Going through a role playing game has some distinct and obvious phases I've identified over 30+ years of playing them. In the noob stage, we’re just learning the combat mechanics and taking our first tenuous steps into the world. In the median stage we’re ensconced in the game world, leveling our characters up, and getting into some of the intricacies of the title like crafting or combining abilities of our party members. In the God mode stage we’ve hit the upper levels, are decked out with hardcore gear, spells, or weapons, and pretty much cut through everything like a hot knife through butter. Last, there’s the end game, when we feel that the adventure is about to come to an end, and all of our exploits and efforts come to fruition in the close of the narrative.
There’s always another stage just prior to the end game for me personally, and I wonder how many other people have the same experience. I call the “the housekeeping stage.” This is when I know the narrative is about to end either by gamer's intuition or very clear signposts, and my response is always to make sure that I’ve finished all the loose ends of my dangling quests.
As someone who is extremely invested in the narrative aspect of video games, I wonder why the hell I do this because it breaks the immersion completely. Here I am, the Grey Warden of Ferelden, about to call the Landsmeet which will determine who becomes King or Queen and unites the human Lords to face the Blight…and I’m running around the map dropping loot off at dead drops to fulfill one of the Rogue quests. Or tracking down Mage apprentices to hand them their walking papers.
I like to imagine the other interested parties in the plot for a particular game, whether it be the citizens of Ferelden in Dragon Age
or your other party members in Mass Effect 2
or the Brotherhood of Steel in Fallout 3
, waiting around and wondering where the hell you’ve gone as it’s time for the final battle and lives are at stake. Sorry, I’m busy delivering these letters for someone. It’s like if Luke Skywalker, just before he hops into his X-Wing to go blow up the Death Star, instead ponces off to Tatooine because he wants to nosh on some of their local cuisine before the big, final confrontation with the Empire.
At the same time I’d feel robbed if I wasn’t given an opportunity to finish all the quests in my log, perhaps there’s an argument for any game that depends so heavily on its narrative, like an RPG, to structure its quests or missions in such a fashion that certain dramatic arcs can’t be interrupted, or that side quests naturally blend into the main arc without requiring too much diversion from the main path. In some cases, the side quests feel silly like this by default, without even venturing into the housekeeping stage. Think about Mass Effect 2
– Shepard is on a mission to put together a kick ass team to take down the Collectors, who are destroying more human colonies by the day, and he or she is wasting their time tracking down party members’ wayward children or parents, or delivering packages for a Salarian information broker?
It’s an interesting question that might boil down to what the chief responsibility of a video game is, and when we allow them to cross those lines. Video games have to be fun, interactive experiences first, but if they utilize a narrative there’s a neccessary flow to the filmic way in which video games are generally going to present them. A developer recently told me that he thinks video game designers have a more difficult job than any other creative in having to integrate narrative and gameplay elements to make the story feel organic. I think the existence of the housekeeping stage is an illustration of how difficult a task this really is.