Sidequests and Other Distractions: The Erosion of Meaning in CRPG Quests

This recent and lengthy editorial points to the way in which quest design and execution have been handled in virtually every CRPG since the 1990s, in particular how dozens of even hundreds of side quests have caused us to neglect many games' main quests.  The article suggests that this has led to an "erosion" of meaning to the primary quests in general, and while I tend to agree, I don't think there's a great alternative without the narrative being structured around a series of progressive quests toward one end goal, therefore limiting player choice.  In any event, I've left you with a handful of paragraphs below:

This juggling of quests and side-quests is, I guess, part of the form of CRPGs, set in stone by the time Baldur's Gate came along (1998) but present in games quite a bit earlier: you see similar plot/task juggling in, for example, the first-person CRPG Betrayal at Krondor (1993), just on a smaller scale. This (start task, get distracted by other task, end up with a shopping list of stuff) model seems natural to videogames perhaps because, in giving us a to-do list, the form naturally dovetails with the player's instinct to tidy up game worlds.

Still, I think videogame (quests) could benefit from quest models from other media: literature, for example. Quests in videogames particularly RPGs are promising opportunities for expression, empathy and the creation of meaning: key moments in the role-playing interface between game and player. Yet often they're repetitious, predictable and by-the-numbers and even when they're not, the meaty quests brimming with character are often undercut by popping off to kill 10 spider rats.


In the original Baldur's Gate journal, quests were not represented: instead players were given a list of date-stamped entries which filled out as their adventure progressed. Their story was told linearly, as a series of diary entries.

I find it interesting that you can see the development of quests and task structures in CRPGs through their evolving interfaces. I also find it interesting that while the BG developers started by keeping track of actions in a journal a throwback to the storytelling focus of D&D and kept it as a vestigial interface feature in the sequel, it's ultimately a forgotten feature which has been expunged from the RPG genre. CRPGs, at least those built on Baldur's Gate'˜s foundations, do not lend themselves to organic storytelling as much as they do to (I completed this goal, I completed that goal, now I need to go do this goal.)

But just because these games don't seem to be as narratively flexible as their pen and paper counterparts doesn't mean that the notion of (quests) (as a personally significant journey) has no value. On the contrary, I think that if used correctly quests can breathe life into an RPG experience and provide much-needed context and personal stakes.


Another example of a game with meaningful quests is the much-praised Planescape: Torment. This game, building on the Baldur's Gate formula, has the quest system we recognise from CRPGs, but the main quest is a quest in every sense. The player character, we discover, is an immortal who sometimes loses his memory when he (dies); as such, he has lived an unknown number of past (lives), each one ended by a sudden bout of amnesia brought on by the trauma of death. Some of these past incarnations, we discover, were kind; others were brutal. The player begins a quest to discover who they are, how they became this way and why this all happened, and on the way discovers what remains of their past incarnations; the game's tagline and central question is (What can change the nature of a man?)

This harmonises with the conventions of the CRPG genre, since most RPGs ask the question (Who are you?), and let the player's choices and actions determine the answer. This is especially complicated and juicy in a game where (Who are you?) can also be read as (Who were you? Are you the same person as your past selves? Is it even possible for a person to change?) This quest is not as tightly designed as ME2'˜s crew missions it lasts at least 30 hours, not 30 minutes but it is a game-long quest which really is a quest in the traditional sense. It's ultimately about the most fundamental aspects of the protagonist's identity. As such, the main quest enriches and adds context to all of the minor choices and character-driven moments in the game. The player is playing a game about a man seeking his identity while asking questions about the nature of identity, and play is accomplished by defining this character's identity through choice and action while also thinking about those same questions of identity. It's an unusually thoughtful discussion of roleplaying since one could argue the protagonist achieves personhood after his amnesia by roleplaying the person he wants to become: the questions (Who should I be? How do I get there?) are implicitly asked by both player and character, even if the protagonist never asks them aloud.

And, for what it's worth, the blog is also sporting an older article that analyzes why role-playing games are so combat-focused. Food for thought, both of them.