To walk the path aside, or ahead?

I’ve grown accustomed to it, and perhaps, so have you: Side Quests. What are they? Why do they exist? Are they important to the RPG genre, and how much precedence should they hold to the ‘main story’. And what is the alternative?

So you’re strolling along a muddied road amidst a thinning growth of trees whos canopy has been broken for more than a few years now. Your pack is empty, and your belly is beginning to announce it’s exhaustion in such an audible way. You were tasked with delivering an important missive to the local lord, one which would bring relief to a small village that has been hounded by bandits for some time now. You yourself, weren’t able to realistically put a dent into their operations so they pleaded that you instead go and get help.

Your eyes bumble about as the fatigue of hunger spreads to your limbs reducing you to a sluggish pace. You spot a bush just off the path ripe with raspberries that could content the groaning maw that is your stomach, but there’s someone already picking the bush, wicker basket in hand. Dirtied patchwork cloth, a few bits of ragged leather strapped here and there and a single rusting piece of plate just above his breast; he must be another bandit, one that hasn’t spotted you yet. You withdraw your bow, nock an arrow and angle it just slightly. A twang, hiss, and thunk later the man collapses into the bush, arrow protruding from his neck like an open cork letting blood escape, flowing down the sides of his neck.

You approach this unfortunate mess, and immediately spot the red berries that were flung out in the moments of his passing, strewn about the grass and seemingly calling out to you to be eaten. Picking up the wicker basket you see the majority of them were still safely beneath it in a small pile. You grab a handful of them and force them into your mouth. Chomping down ravenously, you swallow them hastily and large painful lump of nutrition slowly rolls down your throat and finally falls into your stomach. Already more handfuls are making their way down to join the first and you feel a refreshing contentment wash over you as you sit there listening to your belly churn away. It won’t last long, but it’s just enough for now.

Your eyes wander a moment as you await the return of energy, particularly over the body of the man you suspected to be a bandit slumped over in the bush, somewhat propped up by it. You only now see a small dagger strapped to his thigh, and a short sword notched with wear lying just beside the bush. You’re sure now he’s a bandit, but you’re unsure as to where he came from. Perhaps there is a nearby nest of them infesting these waning woodlands - and you know you can handle a few. Your pack is quit empty, and city living isn’t exactly cheap. You could do with the coin, and bandits are known for hoarding what they can. But your missive. That small village can’t hold out for much longer. What do you do?

I apologies for the short story, but I feel it emphasizes organic detours, and the importance of choice. You could choose to seek out those bandits, plundering their potential horde, and selling it to the nearby city. But you know it’s quite important that the city be notified of the plight that the village suffers. Perhaps you could seek them out on the way back, but they would have surely spotted the dead bandit by then, and prepared for future incursions. I feel this is the kind of side-quest we are missing.
We live in an age where time stands still for the player, waiting resignedly for his or her next action that directly permits it to continue. This is made worse by the many side quests that now dot the worlds we explore. I know from personal experience that side quests can be a good thing. They encourage exploration, they add tidbits that feed our hungry imaginations, and expand the worlds we are living in. But perhaps they have gone too far out of hand now. Perhaps we place too much emphasis on exploring, and too little on the actual reason we are there.

I don’t mean to say that games about exploration are a bad thing, on the contrary, I enjoy them quite a bit. But this emphasis on it for games that describes itself as narrative driven dilutes that actual story itself. It siphons away precious resources that would otherwise have been invested in the story, and leaves us with a 1 hour long game, made full by side-quests, forced detours, and often a slow leveling system. That’s shorter than the main story of many movies these days.

I think the fault lies in the demand for choices, and their desire to give them to you. We hear it time and again, we want more choices. And sometimes we say we want ‘impactful’ choices. But what does that even mean? Impactful choices. What makes a choice impactful, rather than something mundane. Take these real life examples:

The Garbage is full, bordering overfilling. Do I take out the Garbage right now, interrupting what I am doing, and not worry about it for the rest of the day? or do I have enough time to do it later, finishing what I am doing, but it may potentially become too full to tie the bag?

I have just enough money to pay off a car, or put a down payment on a nice house. Do I buy the car and reason that with it I can get better jobs and then afford the house? or begin the lifelong journey of owning a house, and all its future costs, and risk not being able to own a car for the foreseeable future?

Each choice is relatively important in their own context. But one is also more important to the future. Which choice is more impactful to you? What choice do you really want to see more of?

This second choice is the choice we are missing in our stories. It has mostly come down to ‘Which faction do you support? also the bad guy still loses’. At the end of the day, the bad guy still loses, mostly in a similar manner, the only difference now is there are red banners everywhere instead of blue. To make it worse, this decision is usually made at the end of the game, where it least matters. I don’t mean to say the conclusion of a story isn’t important, but it’s only as impactful as the journey allows it to be. If the journey was filled with mundane, bordering tedious quests, than the ending will only be relieving in the same sense of finally being able to end a 12 hour shift. I just want to go home and sleep.

Take Pillars of Eternity 2 for example. I’ve got 96 hours on the game over the course of one and a half playthroughs, I enjoy the game. I enjoy reading the many dialogs, and exploring how differently the world looks at you depending on who you side with. The Huana didn’t trust me because I had good relations with the trade companies (kind of superficial in the end, but it was a choice I opted to make). But at no point did I feel a precedence to pursue the walking god, over finishing another quest. To the contrary I was encouraged not to. Go out and gain a few levels, help your companions, plunder a bit of booty. Level up your crew, and then you are ready to pursue him in his final moments.

It really makes no sense. He is already there, and he is apparently constantly walking. He doesn’t need breaks, save for re-tethering himself to another pillar in order to make the next arduous march. Which I think is made worse by the fact that there is an in-game date system that isn’t taken advantage of. Combined it felt like checklist was made and checked when making this game.

Big Bad Guy? Check
End of the World story? Check
Levels/RPG mechanics? Check
Companions? Check
Side-Quests? Super Check
Day/night system? Check
With a few unique odds and ends that Obsidian does well.

But these were just blocks sloppily stacked together in the hopes that it resembles a meaningful game. It’s not. It’s a fun game that I’ll probably pick up again because I enjoyed the combat, and reading the dialog and seeing how the world adjusts to my choices (if only superficially to the main story). But it’s certainly not an overall story I’ll bother to remember. That’s not a bad thing, considering it is a game and not say, a book. But consider the fact that Obsidian prides itself on ‘Narrative Driven Games’. Pillars of Eternity 2 certainly has narrative, but does it truly drive it? I don’t think so. I think it is driven by the artful dialog, fun combat, ship system, and of course exploration. The story itself is just there for the rest of the game to exist it seems.

I can’t say for certain, because I was not a part of its development, but I think it’s safe to say this was because they felt the demand for side quests, and choices. For extra things to do, and see. Gone are the days when a game’s main story is a long road, with a few dotted quests here and there that change the journey’s direction, and come have the days of many dots along a very short road. For me, I enjoy the main story. If it’s compelling, it really puts me into the game. I feel the urgency, and feel like I’m actually there in the thick of things. If it’s not, then I enjoy the game for a completely different reason.

It’s like reading a book, or watching a movie. When you read a book, you have to paint the image yourself. This allows you fill in the details and really gets you attached to the characters. Involved in the story, and eager to see how it ends. It has - for that moment - become apart of you. Your mind the furnace that churns the fuel of words, lighting imagination and painting that world so you can see it.

Whereas a movie is much different. There are no details to fill in. It’s there at face value. There may be some hinted backgrounds, and sometimes speculations, but normally this only happens if it also exists outside that one movie. Say, Star Wars, or a T.V. series. Otherwise you are really just there to see it unfold. You aren’t experiencing it yourself, but watching it happen. Your mind can be switched off if you really wanted. Not to say all movies are shallow. Some have very intriguing stories. But these are the exception. Most are there to stimulate your eyes, crack a few laughs and convey a simple story.

The same can be said about games. A main story can be the fuel that keeps you playing with the rest of the world existing to prop it up, and derail it’s main course to some alternate path. Or the reason the rest of the game exists, allowing you to be in the world to explore and have fun. Either is a good game, but I think perhaps we have strayed too far in the direction of a beautiful world, and I am hungry for an exceptional story.

Thank you for reading, your thoughts and opinions are appreciated.