by Tina Olah
My childhood friend is set to be executed at dawn's first light, accused of a horrible crime he did not commit. I am his only hope, and I rush now to the Capital City with an elaborate rescue plan; pray for me that it won't be too late! Actually, never mind. My buddy can wait for a moment. I was just informed that my favorite peasant Simon Threebutts needs me to go to the neighboring village and buy him eight slices of HAM.
I hate when that happens.
Unfortunately, similar scenarios appear entirely too often in RPGs where a wonderful, gripping narrative ends up being interrupted by a steady parade of pointless quests.
I don't believe that sidequests themselves are bad or unnecessary, but RPGs could do much to improve how they are handled. So, on that note, I would like to propose the following Guidelines for RPG Sidequests and explain the process and rationale behind them using two example games. These suggestions are meant to apply mainly to RPGs with linear storylines and paths of progress. They don't work all that neatly with completely open-world games such as Skyrim (in the sense that you can explore the entire world map from the start and complete the main quests in nearly any order), though I think many open world games can still benefit from point #2! Read on, friends...
#1: Sidequests that disrupt the main narrative too much should be minimized. One way to do this could be to introduce them at a point in the storyline where taking a break wouldn't matter so much (let's say when your party is exiled from a town for causing some sort of chaos and has no idea where to go next). In addition, I strongly believe that in linear, story-focused games, the number of irrelevant sidequests should NOT overwhelm the main storyline: most of the time this ends up feeling like the quests were only added as padding to make the game longer.
#2: Sidequests should be interesting! A short journey to a party member's hometown to see what's new is much more appealing to me than killing four slimes. And missions that involve exploring new territory, hidden towns, and secret caves are always welcome. Even missions to kill rare creatures can be an exciting experience, provided they're not just "slime type B with a different color palette but otherwise the same abilities and HP as the original" (I hereby nominate that description itself to be the name of a new RPG monster). In addition, and building on point #1, sidequests which tie in to the main storyline or characters somehow, such as exploring a team member's mysterious past or helping to fix a town that your battle ruined, are excellent examples of what I deem Sidequests Done Well.
#3: I believe that in linear RPGs, most sidequests should generally be well matched with the difficulty of the main game. Otherwise, it is entirely too easy to run into some nasty overlevelling or underlevelling problems. This does not mean there should not be room for a secret extra-difficult boss or two, though I personally tend to ignore these.
And finally, #4: A minor point, though I've found it somewhat annoying at times. Game developers, please do not make 90% of sidequests only accessible during one small section of the game. Generally, this ends up being right before the final boss, though there have been other noteworthy examples (Final Fantasy XIII, I am giving you the STINK EYE right now). I get incredibly bored playing through them when this happens, since it causes a huge number of quests all at once.
My reflections on RPG sidequests, and thus, the basis of this article, began with I am Setsuna. This title has managed to become my second favorite game to play during winter months (I won't spoil my #1, though I'll leave you with a hint: It begins with the word "Sky").
I quite love the content of the sidequests in I am Setsuna — new locations to explore, new monsters to battle, and best of all, many of them involve learning new details about the main characters (and their Mysterious Pasts). Here is where I had a problem: every... single... sidequest was lumped together at the end of the game, right before the final boss. After I explored for a little while and completed about three or four of the character quests, a sense of eagerness to see the ending of the game kicked in and I didn't feel like doing any more. For me, too many sidequests all at once without the momentum of the storyline to follow just leads to boredom and frustration. I think it would have worked much better if the game gave us access to the character quests at a much earlier point and we could complete them whenever we wanted a break from the main mission. Refer to point #4 in my original Sidequest Guidelines. Good pacing is good fun.
I faced one other minor annoyance with I am Setsuna's sidequests. Many of the enemies in the new areas, along with the new bosses, were rather difficult. This meant that a bit of levelling up (and obtaining new weapons and skills) was necessary. No worries; it is very easy to gain levels in this game if you know where to do so. Then I went to face the final boss: a terrifying being capable of an astounding amount of devastation.
I was so overpowered that I could have sent him flying into outer space by tapping him upside the head with a God Damn McDonald's straw, were that an option. Sigh.
Not a huge issue, at any rate. I have no interest in 90-minute battles, especially if my doggo is making demands of me at the time. And I am aware that there is apparently a much, much harder version of the final boss that can be unlocked, though the storyline strongly encourages players to fight the boss as is. I mainly mentioned this because overly-difficult sidequests are an issue I've faced in many RPGs, Final Fantasy XII being probably one of the worst offenders. I was stuck with about 40 monster hunting quests in the last third of the game, and not a single one of them could be completed without hours of grinding. Sigh. Grinding is gross, you guys.
A final note on I am Setsuna, unrelated to the points above, though I believe it is worth a mention: I am going to assume that everyone playing the game noticed that the party leaves a trail in the deep snow while walking through it. So it follows that you can also...gasp!...make little drawings in the snow. Are you aware that you can even make...rude...little drawings, if you're so inclined? Not quite a sidequest, but a fun little bonus. It's worth a try.
During one of my long nightly dog walks where I think about RPGs for approximately 38 minutes, I began to consider how I am Setsuna's sidequests compared with those of Xenoblade Chronicles, another game I recently had the joy of playing. The two games are near opposites in the way they handle sidequests — Xenoblade Chronicles taking more of an open-world/MMORPG-inspired approach compared to I am Setsuna's very traditional gameplay style. However, I would still classify Xenoblade Chronicles as mainly a linear game; the storyline follows only one path and new towns, dungeons, and so on become accessible in a set order.
I wasn't quite sure how to approach Xenoblade Chronicles in the beginning. The sheer number of available sidequests had me feeling entirely overwhelmed. I must have spent the first seven hours of the game farting around gathering rabbit tails and dinosaur horns, slowly becoming frustrated and eager to move on with the story, until I found a bit of useful advice on the World Wide Web: It doesn't have to be this way. I discovered that it was entirely possible to complete most of the sidequests (monster hunting, loot gathering, etc.) while progressing through the main story, rather than setting aside additional time. This helped immensely and made the game much more enjoyable.
There were still far too many sidequests, and considering how a number of them involved exploring new areas and finding new monsters, I felt like I would end up seriously missing out if I just ignored them. In addition to that, fighting all these extra monsters was often necessary if I actually wanted to be strong enough to progress with the plot.
The problems really began to show when I found myself in areas featuring time-marked quests and felt pressured to complete them as soon as possible. On the plus side, this preponderance of side quests did give me the opportunity to explore more of the beautiful game world, and it was always fun to discover hidden locations (provided I did not accidentally run into some sort of Level 80 Dorkasaurus Rex). The combat system was enjoyable as well, and the relationship growth between NPCs during the in-town quests was a nice touch.
Unfortunately, the story suffers, and Xenoblade Chronicles fails my #1 Guideline for RPG Sidequests. Such a huge amount of my in-game time was spent exploring and doing little tasks between plot points that, by the time I would decide to continue on with the next bit of story, I'd find that I had already forgotten a large chunk of what happened earlier (including the many, many character names). I think this could been have remedied somewhat by having detailed plot and character summaries included in a menu somewhere, but alas! This necessary feature was sadly absent; I had no choice but to form a deep friendship with the Xenoblade Chronicles wiki.
If I were to completely remake Xenoblade Chronicles, tightening the focus on the story while still keeping the open-world influences, I'd cut the number of sidequests by at least half. And I'd definitely recommend that the existing quests be a little more interesting and meaningful, as I don't think 175 different versions of "go talk to this person/collect this ingredient" are necessary. (There were far too many of these types of quests, sadly.)
There are a few more specific improvements I would suggest for Xenoblade Chronicles — if not for a remake, then perhaps a future sequel or a similar-style game in a different series — though I would like to make a sad confession at this point. I am ashamed to admit that I received the Collector's Edition of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 for Christmas last year and still haven't played it yet. Perhaps many of the issues I had with the sidequests in the original have been fixed in the second part! Or perhaps I would just be sad. My specific suggestions for this series follow:
1. More exploration-based missions which involve actually influencing geographic or architectural aspects of the world beyond that one town (Colony 6).
2. It's always a good idea for games to feature quest-giving NPCs with interesting backstories and personalities...NPCs we'd actually care about. Dragon Age: Origins and Skyrim did a great job of this, I thought, partly due to showing close-ups of the NPC character models. Xenoblade Chronicles failed. Most of the regular townsfolk had pretty costumes and strange names, but not much else.
3. How about meeting some old, bumbling research scientist that needs help with cataloguing new monsters (aka: filling out the bestiary)? Perhaps he even has some kind of secret lab featuring a nice display to be filled with the aforementioned rabbit tails and unicorn horns I spent seven hours collecting? Unfortunately, a quest like this would require the game to feature a bestiary, and for some strange reason, Xenoblade Chronicles had none to speak of. A criminal act! I scratch my head at this glaring omission.*
In any case. I don't mean to be ripping Xenoblade Chronicles an extra bum hole with this critique. Truth be told, I quite loved the game, though even games we love are not above criticism. The specific suggestions in this case helpfully led to some general guidelines. I strongly believe that any game, regardless of genre, would do well to actually make sidequests engaging and fun rather than just introducing 2.5 thousand fetch quests. We want sidequests, not... SADquests.
I think I'll escort myself out the door now.
*Author's note: As I edit this piece on Wednesday June 13th at 6:20 PM, I realize I am still scratching my head at Xenoblade Chronicles' lack of a bestiary. This will leave a mark, I fear.