Ever since Grand Theft Auto III, open world games have taken the games industry by storm. Every year sees a glut of new titles that let players explore virtual worlds of varying degrees of quality. But ultimately any open world game has to give players one thing: the semblance of a living, breathing world. One of the many ways that designers engage players with these virtual worlds is through side quests.
Players take side quests for granted now, but the release of last year’s Final Fantasy XV is a reminder that not all side quests are created equal.
Give Me a Quest, Give Me a World
In the best open world games, side quests are more than just a way to pad out a game’s length. They can offer players the chance to explore the world in a way they otherwise can’t in the main story.
More importantly, side quests can tell self-contained stories that can be just as compelling, if not more so, than the main story. They can also introduce new mechanics and get the player out into the open world, exploring and experiencing the depths of the game.
Final Fantasy XV saw the franchise open up in an impressive way. It offered players plenty of side quests and opportunities to explore the world. However, a lot of these quests are little more than ‘collectathons’. If you’ve ever wanted to run around a gorgeous open world finding frogs for a random woman this is the game for you.
For a lot of open world games, this could be a minor complaint. Ubisoft’s annual releases usually have a lot of fetch quests that amount to little more than 15 minute detours, but players complete those quests because the worlds that Ubisoft crafts are usually interesting enough to make it worth investing in.
Final Fantasy XV’s side quests are much more noticeably lacking because they take place in a world that has so much potential. Square Enix’s choice to mix a Japanese boy band and Americana rust and grit is an interesting one, but it pays off in the visual design choices throughout the world. It’s just disappointing that they didn’t spend more time populating the world with worthwhile stories.
Exploration and Education
Final Fantasy XV might not always use side quests to tell interesting stories and build out the world. However, Square Enix does an excellent job of using side quests to educate players about mechanics and to get them exploring.
The player learns how to ride chocobos, fish, and hunt bounties through side quests. These may not be the most engaging stories or activities but they serve an important function.
Not every side quest needs to take the player on an epic journey —that’s usually what the main story is for — but providing players with a little context can go a long way towards making the world feel more alive.
Ubisoft’s criminally underplayed Watch Dogs 2 had a lot of very quick, repetitive side quests. One of the most notable was a series of quests involving the game’s version of Uber. Players would simply have to drive NPC’s to specific locations in a certain amount of time.
But Ubisoft went the extra mile and gave every ride a little story, unique dialogue, and some personality. These quests are still repetitive but are also another glimpse into Ubisoft’s version of San Francisco culture.
Side Quests are Stories Too
There is definitely a way to marry seemingly insignificant tasks with compelling stories and world building. Many people have already praised The Witcher 3’s side quests, but CD Projekt Red’s side quest design deserves praise for this very reason.
Every side quest or monster contract in The Witcher 3 has a compelling story to tell. Some side quests -like the Bloody Baron story – take place over multiple hours and tell stories that are even more compelling than the main quest. It’s impressive and proves that developers need time to craft these living, breathing worlds.
CD Projekt Red also impresses with the smaller, more intimate, and sometimes ridiculous side quests that other games might just use as padding for play time.
The Witcher and the Frying Pan
A great example is a side quest that most players will encounter early on in The Witcher 3. It involves the player character and all around badass Geralt and a frying pan. Yes, a frying pan.
Early on the player stumbles across an old woman mumbling to herself next to a hut. If the player chooses to speak to the woman, they will hear a story for the ages. Apparently, the woman loaned the owner of this hut her frying pan, but he never gave it back to her. That’s it. This being an open world game, the player really has no choice but to accept the quest.
At this point, even Geralt sighs in resignation at having to take on this meaningless task. But this short quest teaches the player that every task in The Witcher 3 is complex and meaningful. After breaking down the door to the hut, the player will find the frying pan…and a dead body. It turns out the man was a spy. Through a set of notes, the player discovers that opposing military forces murdered him for his treachery. A seemingly insignificant side quest sheds light on the brutal war that’s taking place, even as ordinary people need to get by on a daily basis.
Setting the Bar
Not every open world game needs to achieve Witcher-level side quests, but it’s not a bad thing to aspire to. That’s a very high bar and one that not every developer has the development time to reach, and every open world developer – Western or Eastern – has their own design philosophies. Bethesda’s approach to side quests is different from Rockstar’s which is different from Square Enix’s.
Side quests can be the sign of whether an open world game is worth investing in. At best these small, more intimate stories can help build a world that players will exist in for hours. At worst they offer more frog collecting.