The very first videogames were simple. You’d blast some invaders from space, or stomp on turtles in pursuit of a princess. The entire focus of a game was to reach the goal at the end, scoring the most points along the way.
Today, games are immensely more complicated. They’re open-world, and massively multiplayer, and often they’re not so much games as virtual playgrounds, asking you to carve out your own fun from the tools they offer. You’re not limited to just a series of levels that lead to the end boss, but have the option to partake in an endless series of side-quests.
It’s tricky to define what exactly a side-quest is. Ostensibly, it’s any activity that’s not necessary to finish the main game, an optional slice of content which might perhaps flesh out your surroundings and the game’s story, but isn’t required to complete it. They’re also a means for developers to provide a reason to return to a game after completion, enticing you back into the world rather than selling your disc to your local Gamestop.
But this definition is far too broad; so for the purpose of this article, side quests will be considered in the context of role-playing games only.
Side quests are present in almost every role-playing game. They break up the pacing of the main story, and offer incentives to inquisitive players who venture out of his or her way. These incentives can vary from extra experience or rare items, to just shedding new light on a character or exploring the story from a different angle.
These miniature adventures come in all different shapes, sizes and colors. They can be as brief slaying a specific beast, or as long as the item trading quests in many Zelda games. One could even consider the Fighting Gym from Pokemon Red & Blue to be a side quest. You don’t have to beat it: It doesn’t advance the story or give you any key item. The incentive is to be given the chance to choose between Hitmonlee and Hitmonchamp.
It’s almost expected that a RPG will have plenty of side quests. It’s a feature that’s become inherent to the genre, and the quality of a game’s side quests have a big impact on its overall reception. Naturally, some games are better than others; if almost every RPG has side-quests, we’re bound to experience a dramatic scale varying from the terrific to the tedious. Not all side quests are created equal. Some are outstanding and add depth and charm to their game, while others prove to be an annoying distraction. Creating compelling side quests that are organic to the gameplay experience is a big challenge for developers.
So what makes a good side quest?
First-and-foremost, are the incentives. You’re not going to get a player to scour the map for an item, or go out of his/her way to hunt a monster for 5 pieces of gold. Much like in real life, the rewards need to be appropriate for the amount of work required. Many games do a great job of this. Completing quests will grant experience, a large bounty, a rare item, and more. It’s a balancing act, because you want to offer players a tantalizing reason to venture down the path less traveled, but you don’t want the rewards to be too good, because then players will feel like they have to do all the side-quests.
Square’s 1997 hit Final Fantasy VII treads this balance exceptionally well. You certainly didn’t have to complete any of its side quests, but you’d be a fool not to. With incentives like new weapons, powerful summons and even optional playable characters, you just had to take advantage of a few of the many optional quests. Sink time into racing and breeding Chocobos at the Golden Saucer, and you could find yourself with a rare Golden Chocobo – able to easily traverse land and sea, and granting you access to the game’s most powerful Summon materia – Knights of the Round.
But besides that, FFVII has a lot of other optional quests – party members Yufi and Vincent are only obtained through some dedicated digging, while a number of optional bosses are hidden out in the wilds for you to uncover and defeat. Which brings up another important question: how many side quests should a game have? Is there a point where optional content ceases being an incentive and instead becomes a chore, or is bigger really better?
Well, that depends on the game. A bigger and longer game will usually have more to do than a shorter game, but that doesn’t mean that they should pack it to the ceiling with quests. For example, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is a fine RPG, but contains far too many side quests which feel as though they’re present simply to pad out the experience. We spent so much time completing quests in that game that we forgot what the main story was and what we were supposed to be doing. It started to feel like going through a busy email inbox. You’d try to read and respond to all your messages, but every time you would delete one, you’d get five more. It doesn’t take much for a game to stop being fun, and to start feeling like work.
Eventually, you reach a point of diminishing returns, where the effort required for completing quests doesn’t match the rewards. Even if you’re promised a chunk of experience or a rare item, nobody wants to do seven fetch quests in a row. Because fetch quests are boring. Going to one area to get and item and bringing it to someone in another area might help to extend playtime, but it’s not particularly fun. Unless we’re playing some kind of delivery-man simulator, we expect a little more substance. Tales of Xillia has a lot of fetch quests, but at least sometimes whoever had the item you were looking for didn’t want to give it up without a fight, so it wasn’t entirely monotonous.
Another major staple of side quest are kill quests, or hunts. “Monsters attacking the highroad? No problem, send the newly arrived party of strangers to fight for your town.” Kill quests are usually more exciting than fetch quests because, you know, you get to kill things. You feel like you’ve earned whatever rewards you get because you had to win a challenging battle. However, these too can begin to feel repetitive unless they’re handled in the right way.
Take the hunts from Final Fantasy XII. They’re organized in a central location, so you don’t have to travel all over the world to accept them, and completing them levels up your clan – so you feel like you’re part of a team. The hunts themselves are scaled nicely, too. You start out hunting a tomato that you can defeat with ease, and end up battling an enormous dragon with 50 million hit points that literally takes hours to beat.
The hunts work because they are focused and organized, and don’t feel like they were slapped onto the game at the last minute. Surely the best side-quests are the ones that feel integral to the main game, like Blitzball from Final Fantasy X, or rebuilding Colony 9 from Xenoblade Chronicles. You want to complete them because they’re either important to the story, or you have some vested interest in them. If a game’s story is so good that you feel like you have to complete a side-quest, because you care about the people and problems involved, the developer is doing something right. Planescape: Torment provides a huge number of optional side-quests – many of which players will never see – but each one fleshes out the background and character of the numerous personalities within its world.
Compare this to a game like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. In theory, you can play the game forever – but the vast majority of its side quests are randomly-generated, consisting of little more than delivery errands – which add nothing to the background of the world – and their rewards are frequently worse than the equipment you already own. They’re simply padding, existing to fill out an otherwise relatively empty world.
Of course, the inventive for completing a side quest can just be that it’s plain fun to do so. There’s nothing wrong with that. We don’t need to be promised a fancy reward if we get to battle the former vice president wearing a cape (South Park: The Stick of Truth). It’s just hilarious and fun, and a nice distraction from the main plot; which proves that there’s no one correct formula for crafting a memorable side quest, but there are definitely some common trends. They need to be more varied and complicated than simply repeating fetch and kill quests. The rewards need to match the level of effort required, and they should have a strong relation or significance to the characters and story. If all else fails, they should at least be as memorable as shooting someone in the face.