Traversal: an overlooked mechanic

The navigation of space is used in many games as a method of exploration, as means to an end. With repetitive and simplistic walking animations we have come to expect little from movement as a mechanic. Even in analog games traveling through space is typically simplified to a number generated by the roll of a die.
Since traversal mechanics are some of the earliest and most often used elements of gameplay wouldn’t it make sense that they should be incorporated in such a way that makes traversal a compelling part of gameplay?

Franchises such as Assassin’s Creed, Infamous, Ratchet & Clank, and most recently Just Cause have taken this concept to heart. Assasin’s Creed and Infamous’ use traversal modifiers to detect varying types of obstacle to generate unique animations; which in turn immerses the player in the visceral experience of moving through a space with fluidity.

Just Cause expanded its traversal mechanics to include: grappling hooks, parachutes, a wing suit, free fall skydiving, and surfing ontop of moving vehicles to name a few. This gives the player immense control over how they navigate through the map with impressive fidelity. These attempts to make the experience of traveling through the game’s space, though being core elements of the franchises, have helped to highlight that traversal itself can be an immersive experience instead of a redundant one.

One of the most interesting examples of how a tweak to a traversal system changed a game’s experience entirely is the inclusion of the character Knuckles in Sonic & Knuckles for the Sega Genesis. He essentially had all of the same traversal mechanics players had come to understand from playing Sonic, he could run, spin, and jump to reach different areas of the map. However knuckles was granted two new traversal mechanics; the ability to climb any vertical surface and the ability to glide after jumping. Just like that the gameplay experience changed entirely. The player could travel to any area they had previously only been able to reach via spinning and hurling themselves off of a jump by climbing a wall and gliding to a floating platform. It was a revolutionary idea and while it made certain obstacles easier to navigate it also reignited the player’s curiosity to explore familiar maps.

Novel and immersive traversal systems are not always appropriate or necessary for a game to be fun. It should be noted that when a player must interact with a mechanic for a majority of their playthrough they should be given some choice within said mechanic, even if it just means allowing them to climb a small wall as opposed to walking around it. In doing so the navigation of space can be changed from a filler action to get the player from point A to point B to an opportunity to engage the player with mechanical choice.



Andrew Mantilla is a ludologist and video game journalist for Play Professor.  You can check out more of his content on Facebook, and Instagram.

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