But even if the games had marked your entire to-do list on the map, I still think this approach to side missions is missing the point a bit. This is very subjective, but my feeling is that a side mission loses something if we have to plan it and go out of our way to pursue it. If you present me with a questgiver asking me to do him favors sight unseen, with no understanding at that time of difficulty, additional travel or entertainment value, you're giving me too much time to think about it. The more opportunity you give me to "um" and "ah" the more likely I am to hang the whole stupid business and concentrate on what's necessary. Having to plan my sidequest venturing sort of goes against the whole appeal of a free-roaming experience. Exploration. High adventure. What the hell kind of appeal would Treasure Island have had if they'd given a run-down at the very start of everything the heroes would end up having to do?
What makes me much more likely to do a sidequest is when I'm surprised by it in the field. If I'm driving through the countryside and a distraught woman runs out, flags me down and tearfully informs me that her husband has just been dragged into that shack over there by a mutant lobster antelope, I'll be able to look at the lobster antelope hideout and probably decide this wouldn't particularly take me out of my way. If that same distraught wife had waited until she'd run all the way to a village on the other side of the map before she started enlisting wandering adventurers, I'd have very little to go on, and would probably question her motives. Red Dead Redemption did this quite well, you were constantly running into random ambushes and rescues and curious gentlemen who wanted to compete with you to see who was the best at picking flowers. Even the official, storyline questgivers were spread out around the entire map, forcing you to get out and see the world a bit.
I'd even go as far to say that side stuff is the most important aspect of a well-designed open-world game, because a well-designed open-world game is one where you go about the actual story missions with a sense of genuine sufferance. Absolutely anything can distract me on the way to my actual duty in Infamous or Just Cause 2. Side quests, pickups, random challenges, it's all part of the juicy meat in the sandwich while the story forms the bread. Story missions, and by extension side missions like the ones in Rage and Dead Island that are acquired in the same way as story missions from the same location and form separate dangling threads coming off the main one, are a thing of rigid, unsmiling order, while the spirit of sandbox is unplanned, explorative chaos. Where if there's nothing else to do you can get your jollies just by randomly flapping around the game world, breaking people's mailboxes.
I remember saying once in the past that a good game with side missions is like a good serialized adventure show, like Monkey Magic or the Pokemon cartoon. You have the important plot points that the characters are journeying towards, but on the way they'll get sidetracked for anything up to six or seven episodes, each with its own little mini-drama unfolding. And what you need to take from this is that the sidetracky episodes seem to far outweigh the serious plot continuation ones. What you definitely don't need to take is that I used to watch the Pokemon cartoon. Seriously, just forget I said that.
Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn't talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games and writes the back page column for PC Gamer, who are too important to mention us. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.