Written by Skullduggery, PSHG Team Writer
One thing I always enjoy in an open world game are the side quests. At this point in time, this is a feature that’s a staple. An absolute must. If you’ve made an open world game with even some or all the elements of an RPG without side quests, then you’ve ignored what is probably the most sought-after feature of a game of that nature. It’s a bit like releasing a game that doesn’t have a single player mode. When I hear friends of mine talk about open world games, the part of the game we talk about the most tends to be the side quests. The main quests are all well and good, but the true enjoyment of an open world game comes from having to explore, find new places, new characters and, as a result, new quests to do. It’s one of the defining factors of an open world game and is often what gives it the most appeal to people.
But what makes for a good side quest? It can be done in many different ways, to always keep the players surprised and interested. I would say that that’s the greatest challenge of putting side quests into a game. The attempt to make them all feel different from one another. There is definitely a right way and a wrong way to do side quests in gaming.
This is admittedly where I am going to be my most subjective, because for the duration of this article I’m going to put Bethesda on the highest pedestal I can find. The way I see it, Bethesda has discovered the much coveted “correct way” of doing side quests. Sure, there is a simple enough formula to them. You get an objective, you travel somewhere, fight monsters, complete the goal, return to the quest giver, get your reward.
But that’s a given. That’s just how they work in any game that features them. But what Bethesda has figured out is how to make the stories of these side quests interesting, particularly with the Elder Scrolls series. This is no doubt due to the high fantasy setting of the games. There is simply no limit on the events that can happen. The side quests often have a different feel from the previous one before it. Having to help a woman find her missing painter husband who is trapped inside his latest work of art, has to be one of the more memorable quests from Oblivion for me. It adds this strange depth to the world, to encounter these strange events and characters along your path of the main quests. To me, it’s what makes the game truly feel like on odyssey. That your character has been going on this long journey and had these unique experiences.
But also, and more importantly, the side quests offer you a chance to put your character on opposite ends of the morality spectrum. Granted, most of the side quests did put you on the path of the heroic and often didn’t deviate from it. But this was changed up with the Dark Brotherhood quests. For those possibly unfamiliar, in Oblivion, if you murder in cold blood, you will receive an on-screen prompt informing you that someone unseen presence has witnessed your act.
The next time you sleep at an inn or one of your houses, you awake to find yourself in the presence of Lucien Lachance, a speaker of the Black Hand and a member of the Dark Brotherhood. You are given a target to kill in order to become part of this mysterious guild of assassins and murderers. It was a unique line of quests that ultimately differentiated itself in feel from the main quest line, but also most of the other side quests. To me, a good set of side quests within a game is one that will make you want to complete them all, regardless of how it affects the morality of your character. This has always been the case with me for games by Bethesda. I will generally not complete the main quest line until I have done each and every side quest there is available in the game’s world. It gives the player the chance to characterize their character any way they choose, which adds a whole new level of freedom for them.
Bethesda’s work on Fallout 3 also had this same nature. There were a wide variety of side quests, all with different flavors, ranging from bizarre, to dramatic, and some even just incredibly creepy (with some of the unmarked quests). While not a high fantasy setting like with Elder Scrolls, the post-nuclear apocalypse has it own trends that allow them to afford ways to create interesting and unique side quests. It’s a whole new world with a different set of rules, which serves as an excellent springboard. It all added to this feeling that you were in a living, breathing world with all kinds of fascinating stories happening outside of your own. You just had to find them. This is Bethesda’s greatest strength as a game developer.
But this brings me to my main point. I recently completed a review of Dead Island, and I did indeed finish the game. But, in contrast to my usual nature, I did not finish all of the side quests. Why? To be blunt, I felt no incentive to do so. There was no variety with the side quests. I enjoyed them at first, because I liked the idea of going around the island, encountering different survivors who needed help. Some were done well. One specifically I enjoyed was one I found while driving around the island. I saw a woman at the side of the road. I thought she was one of the zombies, so I simply ignored her. But then I heard her shouting for me to stop. So I stopped the car and jumped out. I approached her and she told me about how she was driving with her husband and something ran out in front of their car. The car careened off the road and he was trapped underneath it now. My mission was to pry open the car door while fighting off more of the infected. It struck me as unique, and realistic in a way as to what might happen in the event of a zombie apocalypse. Simply because it seemed it was very easy to miss that quest. It was possible for me to simply keep on driving and ignore this woman’s pleas for help.
But many times they simply fell into a state of obvious redundancy. It ultimately boiled down to incredibly formulated quest styles. Go here, find this person I know, tell me if they’re okay or not. Drive halfway across the island, fetch me these supplies, bring them back here. Or, my personal favorite, the escort quests. The truly worst case of incompetent NPCs. The escort quests were by far the worst, simply due to the fact that these NPCs have no sense of even the most basic survival skills. The one they seemed to forget the most is now running into a large group of the undead and getting everyone around you killed.
It just ended up giving me a feeling of being more of an errand boy. Just some unthinking, incredibly efficient automaton who is apparently powered only by doing mindless, repetitive tasks. That is the main reason I simply stopped. There just wasn’t the interest to pursue them more, because I knew what they were going to be like. It wasn’t worth wasting my time doing the same thing over and over.
My point is that a side quest shouldn’t simply be a list of errands that your character has to do for everyone in the entire world. I understand it partly in the case of Dead Island, because in a situation like this, many people would be doing what they can to survive, which would include gathering food, medicine and things to fortify the area they are held up in. But a side quest is a chance for the player to explore the world in a different way.
It’s entering a bit of a pinhole view into an infinitely larger world. While looking at things on a smaller scale, you are getting an expansion on the universe the game is set in. It’s how you get to know more about how the world works; what kind of people, factions, conflicts and various dangers are lurking out there. There is always something happening in the world. An infinite number of stories, happening at all times. For me, when it comes to grand, fantasy adventure stories, a side that always appeals to me are the events that happen around the main story. Sometimes they are completely unrelated, or are only barely related to those events, but they just add a much more rich amount of detail.
To me, it’s the difference between a childish drawing and a detailed painting of a nature scene. With the drawing, you get the basic idea and you understand the point coming across, but it doesn’t do much more than that. But if the painting ends up being much more captivating, you feel the need to examine every inch of it, noticing everything the painter has put into their work. There are a lot of small details that make the scene feel much more alive, as if what you’re seeing is real. That is what side quests are meant to be, in my opinion. The minor details that make the entire work seem real.