They’re a timeless tradition in games and have been around for decades having a special place in particular within the role playing game genre. They can do wonders to enhance a game or add to its longevity or they can be pointless detractors that fail to grab your attention. They’re called sidequests and, at their best, they are one of my favorite types of quests in gaming; they just need to be handled correctly.
Sidequests are, of course, in opposition to a game’s “main quest,” which might be best defined as the series of tasks a player undertakes to see the game’s narrative from its natural opening to its intended close. Often, main quests are where a good chunk of the drama occurs and it can be hard to pull your attention away from that when the story is handled as well as a game like Final Fantasy VII. I do recommend taking time to slow down, though.
One of the things sidequests do best is flesh out the world of a game. As you, the player, travel around the world, likely saving the planet, you will undoubtedly interact with a ton of non-player characters. These NPCs often have something cute to say. I recommend talking to them, because they aren’t just potentially interesting characters, but also characterizing factors of the different locales you visit. Sometimes, they have a sidequest, and this often illuminates their desires and takes you to places you otherwise might not go. They’re tiny little narrative threads to explore.
I love the way in which they serve as tour guides, directing my attention to various nooks and crannies. I’m trying to imagine playing a game like The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim without undertaking the sidequests. In that game, the sidequests feel more substantial than the main quest and are a large reason that the world or for that matter the game, manages to be memorable. There’s also a sense of freedom to them. It allows the player to feel as though they live in this world, rather than feel as though they are being railroaded by someone else’s plot.
This sense of living in the world helps heighten the stakes, too. There’s clearly something dramatic about stopping a crazed villain from destroying a fictional world but the stakes are much higher if you, the player, are invested in it. If you feel connected to the characters and like you have occupied this space for a while, if you’ve walked around and created memories, you can develop a real emotional attachment. I’ve experienced this feeling far more frequently in games with sidequests.
Sidequests can, however, be annoying. Sometimes, they’re just filler--an endless sea of exclamation points to take up your time. Other times, they amount to little more than dreaded “fetch quests” where you, the hero, basically run banal errands for lazy townspeople. “Hey, I need this; I’ll pay you,” is rarely a good opening to a story, and “thanks for grabbing all that meat, here’s some gold,” is never a satisfying ending. Massively multiplayer online RPGs are notorious for this, and it’s not like I don’t get it. These quests are a source for player progression and also put items and currency into the game’s economy. I just don’t think sidequests should feel like a grind.
Sidequests should reward players. They should take them on a cultural tour of the game’s world. They should give them unique items like, for example, the Big Goron Sword or the Fierce Deity Mask in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. These are two games that barely use sidequests, but do incorporate them perfectly. They should reveal something. They should work in service to the primary plot rather than occupy the spotlight. Most importantly, they should remain a part of games for decades to come.