Anyone who’s played more than a few video games is probably familiar with the concept of “rubber banding”. Seemingly the most common type of rubber banding that occurs is within any sort of a racing game. You, the player, has found a way to take the lead in the race, and, through skillful driving and navigating, you’ve actually opened up a bit of a lead. Or, well, you should have. After all, what you’re racing should be faster than anything else out there, with better maneuverability. It’s the elite of the elite, and there’s no way that the AI racers could possibly catch up to you. Until they inevitably do. Sure, maybe if you’d suffered some sort of spectacular crash that hurt your precious time, you could understand getting passed. But this was a perfect run, and you did absolutely nothing wrong. The thing is, in far too many racing games, the rubber band is stretched between your racer and one of the AI competitors. Of course, it only kicks into effect when you’re in the lead, but that’s just the nature of the business.
And yet, there’s another form of rubber banding in video games that’s fairly prevalent, and one that most players may not even realize is happening to them. It’s the type of rubber banding found in open world, exploration-type games. Take, for example, a game I’ve recently been submerging a bunch of time in, because, well, it was free on the PSN. Dragon’s Dogma is a decent little RPG (I may be using the term “little” incorrectly here), and I’ve definitely sunk some good time into it. The problem? I’ve only found three of the game world’s settlements. Now, maybe what I just haven’t realized is that there ARE only three settlements, in which case the issue might be more of scope than anything else, but it seems like, just as I’m about ready to voyage forward, finding what’s out there in the parts of the world I haven’t uncovered yet, I pick up a quest that takes me back where I’ve already been. Sometimes it’s to a dungeon I explored early (because, well, it might have awesome shiny things inside of it), but a fair amount of time has been trekking back and forth over the already-explored game world, just to deliver someone (or, sometimes, something) to a place I’ve already seen.
Now, in some games, like the Final Fantasy series before it got put on rails, a certain amount of rubber banding seems necessary. After all, if you just keep plowing ahead, you’ll pretty quickly get to a place where you can’t possibly compete with the enemies scattered before you. However, if you took the time to cycle back, completing every little quest and rounding up all of the magic trinkets, you’ll find that you can handle the battles you’re now facing. However, it seems a little ridiculous that we’re continually seeing this type of rubber banding happen in today’s gaming, especially with games as large as they are. The whole problem is mitigated by the Elder Scrolls series, because, if you’ve been somewhere before, you can simply fast-travel back to that location with a couple of button clicks (unless you’re the type of player going for “realism” where teleportation is out of your realm, but walking for hours and hours is your perfect cup of tea). And, in that series, the fast travel option, for the most part, is either free or inexpensive. Again, maybe I haven’t stepped far enough into Dragon’s Dogma to find just how inexpensive it can be, but it seems kind of silly that you have to purchase your fast travel tokens, which the merchants may not have any stock of, before you can hope to use one. And yes, once you use one, it appears to be gone from your inventory forever.
It seems to me like the better option, at least for any game that doesn’t want to just hand out fast travel options like candy at a parade, is to localize what you need to do (again, something that was somewhat done in the earlier Final Fantasy games). You start out in Mudspittle, and you do EVERYTHING there is to do around Mudspittle. Eventually, you feel like you’re characters have grown powerful enough that you venture on to Donkeyburg (one indication that it’s time to head to Donkeyburg is that the characters in Mudspittle start wondering why you’re still there). Welcome to phase two of the game, where everything you need to do is centralized around Donkeyburg. The same goes for Hovelton, Dungheap, and, the eventual end-game location, Shinyville. Sure, maybe for some variety, have a quest every once in a great while that sends you back to an earlier village, but don’t make that your bread and butter. In fact, make the reward for such a quest include (not limited to, INCLUDE) free fast travel back to the place the quest started in.
Unless you’re programming a Metroidvania-type, where part of the game’s concept is to give new powers and abilities to unlock old areas previously unreachable, there’s just no reason for this level of rubber banding that’s seen in a lot of video games. Heck, it even appears somewhat in Grand Theft Auto, although there you at least get the pleasure of stealing a fast car to help you get to point A again even faster.
Because, seriously, they always say you can never go home again. Maybe it’s time that our video games took that adage to heart.