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.