Dear Game Developers: Side-Quests Are Distracting, Stop It

Rare is the game in which the player character doesn’t always have a pressing matter to attend to. Whether it’s an impending invasion from nebulous dark forces, a literal or figurative ticking time bomb, or the end of the world, gamers are typically given a task that needs to be done in a hurry, and there is little in the way of role-playing justification for straying from that task.

And yet, games abound with side quests that are in many cases nothing more than filler to pad out a campaign’s length (and add some perceived value).

If this matters to you, then a comment given to GamesIndustry by V for Vendetta and Ninja Assassin Director James McTeigue (known for his longtime collaboration with the Wachowskis) ought to send a thousand bells ringing in your head:

“As the maker of the game you ultimately have to decide for the gamer a little bit. You can’t cover every option, you can’t make the interior of every store, because what’s the point if you have 10 million people playing the game and only two want to go inside the shop? It doesn’t make any sense. Just guide ‘em; it doesn’t mean that you can’t do it sometimes, but make it worthwhile, make it integral to the story, make it part of the thing that you need to do. Just don’t get bogged down in the minutiae of that, hoping that someone will go in there sometime.”

What he’s saying there is that everything a developer puts in the game, including side quests, minigames, collectibles, trips to the bowling alley, etc., should be relevant to the main story arc and not just some extra thing you can do. McTeigue was comparing the making of a film to a video game, but in doing so he identified a serious problem with the games we play: so much of what players are given to do is a waste of time.

The perfect place to start this discussion is with Bethesda. Bethesda’s games are much beloved because of the way they’re so utterly packed with content, but I’ve always been uneasy with their structure. In my review of Red Dead Redemption for this site, I used the term “Oblivion Syndrome” to describe that problem. As I put it then, Oblivion Syndrome is what happens when a game presents you with an urgent quest, then does everything it can to direct your attention to anything other than what is allegedly most important.

In The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion a fanatical cult aims to open a portal to hell and give the world over to all-powerful demons. It’s a story literally about the end of the world. Most people will assume that this sounds like a pretty big deal, but Bethesda just puts a finger to your lips and says “SHHHHHHH… don’t worry your pretty little head about that now.” Cyrodiil province is chock full of Other Stuff for you to do – for example, why not put off stopping the Dark One so you can get involved in a local business dispute? And these distractions are shoved in your face everywhere you go.

Whether or not a game is an RPG, when you take control of a character in a game you are role playing. If a game developer is trying to tell a story, then they should provide role playing reasons for everything you can do within that story. Far Cry should not try to get Jason Brody to abandon his quest to rescue his friends from pirates so he can hunt bounties or wild animals. BoiShock Infinite should not encourage Booker DeWitt to waste valuable time by looking for voxophones, when he really should be focused on the job at hand. And in the case of BioShock Infinite, even if voxophones do help tell the story of BioShock Infinite, they exist for the benefit of the player rather than Booker; I doubt Booker, were he a real person, would care to spend time collecting them, since that’s not part of his mission.

Obsidian provides an alternative quest model in Fallout: New Vegas, which amusingly is their sequel to a Bethesda game. New Vegas is also filled with content (it took me about 40 hours to complete it), but Obsidian went to great lengths to make sure almost everything you do in some way factors into the endgame. That game is a funnel, giving you the freedom to wander around and have whatever adventures you want, but in the end that entire experience is about shaping the Mojave into the kind of world you want it to be. You might think you’re only dealing with the Brotherhood of Steel because one of your companions is one of them, but it turns out you’re either making an ally or enemy for the final battle. An excursion into a vault isn’t just about fetching some item for a random quest giver; you’re doing it to gain something that will help you later on in your climactic date with destiny. The beauty of this model is that very often if you find that you don’t like what you’re doing or you get bored, as I did with the Oblivion story, you can just do something else that is also relevant to the main arc.

BioWare, the leader in the choice-based RPG clubhouse, has also figured this out. We’ve seen them go from a Mass Effect 1 full of extra quests that only matter in terms of setting up Cerberus (though it feels as if Cerberus didn’t have a grand destiny until they started on Mass Effect 2) to a Mass Effect 3 in which all the non-mandatory missions give you a real benefit going into the final battle at Earth. Star Wars: The Old Republic has evolved from requiring you to participate in four or five side quests for every main class story quest as you level up to having a streamlined, one-quest-at-a-time structure in the Rise of the Hutt Cartel expansion. These are positive changes.

I’m not suggesting we get rid of unrelated diversions entirely. Rockstar, for one example, has created a structure in the Grand Theft Auto series that is sort of ingenious from a role-playing perspective. In those titles, you are experiencing a portion of a character’s life, and so it makes sense that you would, in between missions, dick around on the internet, go on dates, hang out with your friends or boost cars for extra cash. And when an urgent situation does arise in those games, they put you on rails. The result is that no matter how much dicking around you do, it still feels in service to the story Rockstar has written (well, except for maybe GTA IV).

It’s all about effective storytelling. The curated storytelling experience in a game (when it exists) must therefore be re-emphasized. Video Games can stretch a narrative in ways no other TV series of film could, but content for the sake of content it mere dilution. That doesn’t mean games need to have perfectly linear stories: just keep the player’s eye on the ball and give him or her a purpose in playing the game.

Players would be better served by game stories constructed with clear parameters — as widely as the artistic intention allows, at least — and tangential activities that serve the story instead of divert player attention from it. It might mean less of the wall of content we’ve become accustomed to from games like Oblivion, but we’ll have tighter, more focused, more intellectually and emotionally stimulating experiences.

If we’ve arrived at the “video games are art” period of history – and at least we pretend we have – then both gamers and developers should start taking game stories seriously. For the developer, that means making it so all you put into your work of art contributes to the meaning of it. And, for gamers, that means caring enough about the story to insist that your time not be wasted on irrelevant tangents. This is an evolution of gaming that will occur over time, but why wait? We can make this happen now, if we really want to.

Do you want to?

Phil Owen is a freelance journalist who contributes to Kotaku, VG247, Gameranx and Appolicious in addition to GameFront. Follow him on Twitter.

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11 Comments on Dear Game Developers: Side-Quests Are Distracting, Stop It

Dach

On June 5, 2013 at 11:56 pm

But what about the key factor here of immersion?

I loved Skyrim and Oblivion specifically because there were smaller conflicts to be resolved in the world [some of which I still haven't touched after play for 400+ hours]

When someone comes running up to you with something not as important as your current quest it points out one very big factory: Not everyone in the world really cares about what you are doing and depending on how big the “major conflict” it can be more or less understand that they never will care.

For example, during both World Wars much of the North American continent was very aware of Euro-Asian conflict that was rolling across the world but there was still lots of stuff happening in the West as well. Not every last moment of everyone’s time [including the President/Prime Minister] was focused on just trying to end the central conflict of either of these world changing conflicts.

Millions of people still had to manage/control North America’s economy, infrastructure, Medical and Manufacturing forces despite this conflict and face issues that were more pressing to them than anything an ocean away.

GazH

On June 6, 2013 at 12:09 am

When I were a lad we didn’t have ‘story’, we’d shoot aliens that were advancing on earth, cos if we didn’t them little buggers would end up taking over! The biggest story we had was about this little frog that wanted to go home, but there were these cars and logs that he had to navigate. Poor fella, sometimes he just wouldn’t make it…

Now we got these real movie-like characters who get involved with all these complex relationships with alien beings, some who look like women but aren’t women but might act like women, but they’re obviously alien because they’re blue. Well, I wouldn’t believe it if I didn’t see it, but there it is, interactive movies is what they are.

In my day interactive movies were like.. movies, but you had this cursor so you could shoot things IN the movie. It was like Die Hard but you were Bruce Willis. Except it was nothing like Die Hard because these movies were really awful. And Bruce Willis could act.

Now I like me an interactive movie, but sometimes my old bones wish for that little frog who used to try so hard to go home. I’d like to play a game again one day, instead of watching a movie and shooting little blue aliens in-between the acting.

Phil Owen

On June 6, 2013 at 12:15 am

GazH: I’m of the opinion that storytelling in gaming is broken, which is why I’ve been writing pieces like this one that deconstruct campaign structure. What I’m saying is I’m not interested in interactive movies, because using that term as an ideal is so utterly limiting for a medium full of possibilities.

Anyway, there is plenty of room for the simpler experiences as well. Gaming is more than one type of media, in truth.

Daft Insomniac

On June 6, 2013 at 2:58 am

This might seem a little jumbled, so forgive me if the comment seems unstructured.

The balance of narrative and gameplay is tightrope that seems to slingshot between excess (in content) and recess (from narrative). While I think your article really articulates the problems of games attending to gameplay to such a degree that it hinders the story that these “narrative” based games hope to tell, but I don’t necessarily agree that side quests are quite as superfluous as portrayed. I have to agree with Dach on the prospects that side quests provide, immersion and detail. However, I do believe the games that utilize these side quests tend to forget about two things, the procession of time and organic integration.

The problem with Skyrim and Oblivion stems from the fact that you are given a quest that is seemingly time-based but also given a world that left wide to explore. As the Hero of Kvatch, you are pretty much given the responsibility of saving Cyrodil, but to avoid locking the player into a narrative with this big world to explore, there is no time constraint put on the main quest. The main quest stops being an objective and becomes merely a point of interest on your journal/map. And even when you rest a week in-game in about 1 minute real-time, Kvatch is always burning and the 60-something gates of oblivion that are like the demonic 7-11s of Cyrodil remain open(until you close them). Time never seems to be a factor for your character.

Side quests add a great deal of depth but sometimes they feel inorganic when put along side the main narrative. Side quests like the Dark Brotherhood seem like inlets of the main narrative body, never quite connected. Though I think that is more the fault of the developer for not properly integrating the actions and outcomes of the side quest into the work and the world. Having the assassinations of your assigned marks does little to the world, it merely changes what it says. When you kill people in power in Skyrim or Oblivion you might be admonished, called criminal scum, and maybe even have a rumor spread about your deed but rarely will there be a worldly affect, a sudden shift in power, riots, or funerals. The side quest always seems to be isolation and your actions occur in a vaccum rather than the system of the world of Skyrim or Oblivion.

I feel like there’s more to say but I can’t quite put it into words. But with games like Dragon Age:Origins and New Vegas (and a bunch more), the idea of a side quest becoming more integrated with the story seems to be getting a bit more popular and as a result the game and its details seem more organic as opposed to being like a hallway with many doors. While it isn’t perfect I think it’s getting somewhere.

Daft Insomniac

On June 6, 2013 at 3:10 am

This might seem a little jumbled, so forgive me if the comment seems unstructured.

The balance of narrative and gameplay is tightrope that seems to slingshot between excess (in content) and recess (from narrative). While I think your article really articulates the problems of games attending to gameplay to such a degree that it hinders the story that these “narrative” based games hope to tell, but I don’t necessarily agree that side quests are quite as superfluous as portrayed. I have to agree with Dach on the prospects that side quests provide, immersion and detail. However, I do believe the games that utilize these side quests tend to forget about two things, the procession of time and organic integration.

The problem with Skyrim and Oblivion stems from the fact that you are given a quest that is seemingly time-based but also given a world that left wide to explore. As the Hero of Kvatch, you are pretty much given the responsibility of saving Cyrodil, but to avoid locking the player into a narrative with this big world to explore, there is no time constraint put on the main quest. The main quest stops being an objective and becomes merely a point of interest on your journal/map. And even when you rest a week in-game in about 1 minute real-time, Kvatch is always burning and the 60-something gates of oblivion that are like the demonic 7-11s of Cyrodil remain open(until you close them). Time never seems to be a factor for your character.

Side quests add a great deal of depth but sometimes they feel inorganic when put along side the main narrative. Side quests like the Dark Brotherhood seem like inlets of the main narrative body, never quite connected. Though I think that is more the fault of the developer for not properly integrating the actions and outcomes of the side quest into the work and the world. Having the assassinations of your assigned marks does little to the world, it merely changes what it says. When you kill people in power in Skyrim or Oblivion you might be admonished, called criminal scum, and maybe even have a rumor spread about your deed but rarely will there be a worldly affect, a sudden shift in power, riots, or funerals. The side quest always seems to be isolation and your actions occur in a vaccum rather than the system of the world of Skyrim or Oblivion.

I feel like there’s more to say but I can’t quite put it into words. But with games like Dragon Age:Origins and New Vegas (and a bunch more), the idea of a side quest becoming more integrated with the story seems to be getting a bit more popular and as a result the game and its details seem more organic as opposed to being like a hallway with many doors. While it isn’t perfect I think it’s getting somewhere.

Doe Knut

On June 6, 2013 at 4:36 am

“BioWare, the leader in the choice-based RPG clubhouse, has also figured this out. We’ve seen them go from a Mass Effect 1 full of extra quests that only matter in terms of setting up Cerberus (though it feels as if Cerberus didn’t have a grand destiny until they started on Mass Effect 2) to a Mass Effect 3 in which all the non-mandatory missions give you a real benefit going into the final battle at Earth.”

Honestly, it’s like the last year never happened. How can you possibly say that ME3′s final battle was in ANY way affected by what you did leading up to it? It’s the single most binary, underdeveloped, and insultingly artificial illusion of choice and consequence I’ve ever seen in a game which touts C&C as an important factor of gameplay. Not to mention that many of the few consequences that you DO witness are not in any way intuitive or consistent with the rest of the series. I honestly don’t think you could have come up with a worse example if you’d tried.

As for side quests being distracting? Well, yeah, that’s the point. It’s called immersion. Without immersion in story-driven videogames you might as well be watching Spaceballs. Videogames are unique in all of media in that they allow the audience to experience the story at their own pace, often choosing which elements to go through with and often seeing different outcomes depending on what you’ve done. You don’t necessarily need sidequests to achieve this, but they’re often an effective way of bringing you further into the game’s ideology. As someone who claims to be advocating greater storytelling in games, you should be EMBRACING this fundamental advantage games have over other art and entertainment forms, not moaning because it costs you a couple of hours and your attention wanes. You’re not forced to do any of it, hence the term SIDE quests.

Really, you just come across as a BioWare fantoy.

SXO

On June 6, 2013 at 7:37 am

I don’t disagree with this article completely, as I do get the point being made, but I think the solution that it seems to be arriving at is backwards. Side quests are a good thing. They add immersion, expand the story, and allow you more gameplay. What I do agree with is the tendency for some games to put something that’s incredible important as your main goal, then distract you with comparatively trivial things. Gotta save the world? But this farmer needs help stopping a chicken thief!

The solution is not to get rid of side quests, or even to make every single one of them tie into the central quest or narrative, but rather to ramp up the main quest slowly. A good example is Fallout 3 where you start off simply looking for your father. Finding your father is a personal goal, and not one that is necessarily time pressing. Compare that to the original Fallout, where everyone in your vault is going to die if you don’t hurry up and get a new GECK. In the latter, it seems rather inconceivable that someone would get distracted from their primary goal, whereas in the former it seems perfectly logical. Fallout 3′s story eventually ramps up right near the end, but before that it allows you to believably take your time to explore the world.

Axetwin

On June 6, 2013 at 10:42 am

This article is so misguided, it should be in IGN.

A game like The Old Republic has no business being brought up in an article like this because it’s an MMO. Yes, its a heavily story driven MMO, but its still an online game regardless. You MIGHT have a point with this game if it weren’t for EA’s retarded F2P model that forces a free player to scrounge as much XP as they can so they can simply keep up with the level curve. A really good example of this would be Rise of the Cartel in which a free player is FORCED to subscribe or buy from the cashshop because there simply isn’t enough XP to be had in order for that player to keep leveling.

The idea behind side quests is it gives a player a break from the main story and it also gives the player more time to spend with their character. As others have said, it builds immersion. It also lets the developer increase the difficulty in a subtle way that is really only noticeable if one were to skip all the side-quests.

Axetwin

On June 6, 2013 at 11:16 am

Sorry for the double post, something needed my immediate attention.

Anyway, I understand how frustrating it can be in games like The Elder Scrolls or even Borderlands which are games that seem to bog you down in side-quests. Honestly, its much more forgivable in TES because of its open worldness and a psuedo-open endedness.

Ultimately, it really comes down to, do what side quests you feel will be enough to keep you leveled, and ignore the rest. But please, do not try to speak for all of us because on this topic, I’m fairly certain you’re in the minority.

Kazoo

On June 6, 2013 at 12:13 pm

I agree with part and disagree with other parts.

Yes… I often laugh when I’ve just been told that the “great coming of the Evil God SmackDown is IMMINENT” and, yet, I’ve got this woman crying because her husband went missing and she wants me to find him. I would much rather have it be that her husband has some critical information for me, so I at least pretend I’m staying on task.

On the other hand, I do enjoy taking a rather stress-free evening of play avoiding the main storyline.

ME2 did a good job. There were a few extraneous N7 missions, but most of them were in line with building your team. Perhaps that’s why it’s one of my favorite games.

Personally, I’m OK with a rather closed world. Skyrim and Oblivion are great, but I’m also happy with a compelling story and only two or three non-linear activities I can be doing at any given time.

Oh, Hi Denny

On June 7, 2013 at 1:03 am

For a more insightful, less fanboylicious summary of immersion and storytelling in games I suggest checking out some of MrBTongue’s videos, as he discusses it regularly in great detail with relevant comparisons instead of “make everything more like BioWare, k?” ‘The Elder Scrolls VI – Youtubia’ and ‘The Shandification of Fallout’ are probably the best examples.

Also, I find it amusing how Phil doesn’t like interactive movies yet appears to have forgiven or perhaps even lauded BioWare for making the entire final ten minutes of ME3 an interactive movie with no valid choices or any established consequences until the Extended Cut gave us the option to refuse everything.