Crafting the Experience vs. Sidequests

Imagine you’re reading a book, or watching a movie, or whatever you’re into. It’s still in the exposition, and the hero’s just received the call for some big epic quest. Oh, woe is us! The dark lord, Slapdick the Tormentor, ruler over these lands for the past 86 years, is now letting loose his last gasps of life on his deathbed! Normally, this would be cause for celebration, but in an effort to make sure nobody in the world outlives him, he’s engaged an ancient global-destruction magic! The mages of old, foreseeing this would come to pass, instilled a holy bloodline with the power to cancel that magic, but only by activating magic stones hidden in the most monster-infested dungeons around the world. Unfortunately, members of that bloodline were universally bad with women, and so you, Hammercles von Chunkmeier, are the only descendant left! You must save us! You’re our only hope!

And so, noble Hammercles sets off on his great and fearsome quest to activate the stones and save the world. Well, almost. First he has to tend his livestock, make sure they’ll be alright while they’re away. Then he has to write a farewell letter to his mother. Then, on his way out of town, the local cleric asks for his help collecting herbs for healing poultices, and what kind of hero would he be if he left his healer poorly stocked? And so on, for hours and hours of screentime or chapters and chapters of pages.

That’d be a pretty miserable story, wouldn’t it? The author would be completely ruining the experience there. It wouldn’t matter how epic the quest was, you’re just sitting through the granular experiences of this guy you’ve yet to find reason to care about. The pacing’s all ruined, the tension so masterfully built up by the intro is all gone, and your time is being wasted. Readers will experience a story as they well, through their own individual lens, but even so, it’s up to the author to craft it, to build things towards the story they’re really trying to tell. What was the author thinking?

I had that experience recently. I was in for an epic story, yet ended up just grinding through a huge amount of mostly-meaningless minutia. Save for one major difference. In that case, it wasn’t the author who had failed in crafting a good experience. It was all on me.

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Dragon Age: Inquisition opens up with some really massive stakes. The sky itself has torn in twain and is pumping demons out into the world. You’re the only survivor of the massive strike that caused it all, and the world can’t decide whether to worship you or blame you for it. What quickly becomes clear, though, is that you’re the only one with the power to close that tear and stop the demons from coming through. A really powerful opening, all in all.

Then, once you’ve gone through the starting mission, it dumps you out into the Hinterlands, a sprawling, expansive area with much to explore and lots to do, with no more direction than “Hey, go talk to this lady, then, you know, whatever.” It essentially leaves you at the mercy of the many, many sidequests in the region. In retrospect, it’s obvious that the developers intended you to just hang out there until you got bored and come back later on for another round of sidequests, what with part of the area being blocked off until later in the game, the few enemies too strong for you in the first round, and the fact that new sidequests keep being added as you progress. Thing is, they don’t really give you much in the way of guidance as to what you should or shouldn’t do. And I’ve been trained by hundreds of other games to always do all the sidequests, for they shall give you POWER. And so, while the world was reeling from the loss of its lady warpope, I was hunting rams to feed some refugees. While the populace lay in fear as to what would come out of the massive rift in the sky next, I was collecting herbs for some medicine. While the harbinger of the end of days moved his pawns around the land, I was racing my new horse. I was really good at it, too. Beat all three courses on my first try.

Anyways, by the time I was done in the Hinterlands, I had done pretty much everything they had to offer there. I was twelve hours in without doing much of substance, way overleveled, and bored with the game. Luckily, it picks up strongly afterwards, but the point remains that staying there for so long was really harmful to my experience.

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It reminds me a lot of Xenoblade Chronicles. That’s an excellent game, one of my favorite of last gen, in fact, providing a really transcendent experience… so long as you ignore sidequests. Each area is filled with stuff to do, packed to the brim with small sidequests, that, if you try and complete it all, will totally choke out all the plot, the new characters, the action, the areas, with just their sheer mass. The sidequests in Xenoblade Chronicles are like an invasive kudzu to a tree, you, the player, have to carefully keep them in check or they’re going to smother everything else. And yet, just like in Dragon Age: Inquisition, that stuff is only there as an option for me. Even though I have the urge to do everything doesn’t mean the game is making me do so.

If I had made a story where the side plots and minutia so completely got in the way of my pacing, flow, and main plot, my readers would have rightfully blamed me for ruining my work. It was my responsibility to craft the experience, after all. But I’m not a game developer. The types of stories we’ve been talking about here are told in partnership between the author and the player. And maybe this time, it’s the player who’s been messing it up.

When playing games, I have a strong impulse to try and finish up any side content I can as soon as it becomes available. It feels shameful to me to move on with something left undone. But that’s not always the right way to experience the game. It’s not wrong of the developer to choose not to carefully craft the experience, instead leaving a great mass of content strewn over a wide area for me to enjoy at my leisure. It’s not even wrong for them to refrain from giving me direction and letting me make my own way through the great fog of content. A lot of great video game experiences have been built that way. For me, there’s a bit of a learning curve in being able to let things go, but in these games, I have the power to craft some of my own experience. As the player, I need to learn to use it.

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12 responses to “Crafting the Experience vs. Sidequests

  1. In non-interactive mediums, sidequests are referred to as filler.

    Reminds me of when I played through Assassin’s Creed IV and I had almost all of the optional sidequests done… and then I realized I wasn’t even halfway through the plot. Because nothing important usually happens in sidequests, that’s when I mute the TV and turn on a podcast or music.

    I think it’s gotten into the heads of developers that the more sidequests they implement, the more content the game has and that with every installment, they try to outdo themselves. I think more studios need to go the Zelda route when it comes to sidequests in that they all yield a reward that significantly helps the player in some way such as extra health or a new ability. That way, there will be fewer of them, but the player has an actual motivation to complete them outside of “because they’re there”. It’s why I consider A Link Between Worlds one of the best games from 2013; the game is short, but there’s not a single ounce of fluff or filler to be found.

    • Yeah, good point. Although not all sidequests are bad. Skyrim and most of the Fallout series, for example, have almost all of their experience built on their sidequests, but because they’re so well-crafted, they really elevate the experience. Then again, not all filler’s bad either, and both of them give you content without putting the narrative forward, so yeah, that’s a really good parallel.

      The sad thing is that you can really tell when sidequests were put in there just to fill a quota. It reminds me of when developers give you fetch quests of make you revisit areas just to stretch the game out so they can call something a 40-hour epic on the box. More content is usually a good thing, but only if its quality content. I’d take a quick, good game like A Link Between Worlds over a bad long one any day.

      • I usually dread getting into a game that boasts 100+ hours of content because that typically translates to the developers drawing everything out mercilessly (such as apparently firing their editing team when making cutscenes). Bethesda is really good when it comes to designing sidequests in their games because they continually build a world in addition to giving the player a good reward for completing them.

  2. Curse that wicked Slapdick. He’s always up to no good. I think the points you make partially explain why games don’t make good movies. They often string along a simple story with stuff that isn’t vital for the purposes of having enough gameplay to justify the asking price.

    • I think you’v got a point there. Video games can handle small story details, minutia, and other things of the type normally found in sidequests a lot better than plenty of other mediums, what with the huge amount of time one spends there and the fact that all this stuff is largely at the reader’s option. So that often leaves them with a plot that’s propped up by the sidequests and isn’t large enough for a two-hour runtime, or a plot that’s way too long and complex to adequately fit in a movie.

  3. It isn’t anywhere near as hard as it would seem to make good, flavourful content for a games side stories and such, it just seems to be where they chuck off the amateur designers who do what they have seen before in every other game rather than actually look at the big issue and solve it or even attempt to do so.

    • Which is a shame. You’d think they’d take the opportunity to put their more experimental quests in their side contents, as there’s a lot less risk of failures dragging down the game.

      • Something silly on the side is nice, even something awful on the side is done and gone for anyone who just wants to get all of them done. A wide open playground for designers.

  4. ‘and bored with the game.’…. Excuse me???? Did you just… Oh, you did not say that about a Dragon Age game…

    😀

    I admit, The Hinterlands and side questing in general was heavy throughout this Dragon Age game, way more so than the others. Though in the others, the side questing usually had some kind of cut scene or something to go with it, so it felt less like just side questing and more getting involved. Where as in Inquisition, it felt disconnected when you went out to get stuff and then the NPC just kind of thanked you and that was that.

    But yeah, side questing can be a pain! I am better now at just picking what I want to do and leaving other stuff, but over the years, games have kind of compelled me to be a completionist, and it’s hard to break that mentality 😀

    • The amount of Side Quests in general in Inquisition aren’t necessarily a problem, although they leave the act of determining the pace and flow of the game up to the player, so when you get someone with a compulsion to just do everything as soon at becomes available, it drags the whole thing down. The Hinterlands is particularly heavy on this, because it’s so large, has so many sidequests, and comes so early in the game. I just finished up with the Exalted Coast, and those sidequests worked a lot better for me, as there’s not so many of them, so it wasn’t so long before I got back to the deliberately crafted parts of the game, and those actually felt like I was doing something. I was actively stabilizing the region, saving lives, and seeing the results of that, rather than just faffing about not doing much of anything in the Hinterlands because the main conflict there couldn’t end until the plot said it could.

  5. I had sort of the same experience–I think I was spoiled by DAO, where they did such a good job of each story segment opening up a bundle of related side quests, that I assumed it would be the same thing here. Instead, I felt like I did all the side quests with little plot advancement for a long time, and then when I finally hit the main story content, it zipped by in a blur and was game over before I knew it. Still loved the game, though.

    • Yeah, the game’s gotten a lot better as you go along. It really picked up after I learned that I have to handle the pacing of sidequests and main plot myself. Nowadays, I’m alternating clearing out side areas and dealing with the main missions, and it seems to work a lot better for me.

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