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Doing Away with Breadcrumbs: In Defense of Tweaking the Quest Arrow

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As gamers, we often don't notice the industry standards developers have laid out for us. When features such as regenerating health or check-points become integrated in most contemporary video game design, it can sometimes be hard to bypass the thought that there were big games before that didn't already utilize a similar approach. There was a time when players used to rely on the shoulder buttons to strafe and aim in a First Person view before the thumb-stick layout was the standardized control scheme. When a mechanic or control scheme is proven successful, it can become then norm.

One such industry staple in the majority of major releases is the quest marker. This small, but very useful icon helps guide the player to their next objective without having to make them put much effort in needing to track down the whereabouts of where to progress. Before this, games were different in how the player had to uncover what needed to be done to achieve success.

Take the original Legend of Zelda for example. During the opening scenario the player is given three paths to pursue, allowing for additional back tracking with no constraints as to how the journey is divvied up. Before assuming the role of Link, a text overlay appears on screen depicting information about princess Zelda's capture, followed by an encounter with a mysterious man hinting of danger lurking near. When receiving a sword and the iconic quote, "It's dangerous to go alone! take this," the player is then set off onto this  journey through the planes of Hyrule. There was only a simple message, and a vital item acquired. No hints or visual cues pointing the player into the right direction. To me this is the preferred experience, when open-world games take a non-linear approach. The players imagination is piqued as to what lies beyond those paths, and the only way to find out is through exploration.

When I received my first quest in the Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, I had no sense of direction as to what I needed to do. I was overwhelmed with the sheer amount of landscaping and open-endedness the game provided. It took a hot second to just take it all in. I wanted to interact with every NPC, harvest resources and look for any clues as to what could possibly lead me to a unique quest or rare loot.

When finally setting off into the wild, I was more focused on studying the environment and taking note of different landmarks to help secure an easy return to town if necessary. Along the way there was a plethora of enemy encounters, quest opportunities and areas which contained caves and taverns for additional exploration. This drove me to such lengths of wanting to absorb each detail and take in every bit of scenery, regardless of the maps massiveness.  

Now within my first few hours of the series most current installment, The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, I felt less compelled to interact with anything at all. I had little to no motivation to talk to townsfolk, read road signs or uncover any information as to what fascination is waiting for me in this gorgeous environment. Enemy encounters out in the wilderness felt less exciting, and more like a roadblock between myself and the location I was trying to get to.

But why was this? I braced Skyrim as a longtime fan of Morrowind, ready to relive the same formula of the Elder Scrolls series that once resonated so well with me years ago.(I was late to the party with Oblivion in case any of you are wondering). Was I getting too old, and didn't realize the sense of nostalgia gradually wearing thin? Was the snowy tundra landscape just not as enthralling as the variety of environments Morrowind featured? No.

After much speculation, I eventually narrowed my problems down to one simple geometric shape: the quest marker. Upon starting an objective, this simple point on a map made my attention focus primarily on a game of "follow the arrow", a revelation that was already laid out for me the moment it was activated. I realized my eyes were more fixated on this arrow than the majority of what else was taken place on screen.

Games like The Witcher III and Fable  utilize a similar approach, by revealing a primary location with an aura like line, hinting at the next place of interest. Whereas later games in the Grand Theft Auto series used a "GPS-like" diagonal line. Many games invest in the "mini map", a simplified version of the larger areas to help keep players updated on activity happening elsewhere. No matter what the game, the function remains the same: telling players where to go to further advance the game.

In Morrowind, I felt like I was tasked with having to take the initiative to solve objectives and interact with the environment. But, halfway into Skyrim I couldn't recall any major towns or landscapes, as they were just waypoints to an objective. Why take the time to engage with anyone or anything when the point of interest had already been laid out for me from the start?

In a video by Youtuber "Strat-Edgy Productions", this point is highlighted at the the 5:00 mark. Strat-Edgy says modern day RPGs don't encourage the player to experiment or explore. The original Phantasy Star was a game that helped support his point.

"Without talking to people in town it was nearly impossible to know where to go next or what item you needed to go to another place, and so on," Strat Edgy said. "Your goal was to see the governor of Motavia. The issue is that there's this big robot douchebag standing between you and him, and he won't let you through. Why? Well, you need to bribe him of course. But, what does the governor like? Well if you ask around like you're suppose to you'll find out that he likes cake. When me and my mom discovered this we decided to keep playing the game, but we wrote the info down on a notepad. Then we stumbled onto a baker inside a cave of all places. We then bought our cakes, and saw the mayor."

(This video focuses more so on a childhood gaming experience he had with his mother, rather than quest objectives in video games. It's still a very good video nonetheless, and I'd heavily recommend you take the time to watch it.)

This isn't to say the quest marker is without its benefits. I understand its purpose. One could argue that in RTS and MOBA games, the mini map is essential in simplifying the battle activity by alerting the player where the majority of the fight is taken place. No developer wants to frustrate the player and make them overwhelmed with the high variety of opportunities to indulge in an open world game. Should games challenge the player? Of course. But, it should never feel like a daunting task to progress through. We can all recall that boss fight we had to redo right before a tiny portion of its health remained, or being stuck for hours on a puzzle we had no idea how to piece together.  But instead of telling the player what to do and where to go, maybe there is some middle ground to achieve?

When the player is so dependent on the mini-map, the rest of the world takes a backseat and the game begins to lose it's open-endedness. The first time I turned off the mini map in Grand Theft Auto,  I began to take in the sights and sounds of Los Santos, when before my eyes were primarily focused on the small diagonal pattern located on the bottom right side of the screen.

I read an array of debates pertaining to this topic lately, and while many people were in line with doing away with the quest marker, I don't think removing it entirely is the answer to the issue. There will always be gamers out there who want nothing more than to get to where they need to without having to put much effort in examining every possible orifice of the game. But I think laying out an arrow up front makes the game feel like a list of chores, to where completion is met when these small icons floating around the map disappear. If games with giant areas can start leaning towards interactivity when it comes to problem solving, then there may be some middle ground to achieve.

Advancement in Shadow of the Colossus is determined by sequences of enemy encounters known as "colossi", overly sized creatures emitting a shadow like aura. Defeating one of the several colossi returns the player to a central point to where they must repeat the process of seeking out another in order to progress through the games narrative. From the point it takes to find the next colossi, the player uses their sword to cast a light, revealing the direction in which the next encounter is located. Upon getting closer to the destination, the light becomes stronger, hinting the whereabouts of a colossi drawing nearer. 

This approach helps for a number of reasons. First, the player uses interaction to solve the problem, as opposed to being given the location from the start. Secondly, instead of following a pre-determined path, they must observe the environment taking in key features, familiarizing themselves with the environment along the way. And lastly, this will help make a lasting impression with how the landscape works, because not every area in the game is simply a flat surface, rather than a mixture of cliffs, bodies of water and various terrain. I hope in the future more games further expand this feature, or perhaps utilize it in a similar fashion.

What other ways can a game handle direction better? Was there a recent title that has gone unnoticed in this regard, or perhaps an obscure title that did something different? Please let me know in the comments below.  

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About EnigmaticRangerone of us since 3:43 PM on 01.02.2016