You’ve just arrived at the abandoned house where you think the diamond stash may be hidden. The windows are broken, the steps are falling apart, and the yard is a sea of knee-high grass. You walk up to the front door, but you can’t open it because there’s a strip of yellow police tape across the door with the words DO NOT CROSS written on it. Drat! How can you get in? Suddenly a wandering hobo gets your attention. He tells you that there’s a crack den just down the street filled with bloodthirsty, heavily-armed gangsters. The hobo is pretty sure they have a pair of scissors in the basement that you could use to cut the police tape.
I submit that the person who goes into the crack den for the scissors is the second stupidest person in history. The stupidest person in history is the one who came up with this quest in the first place. I’ve played more than my share of quest / adventure / RPG games in my day, and I’ve seen this quest in one form or another about infinity times. It is well past the point where game designers need to quit doing this.
The most recent example – and the one that brought all of this to mind – was in Borderlands. Borderlands is an absolute blast, but one quest aggravated me like a bad itch with its lazy key-fetch quest. At one point, you need to get past a rusty eight-foot fence with holes in it large enough for most of the characters in the game to simply crawl through. (With the exception of Brick, who ought to be able to rip it down or leap over.) But, instead, the game has you fight through waves of animals, more waves of insane bandits, then through a hideout of even more bandits, then fight a fifteen foot berserker cannibal to get the key to open the fence. (And then backtrack through all of those earlier bad guys, who have respawned.)
It’s not that I mind fighting all those guys. In fact, that’s what the game is all about. It’s just that the justification for doing so is absurd. Like fighting waves of gangsters to get scissors to cut tape on a door, it’s just way too much trouble and it doesn’t make any sense for my character to do those things. This is what the story is for: To give purpose and structure to the things the player is doing. If the story can’t offer you a sensible reason for doing the stuff you’re doing, then it might as well not exist. Just save the money you’re spending on writers and voice actors if you’re just going to send the player out to kill stuff for no reason.
(And just to be clear: When I say “key” I mean everything that game designers use in a key-like fashion. This includes access codes, bait, batteries, blowtorches, bribes, buttons, circuit boards, cranks, crests, crowbars, datapads, disguises, explosives, fuses, gas masks, gears, gems, grease, hammers, hazmat suits, key cards, levers, lights / lightbulbs, passwords, puzzles, robots, screwdrivers, sigils, spells, switches, wire cutters, wrenches, and rubber chickens with a pulley in the middle.)
* In Neverwinter Nights 2, you spend about one-quarter of the entire game doing sub-sub-sub quests to open a single city gate so you can talk to someone on the other side of it. This door annoyed me so much I detailed the quest here.
* In Champions Online,my hulking superhero had to quest to get a key to open a wooden outhouse. A terrorist outhouse.
* In Resident Evil 4, the protagonists run into a hilariously flimsy gate constructed across the path in the woods. Instead of walking around it, climbing over it, burning it down, or toppling it with a shove, Leon decides the only possible route to freedom is to take the president’s daughter through the heart of the enemy base and into the ninth ring of hell.
* Just about the entire plot arc of Fable 2.
In general, I think the question game designers should ask themselves is: Is the thing you’re asking the player character to do the most obvious, straightforward, or fastest way to solve the given problem? Asking the player to go downstairs and get a key for a shoddy wooden door is not unreasonable. I certainly wouldn’t smash a door if the key was just downstairs. Asking the player to climb to the top of Mt. Evil and fight the Soul-Devouring Dragon-Wraith of Pestilence to get the same key is completely ridiculous, because at that point it’s less trouble to just kick the door down or call a locksmith or something. (Exception: All comedy games get a free pass for plot doors because the stupidity of the side-quest is part of the joke.)
The obstacle in need of a key should be at least as formidable as the thing the player has to do to get the key. I know these aren’t sandbox games and we have to be on rails to a certain extent. All I’m asking is that the rails make some kind of sense. Most of this plot-door nonsense could be solved with just a touch of writing or by swapping in some different art resources. The Badlands example could have been fixed by making the fence twenty feet tall, sturdy, and covered in spikes. And maybe electrified. With that sort of challenge, it starts to make sense that it would be easier to do the quest than to circumvent the wall. And the result would be that the story would be able to do its job and give us motivation for the stuff we’re doing.
Because I’m curious: What’s the most arbitrary or asinine key-fetch you’ve ever had to do in a game?