Good sidequests…where they at?
Short answer: They’re there, but they’re hiding. With the glut of open-world games nowadays, they need sidequests to supplement content for their massive worlds. More sidequests sounds appealing at first, but the more you play these games, the more you realize how shallow the objectives are. “Get me x amount of y, then I will give you z.” It’s mindless busy-work that feels like a job. It isn’t entertaining, and it isn’t engaging.
But I am here to detail what makes a side quest good, and how to spice up a lot of simple activities into truly special events.
WHAT IS A SIDE QUEST?
A side quest is a small, optional event in a video game that branches away from the main story. They can last minutes with a simple task, or span hours with a vast array of objectives. They usually provide the player a tangible reward, whether it be a cut-scene, new equipment, experience, or gold. Rewards aren’t limited to these options, but they are the most common.
But, in general, all side quests give the player a task to complete, and provide a reward.
HOW TO MAKE SIDEQUESTS ENGAGING AND MEANINGFUL
1.) Expand on the game’s world
A side quest that requires you to grab 5 plants and bring it to somebody is not very interesting. However, finding out these plants can be extracted into a toxic liquid is slightly more intriguing. And, perhaps, this toxic liquid is meant to be used to kill a certain person or group that the quest giver does not like. And, maybe, just maybe, this allows you to learn a bit about this enemy group, and why the quest giver wants this liquid.
It is an opportunity to build on the world, and not pad out the game. It doesn’t even require voicing lines, creating new environments, or conjuring new monsters. All it takes is a handful of text boxes, item descriptions, and a few conversations to suddenly turn this dull affair into something that expands your knowledge of the world while simultaneously integrating fun game play with it. It is a blend of player-driven discovery and storytelling.
Context is very important for side quests. MMO’s have a lot of flavour text for their quests to give them more personality, but they aren’t succinct enough to engage players’ attention. That is just the nature of MMO’s. However, in a single player game with no time constraints, these tiny additions are very doable.
A memorable example of a world-building side quest can be found in The Witcher 3. You come across a group of bandits, and they begin attacking you. It’s a fairly simple fight that goes off without a hitch. After your victory, you find a small note on one of the bandits. You find out he’s a father, and that he’s lying about his position as a bandit to support his family. Within his culture, if you aren’t in a respectable position, you are nothing. This note likely took a few minutes of writing, but it gives so much personality to the world. It lets you learn about a family, a father, and the mentality of a micro-culture.
Not every single side quest needs to be world changing. That’s impossible. But a small addition of lore and extra content adds a lot of perspective and character to a fantasy world. It’s an opportunity to differentiate oneself from another. World-building gives games identity. Each session of gaming, the player is able to become more engaged with a product, get sucked into its world, and become a fan. (If they become a fan, they may buy your endless FunkoPops.)
Breath of the Wild is a great game (that I may have been a tad too kind to in my review of it), but it is undeniable that 90% of its side quests are clearing check-boxes of materials. It especially feels like BotW’s Hyrule can get extended lore through exploration and explanation. But I guess Nintendo would rather sell more copies of the Hyrule Historia. Fair enough.
2.) The tiniest bit of spoken dialogue
All it really takes to give quest givers some life is a bit of voiced dialogue. This gives each NPC a bit more charisma and flourish.
There can be paragraphs of writing in World of Warcraft, but players will skip to the bottom and see the obvious, bold text saying what they need. It’s a waste of time, and it may not as well be present. It probably takes hours to write all of the quest dialogue, days of paid work, and it’s pointless. Because the character and the game aren’t presented as interesting.
However, you can manipulate this conditioning to make these quests meaningful. Rather than extensive lines of text, give them a few lines of dialogue instead. Have them tell a microscopic story about how much this sword you want them to fetch is worth. Say it is a family heirloom, then give the player the OPTION to find out more. Don’t bombard them with a ton of generic information they don’t care about. Nobody wants anything forced down their throat unwillingly.
3.) Tone the total down
To make side quests feel more special and important, lower the amount of them. It saves effort, makes each quest feel more important, and their rewards greater and memorable.
When a player goes to a new town, and all of a sudden, they see 10 exclamation marks appear on the map, the thought that goes through their head isn’t “oooh! How exciting!” It’s “alright, let’s get the checklist ready. I know where the next few hours of my life are going.” It becomes routine, and it can make progressing through a game a dreadful slog.
I can’t be the only person who has been caught in the loop of being unable to progress the main story because I’ve felt compelled to complete everything.
And I also can’t be the only one who quits an open-world game because they get bored and overwhelmed with all of the repetitive content.
I can understand the desire to increase a game’s length by over packing it with side quests. Not only does it sound appealing to shout “MY GAME HAS HUNDREDS OF HOURS OF CONTENT,” It can also differentiate one player’s play-through from another. But having a massive influx of quests with no interesting reward other than gold and experience will ultimately make them a no-brainer to complete anyways.
People will pick up quests that require them to “kill 5 of X” or “grab 6 of Y”, because they don’t need to think about it. Nothing about these quests impact the world, and they’re just supplemental to player progression. A player can complete these just by playing normally.
If you have to include generic side quests, then reduce the amount of them. It makes each side quest a tad more important if it feels like they’re a rarity.
4.) NO EXCLAMATION MARKS
See that? I’ll post it again for you.
DON’T. DO. THIS.
IT TURNS NPC’S INTO FORGETTABLE MACHINES, AND MAKES THE VIDEO GAME YOU ARE TRYING TO CREATE LESS IMMERSIVE. ALLOW THE PLAYER TO TALK TO NPC’S WHO INTEREST THEM, AND HEAR THEIR TALE/REQUEST THAT WAY. IT IS CONSIDERABLY BETTER.
Sorry for yelling.
5.) Multiple Methods Awarded
Continuing off of the point of reducing the amount of side quests, multiple player methods of completion should be rewarded for the scarce amount of objectives.
One method, that is admittedly the hardest and most time consuming, is to enable the game’s mechanics and systems to allow for multiple angles of approach. A prime example of this is Fallout: New Vegas’ side quests. In this game, let’s say you were requested to assassinate a person, and you were hired by a mercenary leader. You could just go and kill that person, or, you can use your charisma and speech to talk the assassin out of the plan. Or, you could sneak in on your target, pickpocket them, and find out that they have some interesting information on the person who hired you. Or, even more interesting, you can kill the person who asked you to do their dirty work, and get in good graces with your target.
I realize a series of multiple objectives and methods is incredibly difficult, and may not be possible for certain game engines, but this can lead to replayability. I don’t care that Dragon Age: Inquisition is 80+hours. I played it for 5 and got bored. But I’ve beaten Fallout New Vegas 4 times, repeating sidequests as well, and I found that it accommodated a different play-style each time.
If you do not wish to tackle alternative gameplay solutions, you can have player decisions in dialogue make real differences. The consequences don’t even need to be long-lasting, but at least have some callback to a choice a player made. Maybe stopping an execution by murdering the executor makes you a hero to some, but it could paint you as a monster in the general populace’s eye. Just tiny dialogue mentions, or even a small title that reflects your reputation, like in Skies of Arcadia, makes players feel like they’re really special.
Sidequests in games are really good! They’re a fantastic way to expand upon a world, encourage player progression, and tell their own individual short stories.
But they need to be handled carefully. Forcing them into games ruins their potential, and sullies the term. Terrible sidequests have given open-world games a bad name, but they can be so much better!
You can trust a guy who has never made a video game before.
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