The Anatomy of Sidequests

I mentioned in passing in the Arc Rise Fantasia post that I hate quest systems with the passion of a thousand Kefkas. Even entirely inoffensive variations, like ARF’s, rub me the wrong way, and I think I’ve decided why that its: Because it runs counter to what I think a sidequest should be, what its function is.

For the purposes of this post, I define a “quest system” as an NPC who tells you to do something trivial, like collect ten bear asses or go to Bumsfuck and bring back Arbitrary Object X, then stands there and waits for you to do it. Then you go out and do it, then check back with the quest-giver for your reward (which is generally valuable but trivial). A lot of modern RPGs have a “guild” that hands out these kinds of quests, ad nauseum. I personally trace this to the enormous popularity of World of Warcraft and Monster Hunter, which are entirely built around this type of gameplay, but in the games that so vex me the quest system is optional.

I hate this kind of content because 1) it’s almost always beyond tedious to actually do, and 2) they don’t add anything to the game, aside from gameplay hours.

To me, an effective sidequest is one that you would do even if there was no reward at all. You do them because they take you someplace where you wouldn’t have any other reason to go, show you something you wouldn’t have any other opportunity to see, or allow you to do something that’s impressive or unique. If you get a cool item or weapon out of it, that’s fine too, but what you’re really after is the experience of having done it.

Take Chrono Trigger. All of the sidequests in that game give you impressive unique equipment and new abilities… but they also allow certain characters to display their development and reach closure. Marle reconciles with her father and ousts the impostor chancellor at the same time you’re forging the Rainbow Sword. Frog helps Cyrus’s soul find peace and upgrades the Masamune in the bargain. Lucca restores the forest… and her mother’s legs. A power gamer will do these things just to get the sweet loot, but in the process will see some of the most touching and important scenes in the game. They’re optional, but you’d do them anyway because they’re so well integrated into the characters and the experience that you can’t not do them, reward or no.

Contrast this with the new side-content added for the DS remake. This stuff is entirely pointless. It earns you great gear, but it consists of nothing but long, tedious fetch quests and cheap boss fights. There are no meaty character bits or story clarifications to motivate you here, you’re almost explicitly doing it just for the in-game rewards (which are mostly just overkill anyway due to the fact that Chrono Trigger is piss easy). Nobody liked the new material in Chrono Trigger DS, and it’s easy to see why.

Another semi-famous example of this in action is Majora’s Mask’s Kafei and Anju side-quest. That quest is long and has to be done at least twice to get everything from it… and the reward at the end, in terms of actual objects the player receives, is the Couples’ Mask, which has no use except to earn one (1) Heart Piece. But nobody does the Kafei/Anju quest to get the Couples’ Mask, they do it do see Kafei and Anju’s doomed love play itself out against all odds. The reward is not just some stray Heart Piece, in that sense — it’s seeing the lovers face armageddon together. It’s central to the game, one of its most important and enduring scenes, despite being completely unimportant to both the gameplay and the strict “collect the macguffins and win the game” Zelda plot.

This can be taken even further. Tales of Symphonia has loads and loads of sidequests, and most of them give you (in terms of gameplay) either nothing at all or something of questionable use, like a title. However, much of the character development and key story sequences are hidden away in these scenes, enough that something is lost if you don’t do them. Yuan won’t give you anything if you help him find his ring — but doing so puts his character and his motives in an entirely different light, one which will otherwise be lost on the player. Investigating Kratos’s actions during the game’s second act gives you nothing at all — except some insight into what his (and Zelos’s) plans are, which are merely subtextual in a surface reading of the game. Doing these quests opens up a part of the game for you that would otherwise be closed, which is worth doing even if it doesn’t help you kill monsters.

There are other sidequests in the game that will help you kill monsters, should you do them… but those have a different appeal. Let’s look at Abyssion, the game’s incredibly tough bonus boss. To fight him, you need to find the nine Devils’ Arms and deliver them to him. After you win, the Devils’ Arms are returned to you and powered up (they gain one point of additional power for each enemy the wielder has killed over the course of the game, making them potentially the strongest weapons in the game)… but if you can beat Abyssion, you don’t need the Devils’ Arms. No, the real reward for fighting Abyssion is simply the opportunity to fight him. He’s an incredibly fast and tough fighter who can really dish out the damage, and battling him is one of the tensest, most exhilarating experiences you can have in the game. Beating him is a true accomplishment, a sign of mastery. That’s the real reward in the Devils’ Arm sidequest, not the ability to kill the final boss in a few hits.

I really grew fed up with quest systems after Dragon Quest IX, in which there are legions of quests that are universally terrible. The ones that aren’t horribly generic “go kill 10 Xs” or “go kill Xs until one drops a Y” are, if anything, even worse, forcing you to jump through increasingly convoluted and pointless hoops just to earn armor you’ve already obsoleted or alchemy materials you can make yourself. They’d be easy enough to ignore, but some of the worst quests in the game are required to unlock new classes, meaning that much of the game is sealed away behind this pointless time-wasting. Does anyone really find this fun? I can see putting hundreds of hours into the grottoes or alchemy systems — that’s not really my bag, but I know some people enjoy that kind of munchkin power fantasy. But banging your head against the wall for hours hoping the RNG will eventually take pity on you and let you win? Does this really register as “fun” for anyone with a working human mind?

It’s not hard to see why quest systems appeal to designers — they’re no-effort ways to pad your game in a genre that prides itself on its gargantuan length — but what I can’t understand is why the players haven’t revolted yet. Quest systems are not fun! Put some effort into your sidequests and integrate them into the overall experience! The world will be a better place for it.

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