Today I want to talk about that staple of RPGs: Side Quests. One of the difficult things about RPGs is that there has to be a way for characters to level up, and that leveling up has to fit into the narrative of the story as a whole. Otherwise, it’s just a series of repetitive tasks until you’re finally tough enough to face down the Big Bad at game’s end.
As much as I complain about them, they really are a necessary part of any RPG, (MMO or otherwise.) Aside from giving characters a chance to level up, like sub-plots in a good book, it’s the side quests that flesh out the bare bones of the main plot, giving the whole thing a depth and solidity that it wouldn’t otherwise have without them.
The problem comes in when, for whatever reason, those side quests aren’t treated with the same authorial respect as the main storyline itself; when those quests aren’t written with the same gravity of purpose.
I don’t think anyone would disagree that one can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Sure, one might wonder why you even care about catching flies in the first place but, sweet-n-sour bugs aside; the underlying point of that particular phrase is that the perception and results of a request depend on how that request is made. In other words; it’s all in how you say it.
While playing an RPG, you are the hero. In order for side quests to ring true, they should not only fit within the context of the game’s storyline, but they should also be something that a hero of your stature could be reasonably expected to accomplish. Now, since quests largely fit into one of two basic categories, (‘kill x number of critters’ or ‘deliver this thing to that guy’) the perception of a quest as either heroic or pointless depends entirely on how it’s presented; it depends on the writing, or what the NPC asks for and how they ask for it.
As an example of a well written side quest, we have “Calenglad Remained” from Lord of the Rings Online:
“…remember that you act in my stead — you are my agent to Tinnudir and we speak with one voice. Always remember that respect cannot be bought, but must be earned. Do not undervalue it, and we shall yet see Andúril forged from the shards of Narsil.”
This! This, while not a main story quest, almost had me giving that pixel-Aragorn on my screen a snappy salute. It certainly had me sitting up a little straighter in my chair. Even if I knew nothing whatsoever about Aragorn, Narsil or the story in general, the quoted text is compelling in its own right; it leaves me in no doubt that I am hip-deep in heroic goings on.
Unfortunately, when I arrived at the appointed place and spoke to Calenglad himself, things weren’t so easy. The next quest in the chain is called “Loyalty’s Proof” and begins like this:
“You put me in a difficult situation. I cannot in good conscience help you without first administering a test of your character, but if you are indeed sent by Aragorn, any delay is an affront to my lord.”
He doesn’t trust you, the letter you bear or, one assumes, Aragorn’s own handwriting or seal. Go figure. This rang a little false to me, but I accepted it. (Really, what else could I do?) It was written well enough. But then he fobs you off on some of his companions to prove your trustworthiness.
“I will not make this decision alone. Render your aid to the rest of my brethren… Once they are satisfied that you are indeed of good character and do not have villainous motives, I will consider your petition once more.”
Uh, sure boss, whatever you say. Some of the quests make more sense to me than others, and a couple of them are pretty menial, but it’s how they’re couched in the first place that matters. And while I’m not sure how gathering flotsam or sorting pot shards prove I’m not a spy, (or anything other than just a really good beachcomber) the requests themselves are still well written and weighty in that narrative-actually-matters sort of way.
That’s what makes them work, not just as side-quests, not just as a means of leveling up, but as functional parts of a much, much larger narrative and believable parts of a complete world.
Next week, I’ll show you examples of how it can all go horribly wrong…
Fair Game updates every Monday.
By: Lisa Jonte - New installments of Fair Game can be found at MMORPG.com.