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Sidequests Good and Bad

Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw | 25 Oct 2011 16:00
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Today's topic is sidequesting. What exactly is a sidequest, and what is its purpose? Generally speaking, it's something you can do in a game that's optional. But that's a troublesome definition because some games, like Saint's Row 2, require you to do a certain amount of side missions to continue with the main plot threads. Okay then, so they're missions that in themselves don't directly advance events. Except you could argue that the experience points, money or items a side quest might provide represents advancement of a kind - GAH

Forget all this. What matters is, sidequests are part of the definition of a sandbox. As in, you can't be a sandbox if you don't have sidequests. You can have sidequests and not be a sandbox, like in many RPGs, but you can't be a sandbox without side stuff to do. Because if all you have is the linear plot missions, then you're a linear game, no matter how open your world is. Shadow of the Colossus is open-world but not sandbox because there's little to do in between the mandatory colossus fights. Do you see how this works?

What I'm trying to bring across here is how utterly make-or-breakingly important side missions are to a game with pretensions to openness. An open-world game with limited or no distractions is just creating a tedious commute between story missions. This was the rather monumental problem with LA Noire and Wolfenstein (the newer one with the limericks). But it's also a problem that comes up when the sidequests are there but poorly handled, and on that subject I'd like to moan about Rage a bit more. And Dead Island, before it starts getting comfortable.

Both of those games take an approach to missions fairly common to RPGs. There's the safe area where non-hostile NPCs and questgivers hang out, and then there's everywhere else, and never the twain shall meet. So this setup has you fill a role not unlike that of a pizza delivery boy. You go to the depot, receive six or seven orders, then hop on the old scooter to drive all around delivering them before going back to the depot and picking up six or seven more. Dead Island in particular had a severe problem with sidequest congestion - all the questgiving NPCs were necessarily packed into the same square twenty feet and you'd have fifty exclamation marks on the minimap to check in with, going around and adding more and more clutter to your mission log.

I find that this approach very quickly makes me lose interest in doing the sidequests, which leads to the aforementioned plot mission tedious commute syndrome. What certainly doesn't help is that both Rage and Dead Island only allow you to track one quest at a time on your map. All it would take would be one dot - not even a dot, a smear, just a little boogie someone had wiped off there - marking each of your quest objectives simultaneously, and I would instantly know which objectives were "on my way" or clustered together enough to justify the trip out there. In Dead Island I ended up having to flip back and forth between the quest log and the world map, following and unfollowing each quest with a compass and sextant trying to figure out what direction to head in. Rage doesn't even have a world map. So if you're planning to go find that TV studio place again and see if they've got any more challenges then I hope you memorized the landmarks last time you were there.

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