A couple of weeks ago, I bought Fallout 4. I've been loving it. But I have two major criticisms. Firstly, the settlement building is too buggy and restrictive. Secondly, I don’t think I’ve gone on a single proper ‘Quest’.
To illustrate why, let’s jump back 12 years to Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2 – my all-time favorite RPG.
There is a bounty on my head, put there by The Exchange. I’m on Nar Shaddaa, the gaping maw of Nal Hutta, swallowing in all the illicit cargo and refugees of the galaxy. My mission: find the guy that placed that bounty. No further guidance. No markers on my minimap. The only hint the player gets is to ‘make noise’. You don’t find the exchange, they find you, so make yourself worth their while. I chose to break their toys, dismantle their power base and kill their operatives.
Now compare this to a similar quest from the more modern (but still Star Wars) SWTOR. As a Jedi Knight, you cross blades with a Sith Lord called Darth Angral. You need him out of the picture for plot reasons, but he’s sitting on his dreadnaught roaming the galaxy, you need to make yourself important enough for him to deal with personally. You follow quest markers to pre-defined activities that unlock the next mission in the narrative. Kill his apprentices. Dismantle his power base. Break his toys. But I can’t remember for the life of me where I did these things. I think I broke some of his stuff on Nar Shadaa and killed an apprentice there, but that’s it and even then I don’t remember it that well, even though I played it far more recently. Furthermore, this mission is a single player mission, meant to stand out among the throng of MMO sidequests.
So I ask you, how come two quests that share the same narrative and activities make such different impressions on me as a player?
I reckon the difference is in the handholding.
All too often in games we find that we are told to do a thing, given a nice shiny objective marker, and that is that. No mystery, no exploration, just get in and get out so the plot can move forward. Designers seem to have forgotten that the joy of questing goes beyond loot and enemies. Morrowind does not hold the player’s hand. If your quest takes you to a cave, hope in the name of Talos that you were paying attention to the dialogue, because chances are that the quest giver gave you directions. Fast forward to Skyrim and all I’ve got to do is follow the marker ‘til I walk right in. I might even be able to fast travel. No mystery, no granduer, just go fetch a sword.
There are of course reasons for the gradual increase in handholding over the last 10-15 years. Games have more content, so markers help players to sort through the clutter. Gaming has spread to the masses, so developers and especially publishers want games to appeal to those who aren’t as dedicated as the more traditional ‘gamer’. There are also times when it simply fits with the aesthetic (such as MMOs), where such indicators are expected. But it is rare to find a game that ditches them entirely and lets the player explore their way to victory – to do good by that great word ‘Quest’.
Getting The Exchange to go after you could easily have been set up as a series of marked quests. But in refusing to hold the player’s hand this simple goal becomes an exercise in puzzle solving and exploration. To find ways to make my presence known I must first get to know the world, to find pressure points ripe for exploitation. The player must wonder around and talk to the inhabitants; the refugees, the bounty hunters. If a refugee tells me about some Exchange supplies I can steal then I will need to remember where they are and how to get at them. In SWTOR or Skyrim or Fallout 4 all I have to do is follow my quest marker. I don’t even have to remember why I’m there in the first place. There is a ray of sunshine, however.
The exceptions are the Souls games. They avoid quest markers because it encourages exploration which in turn allows the player to discover secrets that put forth the game’s narrative. This is a natural boon of ditching the quest marker. In having to look about for our goal we must take in our environment. Doing that creates space to insert a narrative through that environment, leading the player to engage with the world rather than simply shoot it. Ironically, Bethesda are among the best at this, but we spend too much time following quest markers to take in these brilliant little stories.
The word ‘Quest’ is overused. To kill some ghouls is not a quest; it is a chore so I can unlock the next mission. To find and eliminate Darth Angral could be a quest, but the missions are designed so as to hold the player’s hand and do not contain the information to do the mission unaided by the prodding of the user interface. This makes sense from a business perspective; SWTOR is an MMO that appeals to casual Star Wars fans. SWTOR players are not Dark Souls players. However the quality of single player quests suffers for this decision. But to find the mysterious criminal organization known as The Exchange is a great journey, requiring puzzle solving, player agency and exploration. From a technical perspective, these missions are the same. Go to location X, trigger event Y, repeat until bad guy is angry. But because I am told exactly how to do it, the player is robbed of the chance to explore for themselves. It’s not like KotOR 2 didn’t offer hints if you really needed them (there is a quest journal tucked into one of the menus), but modern RPGs do not do the reverse. If I want to find an objective for myself, I can’t, because the quest giver just says ‘oh please help me’ and a blip appears on the HUD.
The sense of adventure has been lost, and the Old Ways warrent a revival.