of the ghettos, casting some huts in a permanent shadow. The densest urban center is Old Town, a place that looks like it was plucked right out of 15th century Renaissance Europe with lots of bell towers, domes, ramparts, and brick and mortar buildings. Even this most modern of towns is old. Hell, it’s even in the name. Harran is a city trying to lift itself out of its poverty. It’s a genuine place meant to aid your immersion and play.

Recently, the east coast team of GiantBomb streamed a bit of Far Cry 2, another game defined by difficult travel: Enemies respawned at checkpoints within seconds of you turning your back, your gun could jam in the middle of a firefight, you could catch malaria, fast travel points were again few and far between, vehicles were rare, walking was slow, and everyone wanted to kill you. The African wilderness wasn’t just harsh, it was brutal.

But that was the point. The game was a variation of Heart of Darkness, cast with mercenaries in Africa hunting each other down. It was a meditation on violence that argued that Africa wasn’t violent because of some inherent quality of the space, but because man brought his violence to that place. The beauty of the land contrasted with the intensity of your survival. You wanted to stop and admire the forest, but your fear of ambush kept you focused elsewhere—all that beauty, purposefully ignored.

It’s interesting to note that both of these games, Dying Light and Far Cry 2, have relatively few objectives and missions in them—at least compared to their open world peers. Their maps are not littered with collectibles or minor side-quests. So, at first glance, there seems to be less for us to do things in these spaces than in something like Skyrim. But that’s because these games are designed with difficult travel in mind. They know that it’ll take you a while to get to a mission, and they assume that’s one of the reasons that you’re playing. These games assume that there’s an intrinsic thrill to travel, that moving from point A to point B is a fun quest in and of itself, and that their desire to make travel meaningful helps make their world meaningful.

When I say travel should be difficult, I don’t just mean that we should always be under the threat of death, just that travel should require more thought than simply holding a control stick in a certain direction for a certain amount of time. Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is a good example of an alternative. I touched on this a while back: Essentially, the grappling hook turns travel into a kind of puzzle as you have to plan your route across the rooftops, and that kind of travel—with its emphasis on crossing wide streets and climbing chimneys—helps highlight the industrialization and modernization of London. The challenge of travel lends character to the world.

Far Cry 2 was, and still is, highly criticized for the difficulty of its travel, so it pleases me to see that time has been kind to it, that it has become a critical darling, and that its sentiment toward travel is still alive and well in big budget gaming. Sure, you still get games like Shadow of Mordor, whose open world is the epitome of generic, but there are many more like The Witcher 3 and Metal Gear Solid V—games that lack easy fast travel and instead emphasize cruising around on a horse.

So, when you play Dying Light and crash your buggy and bail out to retreat on top of a van surrounded by zombies, smashing in their heads and kicking them off as they swarm upwards towards you, frantically attacking and healing and healing and attacking, when this happens, remind yourself that this fight is for a good cause. And when you kick in that last undead face and take a moment to scan the horizon, soaking in the farmland and refinery and blown out bridge and incomplete railway—all that history and character represented by the environment itself—then you’ll see for yourself that this world was worth the fight.

The Best Travel Is Hard Travel – PopMatters