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The Art of Side Quests

by on May 15, 2017
 

In the past few years, the open world genre has dominated the video gaming scene. A similar theme runs throughout all of them – a main plot line that is padded out with side quests. However, not all games are equal and not all of these extra tasks are equal either. The art of these side quests can often make or break a game, but before we begin to explore the mechanics of them, we must establish what they are.

The side quest is often taken for granted – it’s something to entertain the player in between their progress with the story. Yet, this is not true anymore. Before we go further, we must define one of these substories. They are tasks given to the player that generate some form of reward – be it an item, some advancement or interaction with the main plot, or gathering knowledge about the world.

The Simple Side Quest

The simplest and most base form of a subquest are those found in Ubisoft games, Just Cause 3, and numerous others. Just Cause 3’s Liberation side quests are a prime example of monotonous questing – go to x, kill everything, mission accomplished. In order to complete all liberation missions, you have to do this over one hundred times, with each one being a duplicate. These quests offer very little to the player – often simply changing part of the map to blue. They’re also the easiest for developers to make, and a way for them to artificially claim that their game has a long play time. Developers don’t need to write dialogue for these quests, weave them into the narrative, or focus on any character development.

Just Cause 3 Side Quests

A Small Sample of the Tedium

These subquests are found in different ways in many games – Assassin’s Creed viewpoints tasks, or in Far Cry 3’s liberation missions. They’re simple and repetitive for little to no pay off. I could never get past the opening hours of these games – the first hour in Just Cause 3 was genuinely entertaining. The first time you parachute into an enemy stronghold, and cause wanton mayhem is pure, simple fun. But even by the fifth or sixth time, it begins to wear thin, and the thought of doing it dozens of times is horrifying. It’s why the side quests in the next set of games are what side quests should aim to be like.

Side Quests With A Purpose

In the next set of games, I’ll be choosing side quests that stand out to me as prime examples of quality side quests. I understand there will be accusations of cherry picking quests from these games, and I understand where that argument comes from, but I disagree. The quality of the missions in the coming games are so much higher than those from Assassins Creed et al, that highlighting one or two standouts from those games is not equal to dozens of excellent ones in the coming games.

I believe here is where secondary tasks split into two formats – ones that do have an impact on the main plot, and ones that have no impact. The best example of this is the critically acclaimed Witcher 3. This game has received praise in almost every area, so there’s no need to focus on these strengths here. Where the game is strongest are the side quests, and they are what got me thinking about this aspect of game design.

The quests in the Witcher 3 are so ambitious, so well written, and so meaningful,  it has changed the way game narratives in role playing games should be built in future. There are so many examples of this to choose from, such as the Keira Metz storyline and the entire Bloody Baron chain.

Yet, one stands out above the rest to me, and it’s the rescue of the mages from Novigrad. The quests revolves around smuggling mages, who are being persecuted by witch hunters, out of a large city – it may sound bog standard, and I agree – it’s a simple escort and kill type mission. But the hook of the mission comes after completion – you’ve rescued the mages, but you haven’t cured the root of the problem. The witch hunters in the city having lost their victims simply turn their attention to someone else – the nonhumans in the city.

 

A Witcher 3 Side Quest Location

The Scene of the Rescue

Watching the cutscene unfold, describing the burnings of nonhumans hits the player with a deep realization – trying to do the right thing doesn’t always produce the expected outcome. The quest is so meaningful, and sets such a grim tone for the world, it’s a perfect side quest. It transcends the simplicity of similar quests, and works on many different levels. It builds the world around the player and it develops the story’s characters. Moreover, it does even more than that – it expands out of just being a video game. It passes on a lesson to the player, a philosophical maxim for the player to digest about morality in their own world.

The Philosophical Sub Quest

This quest allows a segue into another game that’s subquests are similar in scope to the Witcher, yet vastly different – the indescribable, flawed, perfect Yakuza 0. Similar to the Witcher, the side quests are fully scripted and meaningful uses of time. Differing, they’re all completely free from the main plot, and can all be ignored if the player chooses. Doing so would be such an egregious mistake, it would make the purchase of this game a waste of money. The true joy of Yakuza comes from the bizarre and entertaining side missions. Like the Witcher, there are so many to choose from – the protection of a Michael Jackson character as he moonwalks down a Tokyo street, to rescuing a woman from an Osakan cult, to teaching a dominatrix in a public park. The player can tackle these missions in any order they wish, as they are all standalone, self contained stories. They differ from most typical side quests in games – after completion the player is usually given an item. But this is insignificant in the face of the valuable reward.

Each sub story contains some kind of message – sometimes a hamfisted one, yet enlightening. A standout example is when one of our protagonists, Kazuma Kiryu is roped into being a TV producer on a food show. After navigating through the show, you have a meeting with a real producer outside. This is where the real reward of the quest shines through. He explains how important it is to have passion when you work in TV, and how shows can inspire people in a variety of different ways. Some players may take this at face value and take this as TV being an important artistic medium. This undervalues the sentiment however – the producer is emphasizing that passion in all things is important. Dedicating yourself to whatever craft you enjoy, and trying to make it the best it can be, is what separates the mediocre from the best. This is where Yakuza’s substories excel. Like The Witcher, it moves beyond the TV screen and imposes itself on the player’s mind.

What Does It All Mean?

When we contrast the different styles of side quest, we can see how important they are to modern video gaming. An exceptional one can do so much more than be busy work for the player to inflate play time. It can leave the player with so much more than a simple ingame item, it can leave them with a new mindset.

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