RPGs Deserve Better Side Quests

PCGamesN's Fraser Brown has written a lament of sorts about the state of side quests in RPGs. He compares the 2014 Dragon Age: Inquisition and Bethesda's recent Fallout 4 to titles such as The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Divinity: Original Sin and Pillars of Eternity and finds them lacking. According to Brown, both Inquisition and Fallout 4 feature side quests that just don't offer enough context, options and surprises and, as a result of that, end up feeling like rote chores.

While I do think there's space for improvement in the titles Brown claims have betterĀ side quests, I certainly agree that I'd prefer to see more of a focus on handcrafted optional story content in AAA RPGs. Here's an excerpt from the article:

I am guiding some sort of weird bison thing out of a canyon. It's taking an age. I'm bored and frustrated and I already know that there will be no light at the end of this tunnel, just a meager reward and a half-hearted pat on the back. I'm replaying Dragon Age: Inquisition, the result of having no real concept of time and a desire to experience the DLC expansion. I'm not having as much fun as I thought I would.

...

(But ranty man on the internet,) I hear you cry, (The Witcher 3 also contains a quest where you must guide a stupid barnyard animal back to its owner, invalidating everything you've ever said!) Damn you, hypothetical reader, you've caught me out. Or maybe I picked this specific side quest just so I can compare the two. Ah-ha!

Yes, Geralt has to find a goat and bring it back to an ugly old man. It's not the game's greatest moment. It is, however, a whole bunch of things that the quest in Inquisition is not. Brief, for example. Funny, too, as Geralt coaxes a wee creature with a little bell. It bleats merrily, as it follows the grim, angry monster slayer. And the best part: it runs off and smack bang into an angry bear. (Run, you piece of shit,) Geralt growls. The goat bleats indignantly. Geralt draws his sword.

Humour, surprise, a bit of tension and a fight not bad for a quest to rescue a goat. My reward wasn't just armour or gold or experience points, it was a moment of levity in a game that frequently made me question my choices and even gave me a lump in my throat a few times. In Dragon Age: Inquisition, sidequests are all about acquisition. New agents. A new sword. More power. They keep the gears turning, but not much else.