I recently dipped into Final Fantasy XIV, the latest game in the storied Japanese franchise. Friends and people I follow online were talking it up and it definitely had an allure, despite being a “Massively Multiplayer Online” (MMO) game—meaning it puts thousands of players together in a giant shared world where you can chat, fight and trade with others anywhere you go. I say “despite” because that also means it’s plagued with pointless side quests, ancillary tasks that are inconsequential to the game’s main story, yet often must be completed so the player can progress. In other words, they’re compulsory busy work.
I got right into making a fun-looking character, explaining to my fiancé that usually these games end up boring me because there’s so many annoying little tasks to do before one can get to the meat of the journey. I had hoped Final Fantasy XIV would be different, but soon enough I was fetching this thing, delivering that thing, collecting these things, taking those things to that place to trade them for the other thing, and doing endless chores for lazy characters that I cared less than little about.
My complaints aside, side quests are actually a staple of video games, and they’re not always terrible. They can easily be that extra kick that gets you something primo in the game. But all too often, and most notoriously in role-playing games like Final Fantasy, Skyrim and The Witcher, side quests are utilized as brainless drivel to fill the time between the stuff that’s actually fun and compelling. Does it have to be this way? I say absolutely not. But what’s the solution? What is it that makes side quests work in some games and suck in others? What can current adventures say about what makes a game’s side stories compelling rather than a slog? It’s complicated, but not impossible, to get it right. And there’s evidence of that in plenty of contemporary games.
Take a look at the bounty system in Destiny, the latest sci-fi shooter from Halo creator Bungie. You hit up what’s essentially a bulletin board, grab a handful of tasks, and get on your way. Don’t get me wrong—they’re still relatively pointless side quests. But here’s the difference: they’re super easy to complete, and they’re entirely optional. For many, like killing 100 enemies without dying or using certain types of weapons, you don’t have to change a thing about what you’re doing or the way you’re playing the game—you’ll complete them naturally as you play. Destiny isn’t a perfect game, but the bounty system sidesteps some common issues with side quests in other games.
Sometimes side quests simply don’t make sense within a game’s larger context, a point Playboy.com contributor Phil Owen hit on the head in his criticism of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. The Witcher 3 is an enormous game—and a good one, by many counts—but as Owen points out, its side quests clash directly with its main story. The game hinges on a classic race against time to save someone precious, but the side quests have protagonist Geralt getting—well, sidetracked, without so much as a complaint from the character. A game’s side quests should at best do something to enhance the main experience, or at least not undermine the main point of what the game is trying to do. The Witcher 3’s side quests unfortunately fail on both counts.
Look at the way Bloodborne, the latest super-challenging dark fantasy adventure from the developer of Dark Souls, unfolds. I’ll be the first to say I didn’t enjoy the game’s plot, confusing as it is, but there’s something to admire about the way it’s structured. What informal side quests there are in Bloodborne don’t feel like side quests at all. Throughout the game you’re rarely sure exactly what you should be doing, and at any point the environments you’re exploring and the enemies you’re facing might be part of the next big story event—or totally inconsequential to your progression through the game. You could literally trip into most of the “side quests” without ever knowing it, or even never find them altogether. In Bloodborne, it’s more about the journey than checking items and goals off a list, and besides optional “Chalice Dungeons” that present more environments to explore, nothing diminishes that journey or breaks your immersion.
It’s possible to give players more to do in games beyond their main stories—the whole point of side quests to begin with—in a way that doesn’t detract from the overall experience. I’m not saying it’s easy to find that balance, but history tells us it can be done. Nonsensical, time-wasting side quests like those found in The Witcher 3 or Final Fantasy XIV may have been excusable long ago, but the gaming industry has had a long time to figure out other solutions. There are plenty of games these days that do it right, so let’s stop letting the ones that don’t off the hook.
T.J. Denzer is a San Antonio-based writer and junkie for the art of storytelling in all forms. Some of his interests include creative writing, gaming, and attempting to convince his wife that pro wrestling is the truest human drama. You can find him on Twitter @JohnnyChugs.
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