If you checked in last week to hear me rant about the declining quality of video interfaces and crafting systems, then I know what you’re looking for next…another loquacious diatribe from someone who couldn’t develop a Pong clone! Well get ready for me to pull out the nitpicking guns for another installment of What RPG’s Are Doing Wrong.
Side Quests, Side Quests Everywhere
What exactly qualifies as a side quest in a role-playing game? This is something that I feel used to be a lot harder to define. In the most basic terms it could be described as a deviation from the main story line where additional game content is explored. As you broaden this classification throughout different games you may find that it’s not that black and white. Some games may prompt you to take part in a series of repetitive collection tasks or hunting challenges. Others could present an opportunity to take part in a challenge or contest such as arena combat. Whatever that deviation might consist of, it’s typically a welcome change from the primary objective. Side questing allows you to immerse yourself in everything that a game has to offer. I might have never looked back on Kingdom Hearts the same way if I didn’t take the time to complete the Coliseum challenges, and the sense of fulfillment I gained from rising to the head of the Dark Brotherhood in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is difficult to match.
What are we faced with now? Instead of organic side objectives that deliver quality and substance, we’re given a repetitious to-do list of “busy work,” quest journals that serve as reliable sources of confusion and anxiety, and map markers that motivate you to ignore the rest of the world and commit to being wanderer without peripheral vision, on this linear path to the end. It’s lazy, inconsiderate, and one of the biggest reasons I can’t 100% a game anymore. So without further adieu…
Let the Side Quests Begin
I can always sense it coming in the early hours of an RPG. I’ve been introduced to characters and their dramatic plot line, I’ve figured out the basics of the combat system, and the restrictive starting area has just come to a conclusion; unless I’m playing Final Fantasy XIII, where I need to complete at least 3/4ths of the game before I see anything resembling an open world. In most cases I’ve been unleashed and allowed to explore the more or less expansive world as I see fit. However, I start to notice a development with my objective list that causes my stress level to rise before I’ve fully dove in. It’s as if every 20 steps that I take in-game is also accompanied by a new objective or map marker. While this should bring me excitement by letting me know that there’s much more to this game than the 1-2 hour introduction I just powered through, the fact that I now have a dozen map points to follow at the exact same time makes me wish I had never saved those imposing villagers from rapacious highwaymen.
This was the feeling I experienced when playing The Witcher 3. For starters, I think this is an excellent game, but it’s still guilty of unloading too many of these side objectives on you at once. While the side quests in The Witcher 3 definitely raise the bar on quality compared to recent titles, there’s very little pacing. Having to manage main quests, side quests, hunting quests, crafting quests, ongoing quests, collection quests, and racing quests is just madness. I found myself locating the nearest map marker and rushing to complete it, just to get it off my damn list! This is not the atmosphere I am looking for, especially in such a quality RPG like The Witcher 3.
This unregulated side questing system is not the only way to do things. There was a time where these objectives went by a set of standards and needed to fit organically into the main progression of your character. Remember in Final Fantasy VII when Yuffie went all Gone in 60 Seconds and made off with your f@#*&! Materia? You didn’t need a map marker to tell you to make our way over to Wutai, where you would be thrown into a few hours of dramatically divergent story line that would ultimately reward you with awesome gear and a little tickle on your weeaboo spot. You also had the freedom to engage in this side quest at any point before the final disc of the game. My point is that sometimes it makes more sense to strategically implement these memorable side quests as the game develops, rather than placing a bunch of simultaneous detours to make you forget that you were actually playing a game with a story line.
Dear Quest Diary, You Fill Me With Sad, Anxious Regret
Just like Navi, the incessant fairy companion from Ocarina of Time, the modern quest journal has become a source of resentment and exasperation for me. Through confusing layouts and unhelpful synopses, I have to fight back the urge to hold down that tempting “abandon quest” button until all my troubles disappear. This goes hand in hand with the previously discussed issue of too many side quests, as the quest journal wasn’t that necessary until many games began adopting the practice of jamming an unnecessary amount of objectives down your throat. Now we apparently need a book to keep track of everything.
One game that almost lost my interest entirely because of their shameful quest journal was Destiny. For the life of me I can’t effectively navigate this jumbled mess of a log even to feel like I’m making any in-game progress. The journal is separated by pages that can show only four quests per page. There’s also no particular order or sorting method in place to keep your quests organized, so you’re left fumbling through a list of icons and colors that present night and day differences next to one another. You are allowed to “track” up to 4 quests at a time, which is probably the most useless feature available since the travel map makes up its own mind about what it’s going to recommend. There are probably a lot of Destiny players that can just fire off into their spaceship/loading screen and haphazardly enter the next grinding session, but this isn’t my style. I commit to abnormal things like: listening to dialogue, reading lore, and paying attention to the stories behind the quests that I’m taking part in. I know I’m asking for a lot from Destiny here, but there’s got to be an easier way to deliver a mission log.
Take Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic for instance. The quest log in KOTOR was clearly designed to keep you organized during your journey and ensure that you didn’t forget any of the important events along the way. Each mission has a basic, easy to recall title and even includes helpful modifiers such as “Bonus Mission” or “Location.” The descriptions that are included with each mission log are more than helpful, including information about who and where the quest came from, what you need to do do to complete the quest, and what will happen if you do complete it. They even grant you the option to control the way the quest journal is sorted so you can view it the way that makes the most sense to you. Lastly, there is this amazing feature called “Quest Items” placed at the bottom of the menu. This is where you will find any important items that are associated with a quest line; not annoyingly tacked on to your inventory where it doesn’t belong. I would be satisfied if this system was implemented in every RPG from this point on.
Repeat Stuff, Repeat Stuff, Repeat Stuff
To finish off this gripe session I want to ask a very simple question: When did all role-playing games adopt the model of the MMORGP (Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game)? It seems like enjoyable side quests have fallen off the face of the earth, while monotony and repetition are free to pillage the land viking style. If you need further clarification, I’m referring to fetch quests, collection quests, delivery quests, locate quests, or go talk to this person, then talk to that person, then come talk to me again quests (here’s a helpful list). These types of missions are okay when I’m running around with friends on Final Fantasy XIV, but when I’m riding solo with a single-player RPG, I want engagement. This obsession with adding content to make a game as long as possible needs to end. Films aren’t delivered with four extra hours of shallow footage and books aren’t stretched out with an additional 200 pages of the same story arch over and over. Why do video games need to sacrifice the value of their organic story progressions by stuffing tedious tasks into every open spot?
I’m going to shed some light on Fallout 4 in this respect. Again, I found the game quite enjoyable and it has secured a spot as one of my favorites in the series. Still, every now and then I feel the agitation surface as I’ve been assigned what feels like my 100th minutemen quest or fetch/kill quest from Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum over at Cambridge Police Station. Games like Fallout 4 deliver an extremely rich environment for storytelling possibilities. Instead of throwing a ton of templated missions my way, develop a miniature plot line with variety or create an story arc that involves some impact on the surrounding environment. This is probably where some would argue that larger games require a certain amount of filler to meet the content quota that gamers have come to expect, and to that I say balderdash!
I’m going to fight fire with fire on this one and bring up The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. It’s 10 years later and I can still recall so many details and significant moments from this masterpiece of an RPG. The side quests in Oblivion weren’t just well thought out, they were inspired. Each task felt unique and fit like a puzzle piece into the foundation of the world. When my attention was pulled away from the main quest line, it was because each sub-quest line was so interesting that I needed to see it through to the end before continuing on. They weren’t just filler objectives added to give me experience and gear, they were stories being constructed out of everything the game had to offer. By the time I arrived at the end of Oblivion, I felt as if I had reshaped the world through my character. Because one of the main the main points of RPG’s is to tell stories through a creative atmosphere, I don’t see why this would be so hard to reinstate.
Can you think of any games that might have let you down with their questing systems? How about a game that has stood the test of time in this sense? We want to hear from you in the comments!