The Ultimate Side Quest: Memorable Diversions

One of the most defining characteristics of modern RPG’s is the addition of side quests; optional missions or activities that and allow players to deviate from the linear storyline and explore the open-world setting at their leisure. Sometimes these endeavors simply exist to offer players freedom to explore a world without the hand-holding guidance of a linear story. Often, they serve as an excuse to utilize the game’s core mechanics (climbing, stabbing, shooting), in exchange for some sort of reward (experience, gear, skills). At their worst, they are time-filling errands which are isolated from the larger world, and which often ignore any sense of urgency or continuity in the overall narrative. At their best, they are vignettes into the universe of the game that enrich the world, reward the player, feel connected to the overarching story.

So then, what are the necessary components of robust and meaningful side quests? We often judge a side quest by how entertaining it is from the position of a spectator. Is the dialog well-written? Do the characters interact in memorable ways? Is the landscape pretty to look at? Does the gameplay feel interesting or exciting? These aspects help describe the experience of the quest, but they cannot help to define or evaluate it. Ultimately, there are three characteristics to look for when evaluating a side quest, all of which indicate how well the quest performs its critical functions:

  1. Intriguing Discovery
  2. Impactful Reward
  3. Intentional Story

The first of these essential ingredients is an innate sense of discovery. Not all side quests need to be as large as the central story, especially if they involve non-narrative tasks like collecting, exploring or crafting. Regardless of the actual mission content, finding it in the world should spark intrigue in the player, as though they’ve stumbled upon something rare or hidden. Red Dead Redemption 2 is an excellent example of this approach, where unearthing tasks and treasures requires exploration of the vast open world.

Larger side quests, like protecting a wildlife photographer, digging up dinosaur bones, or hunting down gunslingers are only shown on the map when the area is explored, and are even given a proximity indicator rather than an exact location.

Smaller activities, like hunting grounds, homesteads, or flora locations, are etched onto the map once explored, and don’t have any selectable icons at all. Most of the world events, like hostile robberies, snake-bitten civilians and even a KKK rally, don’t appear on the mini map at all. Instead, there are audio and visual cues the player can choose to investigate as they ride freely throughout the land.

By structuring the game in this way, RDR2 creates an untamed countryside that the player must actually explore to experience, which makes finding hidden gems all the more meaningful. It also means that more time is spent interacting with the world and less time hopping from icon to icon on the mini map.

Compare this to a game like Horizon Zero dawn, where every machine, city, viewpoint, collectible, and hunting ground has its own indicator. In this world, the element of true discovery is limited, because even the rarest treasures, like the mysterious Cauldrons or the locked power-cell bunker, are clearly marked for anyone to find.

While Horizon’s mucky marshlands and dusty desserts are still filled with fantastic eye-candy, the flood of information becomes overwhelming, detracting from the joy of stumbling upon something that feels secret and rare. Many of the side quests in Red Dead and Horizon are actually quite similar (especially when it involves hunting and crafting), but they have notably divergent ways of leading the player to them. Aloy’s world guides, saying “go here, find this,” while Arthur Morgan’s asks a question “what else is out there?”

However, instilling a sense of discovery in the player, as enticing as it may be, is not enough to turn a mediocre side quest into a memorable one. The second critical component is what drives most gamers to engage with the quest in the first place: the reward. Generally speaking, the rewards typically provided to a player by completing a side quest boil down to three types: Utility, Narrative and Transactional.

Utility rewards are things like weapons, armor, support items, cosmetics or skills/abilities, in other words: something that noticeably impacts gameplay, and they are far and away the most valuable when it comes to tangible benefits. Because Utility rewards alter gameplay, they often result in a more lasting and memorable impact. In God of War for example, side quests often reward Kratos and Atreus with abilities like summoning celestial wolves or conjuring icy winds, both of which can be used again and again in combat to enliven the player’s experience. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is filled with encounters that present Kassandra with Atlantean tridents or Amazonian breastplates, which add fun flavors of fantasy to each fight.

Even non-RPG games like Mark of the Ninja, contain optional side-puzzles that grant access to new traps and gadgets, all of which force players to continually make decisions on how to best to stun, scare or silence enemies in future levels. Not every Utility reward needs to be a legendary game-breaker though, and Horizon Zero Dawn (despite its icon ridden mini-map), is a perfect example of this. Throughout the game, Aloy is able to unlock 12 different weapons, many of which are unlocked through side missions, and can be mixed and matched for radically different playstyles. Whether sneakily setting static-charged trip wires or brazenly blasting bombs of frost, the end result is the same: the player is offered a meaningful, game-altering reward from a meaningful side quest.

A Narrative reward is anything that enriches or rounds out the conflict, world, or characters of a game, things like lore, story events, or even cinematics. These are more difficult to implement correctly, and though they can provide deeply gratifying story moments, they often need to be coupled with something else to be worthwhile. When done well, Narrative rewards can give side missions just as much satisfaction as progressing the main storyline.

Perhaps the best example of this is the nostalgia-packed Citadel DLC mission of Mass Effect 3. The questline is largely an excuse to spend time with beloved characters from the previous two games, and the thrill of watching one more cutscene with the old gang is an unmissable experience, cementing the player’s emotional connection with the world and amplifying the stakes of the larger conflict.

Typically however, Narrative rewards are one-and-done phenomena, interesting or exciting at the time, but leaves no lasting impression or gameplay impact once the quest is completed. This is where major franchises like Assassin’s Creed routinely fall short, the most recent instance occurring in AC Valhalla, where a game-long quest to collect half a dozen codex pages ends with a generic and uninspired letter read by a familiar voice (no spoilers). If developers do want to employ a Narrative reward as the penultimate prize for a side quest, then extra attention must be paid for how to forge a lasting emotional connection between the story element and the player.

The final sub-type, Transactional rewards, are often an unfortunate necessity, and should be used as sparingly as possible. They are elements in the game which hold little to no value in-and-of themselves, but are exchanged for a different Narrative or Utility reward. These can take many forms, but most commonly manifest as currency (like gold or credits), experience, crafting materials, collectibles, or perks (i.e., runes, charms, or items whose sole purpose is to augment an existing stat or effect).

Some types of Transactional rewards are necessary to facilitate character progression or balance weapons and gear, and can usually be gathered by completing basic tasks throughout the world like hunting, exploring or fighting. Because their purpose is only as a means to an end, they are utterly unfulfilling as the sole reward for a quest. This is not to say that such forms of currency exchange should not exist within the game world, but if the only prize for slaying a dragon is the same gold that can be looted from towns and villages, the quest becomes an errand, not a mission. Games like Ghost of Tsushima fall prey to this effect, where nearly all the side quests end with a paltry gift of crafting materials, experience or a charm (many of which are duplicates). Since most of these can also be gained by simply wandering around and picking them up off the ground, they fail to incentivize the player’s participation, and add nothing to the world, rendering the side quest bland and forgettable. Ideally, Transactional rewards should be avoided altogether, but if they are necessary, they need to accompany a Narrative or Utility reward, rather than stand on their own.

Ultimately, side quests need to present a prize worthy of the player’s time and energy. Rewards should be tangible and noticeable to the player, whether it’s a coveted piece of gear, an exciting new skill, or a rich story element. These types of rewards are tangible and memorable, and the leaving a lasting impact on the player, the world, or the characters within it.

The final, and most critical component of exceptional side quests is to tell an intentional story. Side quests are, after all, miniature chapters embedded within in a larger novel. Each of these episodic endeavors has a relationship to the overarching storyline, and they can either contribute to it, or distract from it. As such, the goal of the quest cannot be “to play more of the game.” This creates a sort of “carnival effect” where the world becomes a circus of random attractions all slung together with the sole purpose of attracting guests. They can be played at random because there is no connection between one booth and another. While this can be a way for games to give players the freedom to explore the events of the world as they please, it also limits the emotional impact those events can have.

The carnival effect can be observed in games like Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, where side quests include stacking rocks, meditating, destroying cursed rocks, and even getting high on mushrooms. None of these activities add anything of value to the world, the characters, or the larger conflict of pacifying England, which makes them boring, forgettable, and tedious.

Ghost of Tsushima, another recent RPG title, is packed with optional missions that explore the various backstories of Jin Sakai’s allies. While some do deliver moderately interesting exposition, the majority of the character arcs have nothing to do with Jin’s relentless attempts to overthrow the Mongol invaders. Spending time hunting for Ishikawa’s disgraced pupil, reliving the memories of a senile caretaker or cleaning up Kenji’s booze-fueled blunders have almost no impact on either the loyalty of the allies or the tide of the war. In both AC Valhalla and Ghost of Tsushima, the lack of purpose-driven stories in the side quests make them feel disjointed and distracting. They undermine any sense of urgency or significance in the central plot, painting portraits of wars which are so unimportant that they can paused at any time to dig up roman statues or run errands for a drunken monk.

Consider instead the epic space opera of Mass Effect 2, a game with an extremely similar premise to both of the afore-mentioned games. All three storylines center around assembling a team of eccentric and deadly allies to help battle against an overwhelming foe, and players can choose to pursue optional side quests with those allies. What sets Mass Effect 2 apart however, is its focus on telling intentional stories, and integrating them with the main plotline.

At various stages in the game, Shepherd can choose to accompany each crewmate on an adventure which is tailored to their individual backstory. Each of these missions present Shepherd with crucial decisions to make, which result in changes to the character’s dialogue, attitudes, and even appearance. Most importantly, each of these stories is centered around a personal or moral conflict for the characters, rather than an excuse to “shoot more baddies.” Even when combat inevitably occurs, there is often supporting dialogue that accompanies it, maintaining the focus on the plot.

Perhaps a more significant characteristic of these missions is their integration with the main storyline. Characters are often express a hesitancy to involve Shepherd at all, and offer some explanation as to how resolving their personal conflict will help free their mind to focus on the larger objective of stopping the impending invasion. This not only reaffirms the priority of the primary mission, but helps establish the side quest as something which exists in service of the main storyline. What’s more, choosing to help or ignore the requests of squad mates can have a life-or-death impact on those characters later on in the game. Not only do the side quests influence the characters themselves, but they have direct and lasting impacts on the core narrative of the game, connecting them to the universe, the plot and the player.

No side quest is perfect, and there are highly subjective preferences when it comes to valuing them as entertaining or forgettable. There are, however, fundamental characteristics of a side quest which can be looked at with objective scrutiny, evaluating them on the basis of function, rather than fun. Building better side quests means capturing the sense of rarity that comes from exploration and discovery, creating rewards with lasting impacts on the player and the world, and composing intentional stories which complement the central narrative. These essential criteria help to craft experiences that strives, not just to encourage more play, but better play.

Remarkable stories do not come from the best ideas, but from those best suited to tell them.

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