While once a tradition found almost exclusively in RPGs, sidequests are now found in most games with an open-world, or semi-open-world format, such as Assassin’s Creed, Grand Theft Auto, and the Batman: Arkham series. In most instances, these ancillary tasks are designed with the strengths of the genre and game in mind, but they still often feel hollow and valueless because they provide little more than a brief distraction from the events and themes of the main plot. Developers seem to see only one way to remedy this fundamental fault in sidequests—the attempt to dress them up through lore or some kind of attempt at emotional connectivity—but fixing the perception of such tasks requires far more effort than that.
Fetch quests, hunts, dungeon clearing, and collect-a-thons: these are the most prevalent forms that sidequests take, and while they are usually tailored in such a fashion as to take advantage of core gameplay principles, they rarely offer anything more than a temporary deviation. Grand Theft Auto V is a particularly egregious offender; the assassinations, hunting quests, and chasing of spaceship parts all tick both boxes of contributing to the lore of the game and making use of gameplay elements that players might not otherwise take advantage of, but they offer almost nothing to the player in terms of skill-testing or in-game rewards. Much the same sentiment can be applied to the Assassin’s Creed games, and many RPGs.
It often seems as though developers have their priorities backwards when it comes to sidequests. Rather than creating them in order to give gamers a reason to play, they are included because they are expected as a part of the value of a title. This practise ignores the time-constrained gamers who enjoy a short, sharper experiences who have limited interest in sprawling open worlds. Where this is harmful to the industry is that the popularity of massive games among both players and critics leads to a culture where a title like The Order: 1886 is heavily criticised because of its comparative brevity and perceived lack of replay value. With threat of funding cuts or cancellation looming if open-world norms are not adopted, system design is predicated that the easiest, more economical solution is the most efficient, but this design ethos is flawed because it does not give gamers a reason to play. However, not all open-world games commit the same offences.
Among the many titles that get sidequests wrong are a precious few that get them right, and thus deserve to be highlighted as exemplars of a way forward. The Batman: Arkham series’ Riddler puzzles are a near-perfect candidate insofar as they make use of the gadgets and skills granted to players in ways the core gameplay does not, while simultaneously testing player’s problem-solving capabilities and proficiency at the game.
Before continuing, I want to clarify that although I listed The Witcher: Wild Hunt alongside Dragon Age: Inquisition and Bethesda’s RPGs as examples of the increasing homogeneity of WRPGs in an article a short while ago (for which I was roundly and, perhaps, fairly criticised), I recognise that CD Projekt RED does sidequests better. Indeed, Wild Hunt’s sidequests are another set which are notably better than the norm in that they tie into the main themes and primary story arc of the game at times, while also challenging players’ skills, as James mentioned in his review.
Because of these traits, the sidequests in these games are more than simple padding to add to the perceived value of a game by stretching its overall length beyond fifty or a hundred hours, yet they are still somewhat lacking. The brevity of sidequests can also contribute to a sense of dissatisfaction, because of the perception that the lack of content means a lack of any meaningful thematic discourse. As already mentioned Wild Hunt proves that this is not necessarily the case, but when sidequests are more well known for sending players hunting for Nirnroots, gamers can be forgiven for holding mistaken beliefs.
Another distinct aspect common to sidequests in general is the lack of player agency that they allow for. Even more commonly than in campaigns, players are unable to deviate from a single path, utilise more than a single approach, or fail sidequests. Although mission timers are often derided, they could be one means by which such tasks are given weight. Another way is through more common implementation of systems similar to those found in L.A. Noire and the Mass Effect series, wherein the player’s mistakes are capable of influencing the outcome of a mission. Through the inclusion of such mechanics, alongside meaningful consequences for failure, these ancillary tasks that open-world developers are so fond of including may overcome their seemingly inherent shortcomings.
Although some developers have already succeeded in making sidequests feel like an integral part of the game, many do not even seem to be trying. Rather than including them to tick a box made necessary through focus testing, developers need to find ways to make them an integral aspect of the game by basing them more firmly in the systems, design ethos, and narrative, while also using them to challenge the skills of players.
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