I still remember a
from Mass Effect 1: Commander Shepard was on the bridge of the Normandy listening to a distress beacon, but he grimly declines the mission as the camera zooms out to show a huge map of planets ahead of him. The voice-over said: "many decision lie ahead – none of them easy". I dearly love Mass Effect, but the reality is that you pretty much never needed to make a decision of who you have time to help: no matter how urgent the crisis, you could pretty much always do whatever side quest is in front of you… or put that distress call on pause and come back to rescue it whenever you wanted.
Pretty much every game has the same approach to quests: you accumulate them as you explore the world or progress through the main storyline, and (like the pile of laundry I've been needing to fold) they clutter up your quest log until you get around to finishing them… but they never go away on their own (also like my laundry). Unless the game railroads you into completing the quest immediately, there are almost never consequences for walking away and dicking-around endlessly.
I think there are multiple reasons why the "to do list" approach to quests is problematic:
- It takes away any sense of urgency from the narrative. There is no real pressure to complete the main quest in a timely manner, and you know that side quests will hang around forever until you feel like finishing them.
- It makes the world feel less alive, because you know everything revolves around you: that bank robbery will be politely paused until you show up, and that child stolen by goblins will be safely chillin' in their cave until you rescue him. Every interesting event in the world waits for you to show up first, which makes the world feel small.
- Choice is one of the most powerful narrative mechanisms that gaming has to offer, and it's rarely used effectively. Having to choose which space colony to save, knowing the choice I make will have lasting consequences, is a great opportunity for storytelling. But that choice becomes meaningless when I know the aliens will hold off their invasion while I save each colony at my own leisure.
- It contributes to side quest fatigue: I don't like leaving unfinished quests in my log, and I will almost always put the main quest on hold so I can rush around finishing all of my incomplete side quests first (especially if I know I'm leaving the area and can't come back). This style of playing isn't fun for me. It isn't organic. But I've been trained by years of gaming that this is a more optimal way to play: I'm penalized for rushing into the main quest quickly, even if it's presented as being urgent, whereas there are massive incentives to scour the land for loot and complete random quests first.
I think more quests should organically expire (or resolve on their own) if you do not complete them within a logical time-frame. This would naturally create more situations where our choices matter, make the world more immersive, and encourage replay. It would also create a better narrative flow: if a situation is urgent, the player will need to deal with it urgently. The biggest downside that I can see is that players will miss content, which will result in wasted developer time and player frustration. My counter argument: I would rather have less content, but have that content feel cohesive and impactful, than tons of filler content that is less satisfying than doing my dishes.
What are your thoughts?
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