The word ‘quest’ has a lot of connotations. In the world of RPGs, it is the idea of some grand adventure to achieve some goal, in which the journey is just as important as the ending, if not more so. There is something intrinsically great about a quest that cannot quite be explained, and videogame quests needn’t be different. Too often quests are little more than fetching, wondering to the same cave layout 20 times to kill 20 bandit chiefs for 200 gold a pop. But sometimes, they hit the mark. I’m talking about The Bloody Baron of The Witcher 3, the Tears of Taris of Star Wars: The Old Republic, Skyrim’s A Night To Remember. Quests that just sort of stand out, for no obvious reason, and capture the minds of gamers with ease. But of course, there must be something about these quests that make them notable – so let’s go through each of those examples and work out what makes them so dazzling.
Tears of Taris: Ask a SWTOR player what the best sidequests are and this one will do very well, if not win outright. Like The Bloody Baron, it is not one single quest, but a series of them paced out across a larger part of the game. Each planet of SWTOR has such a quest that spans your entire duration on that world. Compared to some of the others, the Tears of Taris shouldn’t be that interesting. You are dismantling the Republic’s attempt to recolonize the world 300 years after its obliteration in Knights of the Old Republic. Compared to some of the others, where you take down Hutt crime lords, bring puppet governments to power and end millennia old civil wars, Taris ought to be downright dull.
The key to this quest’s charm is a strong sense of competition with Thana Vesh, the hotheaded student of Darth Gravus – the Sith in charge of Taris’ destruction on the ground. The quest starts like many standard quests, someone important enlists your aid, in this case the Sith in charge of removing Republic forces from the planet, Darth Charnus, aboard his flagship, The Tears of Taris – hence the name of the quest. Then once you chat to Gravus, Thana strides into the room in a foul temper. She claims Gravus has been holding her back and wonders why he’s started giving her work to the player. Undisturbed by this, Gravus gives you your orders, and Thana storms out to do her own thing after threatening you, obviously.
And so the game is afoot. The many quests of Tears of Taris has the player and Thana in deadly competition. Whilst you can do as you please, she is a typical Sith envious of your skill and desperate to kill off the competition. She kills civilians to draw you out. She lays traps for you, tries to blow you up numerous times. Triggers security measures to kill you, you name it - she tries it. Apparently for fun. The player (if male) can flirt with her in conversation and she returns that sentiment, though with her standard bitchiness. To her, deadly competition is just the Sith way – no hard feelings, it’s just Sith business.
However, Darth Gravus does not share Thana’s ideas. He expels her from his tutelage and as her attempts to kill the player grow in collateral damage, he no longer cares if she lives or dies. At the end of the storyline, you both charge into the Republic’s last base on Taris and lay waste to its interior – working together for a change. Then, high on a catwalk linked to the base’s controls, she decides to be reckless and block a group of settlers from fleeing in a shuttle. Gravus’ orders clearly stated that those people should be allowed to flee in order to spread the tale of his victory. But Thana, having grown bold with hatred of her master, ignores it.
For the entire quest you are on her heels. She lays traps and you overcome them. At the climax of the quest the tables are turned, and your opportunity for revenge presents itself. As you face each other on the catwalk you can explain your ethical position to her. Ie, are you going to let the settlers flee and why. Regardless of how she responds (to memory, you can change her mind and release the settlers) a second set of options presents itself: as her back is turned to use the controls the option to let Thana leave in peace, or shoot her in the back, arises. This is what makes Tears of Taris a stand out quest: it builds a desire for revenge within the player and then lets them unleash it at the optimal moment. My Agent is a nice guy, a really nice guy, but I had no qualms with putting a blaster bolt in her back. Even at this moment, she is one step ahead of you. As you pull out your blaster to fire she rolls out of the way and your shot hit’s the station’s controls. A fight ensues and of course, you win. She dies, and Gravus makes a dry remark about her ability before giving you your reward. Sith business as usual.
RPG’s are often about power fantasy, and SWTOR is no exception. Yet this quest dangles it in front of you constantly out of reach until the last moment, allowing the desire for control to build. Good things come to those who wait, and this quest used that to sell itself.
But there is a much darker, sadder side to this quest. If you let her go, you see the ‘real’ Thana Vesh. She sends you a message with a lightsaber and credits, thanking you for the competition and explaining herself. Her sadistic exterior gives way to a greater look at her character: someone who didn’t want to be a Sith, but was forced into it – and thrived on it, striving to be the best she can be. I almost feel guilty for killing her in most playthroughs because she evidently had no control over her life, and Gravus really was just trying to control her. That almost makes me sad that I tend to kill her. Then I remember how often she tried to kill me.
A Night to Remember: The only single quest I’ll be looking at, Skyrim’s A Night To Remember works wonders with the most basic of setups: you get pissed, pass out, and work out what happened the night before. No need to explain much to analyze this one, save that you evidently went on a drunken stroll round Skyrim, got engaged to someone and did some shady stuff. Unlike most RPG quests, A Night to Remember has nothing to do with story or power fantasy, or coin. You simply had a night out, and cannot remember it. There’s a fantastic simplicity in that, but simplicity alone does not make the quest stand out. However, A Night to Remember has several things going for it that make it one of Skyrim’s most notable adventures.
Firstly, it isn’t about killing bandits. In a game where almost all the quests involve killing something to find a sword, anything to the contrary is immediately notable. In a game so centered on the idea of fighting, to not have to fight is a much welcome breath of fresh air. It doesn’t shoehorn combat into the quest either, a common problem with narrative RPG quests. It is the only significant quest in which the player gets to depart from the land of ill magic and swords for a little bit of narrative adventure.
Secondly, it gives you access to areas that the game normally forbids you from: The Temple of Dibella. That instantly puts it in the player’s mind – a one off treat. An area that, according to rumor, sees a lot of action involving the Deadric god of love and romance. There isn’t much there, and you simply learn that you enjoyed a night of debauchery with the ladies at the temple. Business as usual for them, but for the Dragonborn, it is another diversion from bandit killing. For once, the Dragonborn had fun instead of serving the player’s fantasies. It was something that the player didn’t do, unique in the game.
The fact is, something like A Night To Remember would not stand out in a game like Witcher 3 as it would be pretty normal. Geralt gets drunk, shags a sorceress and doesn’t remember it. Pretty standard Geralt if you ask me. But in Skyrim such a neat, charming, narrative experience sticks out like a vampire at a peasant gathering. It’s not actually that good – but exceptionally memorable.
Speaking of Geralt, onto the quest that needs no introduction.
The Bloody Baron: What hasn’t been said about The Bloody Baron? Apart from that he’s a prick with a poorly maintained beard. If you need a reminder of what this quest entails, Rock paper Shotgun has you covered. The follow up quest, where you show some silver to the Crones, is not the topic of discussion – it’s an epilogue, but not the main event.
The main strength of The Bloody Baron is not that it’s writing is particularly outstanding, ordinarily good writing counts for a lot but in The Witcher 3 almost all the writing is just as outstanding. A large part of that is because the game looks at the lives of NPCs. Looking at the lives of common folk is often overlooked in all sorts of media (find me a Star Wars anything about something other than Space Wizards or Clone Troopers, you’ll be there a while) and is so often underused. The Witcher series may be all about Geralt and Ciri, but it always takes the time to look at the lives of people. And this in particular is one hell of a personal tale. But again, it is one among many. Not remarkable in the context of the game. In spite of this The Bloody Baron is remarkable, able to navigate the minefield of discussing domestic abuse in a way to make politicians and pundits green with envy.
This is because it forces the player to look at all viewpoints of the matter and understand it in its entirety, much to the annoyance of Polygon. If someone ever challenges me on the cultural and intellectual value of videogames I shall point them the Baron’s way. In television or film dealing with such issues a viewer could just change the channel or look away. But videogames are not forgiving of such behavior – to continue you must endure whatever is on the screen at that moment. Even hitting spacebar still gives you enough of it to get the picture. The Bloody Baron tackles one of the hardest topics there is and does so with more intricacy and maturity than other media could hope to dream of. It comes off as effortless, and uses the medium of videogames to force the player to understand – nothing can even come close to exploring these issues. It is this ease, this harnessing of videogames’ interactive nature for the sake of discussing these topics, that makes The Bloody Baron one of the best quests ever in videogames.
Often, as with A Night to Remember, a quest is only notable within the confines of the game. The Tears of Taris is good, but it primarily sells itself on its unique sense of competition and teasing the rules of the RPG. Whereas The Bloody Baron is flawless from start to finish, both in how it uses the medium, and in how it navigates the topic. Often, a quest will be unique, a pleasant diversion with something quirky to remember it by. The Bloody Baron leaves a scar on the player that takes time to sink in. A moment where the player sits there and goes ‘jeez, this is good’ – it is the apex, what proper 'quests' ought to aspire to.
Good quests have something unique about them. They don’t have to be literary masterpieces or play on the genre, but just be unique. An oddball in the big old world of the RPG. But to be great quests, they must be truly remarkable, building emotion in the player. Whether that is amusement, competitive spirit or the conflicted mental muddle of The Baron – it must be allowed to build, and unleash itself at the appropriate moments. The game must play the player without being obvious. That is how great quests are made.