We’ve all been down that road many times. The world desperately needs saving, somewhere a princess stares up at the sky hoping to be rescued, and an evil alien race is prepping their giant laser to melt the Earth into gelatinous cubes. Yet, we find ourselves needlessly collecting, escorting, or racing across the map to beat some arbitrary best time. We may be the only hero capable of bringing some great evil to his or her ultimate end, but that shit can wait until after we’ve found all 10,000 hidden golden spiders or collecting all the PDA voice logs of scientists rambling about nothing and then getting their bowels eviscerated mid-sentence. The main storyline, no matter how trite or captivating, often takes a back seat to pure completion-ism.
Before going on, it’s important to recognize what is a side mission and what is part of the main storyline. In the purest sense, it’s a pretty simple difference. Any objective pursued that doesn’t directly contribute to completing the main story is a side mission. You could argue that some missions, though secondary, contribute to the main story indirectly by revealing important story elements or character background. But in the purest sense, side missions are anything that doesn’t literally and directly progress the player one step further towards the end of the game itself. Side missions are any objective that doesn't get you any closer to those final credits.
This definition does get a little fuzzier when you consider some games, mainly RPGS, that assume the player will voluntarily take time to do side quests to level up. Many games, like Final Fantasy series, are almost impossible to complete if the player doesn’t wander off the beaten path every now and then to get gold, experience, new weapons, etc. In Pokemon, for instance, the real storyline is to reach the prestigious rank of Pokemaster. The whole concept of catching them all is merely a side quest. But it is an intrinsically necessary one, as the game would be impossible to complete if you tried to beat the Elite Four with nothing but a pocket full of Bidoofs.
So, there are certainly side missions in the gaming world that are an arguable necessity. They are somehow linked to your success, evolving themselves from paltry sidequests, to a more loosely defined main mission objective. You could argue for days about this thin line with some series, as I'm sure there are gamers out there who've claimed to beat entire games without doing certain missions previously assumed as completely necessary.
But any game worth its salt is packed with these simple time-fillers. Errands, really. Tasks often way below your level of skill. Townsfolk asking the hero to take a break from tearing various otherworldy demi-gods to pieces so that he can fetch a book from two houses down. We should be defeating the venomous, pulsating evil force that is slowly and methodically consuming the very matter of our realm, but we’ll get to that after we get the best score in a bowling mini-game. Side missions often boil down to one simple concept. Busy work. Sure, we sometimes get arbitrary rewards like character bios or alternate costumes. But these are purely cosmetic elements, at best.
So what is it that drives us to methodically complete everything single stupid goal a game throws our way, whether it’s fun or not?
We Have Gamer OCD
Of course, some of us aren’t literally diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (And some of us are). But we do often find ourselves exhibiting the behaviors of those with mild OCD. Sure, sometimes we’ve got our reasons. There looms a quiver upgrade or an ammo power-up or a new color belt to hold all our special items at the other end of the tunnel. But often we just see Race 1 out of 50 appear on our screen, wrap our fingers tightly around the controller, and settle in for a long night of shaving seconds of those other 49. Why? Just because we see something out-of-place, incomplete, and that cannot stand. We hate seeing all those quests just clogging up our otherwise pristine quest log. We can’t stand to hear that cry of ‘HEY! HERO! OVER HERE!’ go un answered. It’s a compulsion.
Heaven forbid a game is nice enough to let us know that we’re about to move on to a new area, forever leaving behind all those blinking exclamation marks, abandoned laptop computers brimming with enemy intel, pottery un-smashed, and cathedral towers yet to be climbed. That only makes it worse, as gamers flat-out refuse to leave stones unturned.
What would happen if we left those coins uncollected or those villagers unescorted? Judging from the zealous way we complete these pointless errands, presumably something catastrophic.
Drag Out the Story
As seasoned gamers, we can smell a story mission a mile away. How often have we been in that conundrum of reaching a hallway which branches off two separate ways, pondering deeply which route may trigger a story event so that we can go the complete opposite way? Sometimes we need that ammo pack or health potion to keep us going, so we do all we can to delay the next inevitable boss fight. But quite often we willingly accept the road less traveled because we just watched a cut-scene a minute ago and we’re not quite ready for another. Or maybe we feel like Level 2 was just a little too short and we don’t want to rush things.
This is even more prevalent in open-world sandbox games. If you’re at all like me, after you’ve saved the game's love interest or smashed a mini-boss into the curb, you feel compelled to spice things up with a few mayhem missions. Easy, care-free roof-top races. Blow up ten cars in a row. We just feel like we’ve done enough for those wimpy townsfolk and our character deserves to take a break from all the heroics and just catch some fish before we go back to all this world-saving business.
Mo’ for Your Money
When it comes down to it, every game we own is a product we purchased with our hard-earned money. Why wouldn’t we take the time to prod, explore, and pummel every square inch of the game’s landscape? Sure, we often don’t even want to, all things considered. But we paid for all these pixels, not just the ones that come along with the main quest, and we'd be foolish not to get our money's worth.
We’d like to say it’s because we want to appreciation every detail a designer has put into a game, particularly if it’s a game we really love. But sometimes it’s just plain old buyer’s sensibility. We bought the whole meal, so why wouldn’t we eat everything? Even if we totally fucking hate coleslaw, we put it in our face because we choked up the cash for it.
We Just Like It
I can surmise and mock and get all introspective on you, but when it comes down to it we often just love certain games so much that any excuse to explore and play is enough reason for us. You unlock a new combo move and you would feel just cheated if you didn’t get to a chance to stretch your legs with it. Or maybe watching your character decapitating townsfolk just never gets old.
Maybe those shallow costume color unlocks mean something to us. We’ve started to really dig around in our character’s nuances and we think he’d really prefer the pink vest over the brown one. We really do want to read the character’s bio and understand where they coming from. We see a coin spinning above us, taunting us with its unobtainable glisten, and we don’t just feel compelled to get it. We revel in the challenge of figuring it all out. Perhaps there is nothing complex about it. When we just love what we've got, sometimes side quests are just flat-out fun.
But they’re often not used like they should. As little treats scattered about the landscape. Instead, they’re too often a developer’s tool for artificially padding out game length. Forcing us to leave the path to level up even when we don’t want to. If a designer doesn't understand what a player may be feeling about a storyline at any given point, sidequests become a hindrance. The player desperately yearns for the next chapter of the story to unfold, but first they have to save seventeen dirty townsfolk from getting mugged. As if the actual fun of the game is guarded by a picky bouncer who wants to watch you to dance before you can get in.
I mean, I like getting the choice to wander off the path just as much as the next person and do my own thing from time to time. To embrace the universe the game has crafted, even if it is with silly mini-games with no reward or running simple errands for excessively lazy NPCs. There’s a joy in constructing the narrative, piece by piece, even if it’s not all ‘necessary’ to its progression.
But when a game leaves me behind the velvet rope and dangles the story in front of my face, I don’t like being stuck doing the Truffle Shuffle just to see what happens next.
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About AwesomeExMachinaone of us since 6:13 PM on 07.28.2009
Twenty four years ago I was adorable. Now I'm inquisitive and hilarious.
I have a plastic tooth to replace one lost in a mosh pit during my more ridiculous high school years. I speak shitty German and I ride a bike. My Xbox gets so much use, I'm sometimes embarassed. But I'm unemployed, so my time is spent writing blogs on the internet, reading good literary fiction, and playing video games.
In the grand scale of things, I'm a late-bloomer. My parents banned all consoles from my house as a kid. See what you've done? Now I game constantly to make up for years of lost time.
I won't list my favorites, because you've probably seen ten lists like it before me.
There's a life-sized Boba Fett standee in my living room.