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Tangents and Tedium: The Faults of Sidequests

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The reward for completing GTA V's spaceship parts sidequest

While once a tradition found almost exclusively in RPGs, sidequests are now found in most games with an open-world, or semi-open-world format, such as Assassin’s Creed, Grand Theft Auto, and the Batman: Arkham series. In most instances, these ancillary tasks are designed with the strengths of the genre and game in mind, but they still often feel hollow and valueless because they provide little more than a brief distraction from the events and themes of the main plot. Developers seem to see only one way to remedy this fundamental fault in sidequests—the attempt to dress them up through lore or some kind of attempt at emotional connectivity—but fixing the perception of such tasks requires far more effort than that.

Fetch quests, hunts, dungeon clearing, and collect-a-thons: these are the most prevalent forms that sidequests take, and while they are usually tailored in such a fashion as to take advantage of core gameplay principles, they rarely offer anything more than a temporary deviation. Grand Theft Auto V is a particularly egregious offender; the assassinations, hunting quests, and chasing of spaceship parts all tick both boxes of contributing to the lore of the game and making use of gameplay elements that players might not otherwise take advantage of, but they offer almost nothing to the player in terms of skill-testing or in-game rewards. Much the same sentiment can be applied to the Assassin’s Creed games, and many RPGs.

It often seems as though developers have their priorities backwards when it comes to sidequests. Rather than creating them in order to give gamers a reason to play, they are included because they are expected as a part of the value of a title. This practise ignores the time-constrained gamers who enjoy a short, sharper experiences who have limited interest in sprawling open worlds. Where this is harmful to the industry is that the popularity of massive games among both players and critics leads to a culture where a title like The Order: 1886 is heavily criticised because of its comparative brevity and perceived lack of replay value. With threat of funding cuts or cancellation looming if open-world norms are not adopted, system design is predicated that the easiest, more economical solution is the most efficient, but this design ethos is flawed because it does not give gamers a reason to play. However, not all open-world games commit the same offences.

Among the many titles that get sidequests wrong are a precious few that get them right, and thus deserve to be highlighted as exemplars of a way forward. The Batman: Arkham series’ Riddler puzzles are a near-perfect candidate insofar as they make use of the gadgets and skills granted to players in ways the core gameplay does not, while simultaneously testing player’s problem-solving capabilities and proficiency at the game.

Before continuing, I want to clarify that although I listed The Witcher: Wild Hunt alongside Dragon Age: Inquisition and Bethesda’s RPGs as examples of the increasing homogeneity of WRPGs in an article a short while ago (for which I was roundly and, perhaps, fairly criticised), I recognise that CD Projekt RED does sidequests better. Indeed, Wild Hunt’s sidequests are another set which are notably better than the norm in that they tie into the main themes and primary story arc of the game at times, while also challenging players’ skills, as James mentioned in his review.

Because of these traits, the sidequests in these games are more than simple padding to add to the perceived value of a game by stretching its overall length beyond fifty or a hundred hours, yet they are still somewhat lacking. The brevity of sidequests can also contribute to a sense of dissatisfaction, because of the perception that the lack of content means a lack of any meaningful thematic discourse. As already mentioned Wild Hunt proves that this is not necessarily the case, but when sidequests are more well known for sending players hunting for Nirnroots, gamers can be forgiven for holding mistaken beliefs.

Another distinct aspect common to sidequests in general is the lack of player agency that they allow for. Even more commonly than in campaigns, players are unable to deviate from a single path, utilise more than a single approach, or fail sidequests. Although mission timers are often derided, they could be one means by which such tasks are given weight. Another way is through more common implementation of systems similar to those found in L.A. Noire and the Mass Effect series, wherein the player’s mistakes are capable of influencing the outcome of a mission. Through the inclusion of such mechanics, alongside meaningful consequences for failure, these ancillary tasks that open-world developers are so fond of including may overcome their seemingly inherent shortcomings.

Although some developers have already succeeded in making sidequests feel like an integral part of the game, many do not even seem to be trying. Rather than including them to tick a box made necessary through focus testing, developers need to find ways to make them an integral aspect of the game by basing them more firmly in the systems, design ethos, and narrative, while also using them to challenge the skills of players.

[alert style=”grey”]This article is an opinion editorial and reflects the views of the author and may not represent the entirety of OnlySP as an organisation [/alert]

Damien Lawardorn is an aspiring novelist, journalist, and essayist. His goal in writing is to inspire readers to engage and think, rather than simply consume and enjoy. With broad interests ranging from literature and video games to fringe science and social movements, his work tends to touch on the unexpected. Damien is the former Editor-in-Chief of OnlySP. More of his work can be found at https://open.abc.net.au/people/21767

Editorial

Three Single-Player Games to Watch Out for in July 2019

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Three Single Player Games (July 2019) - Sea of Solitude, Fire Emblem Three Houses, Wolfenstein Youngblood

July, the middle of winter down here in Australia. Even in the bizarre New South Wales climate, the biting cold makes for a great excuse to stay inside and play games. 

Weirdly for single players, quite a few prestige games this month include additional co-op modes. With acclaimed designers behind them, such games will hopefully avoid the pitfalls of accommodating multiple players, as too many games have done in the past.

Sea of Solitude

Release Date: July 5, 2019
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One

At first blush, Sea of Solitude looks like yet another story of a young adult struggling with questions of identity and mental health while exploring a beautiful but harsh fantasy world.

Actually, that’s what it is. ‘Quirky, life affirming indie adventure’ is a whole cottage industry these days, but the fact that such games are now more prevalent should never dismay.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice was a masterpiece of refined design and storytelling, and Sea of Solitude appears be something similar—this time dealing with a fantastical vision of depression that turns ordinary people into literal monsters.

Players take charge of Kay, who has sought out the eponymous Sea—or rather, a flooded city based on Berlin—in the hope that there is a cure for monstrosity. However, despite its name, she is not the only person in the Sea. Avoiding the other monsters of the Sea seems to be a major part of the gameplay. These tense encounters are likely to provide rhythm and variety to the adventure and keep it from being a just walking simulator. (Not that being a walking simulator is inherently a problem.)

Although published by EA Originals, one would do well to remember that EA the company does not actually profit off the Originals that they publish. With a focused story and themes that still are not often explored in bigger games, Sea of Solitude should be of great interest to single player fans in a month otherwise dominated by multiplayer titles.

 

Fire Emblem: Three Houses

Release Date: July 26, 2019
Platform: Nintendo Switch

Almost certainly the biggest single player release of the month, and tied with Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 as another massive Switch exclusive, Fire Emblem: Three Houses might be exactly what single players need right now.

Lately the Fire Emblem franchise has exploded in both its popular profile and sales success, buoyed by a hunger for both deep anime RPGs and polished tactics games. Three Houses seems to have doubled down on exciting trends and features in both genres: particularly a Persona/Harry Potter inspired magic school setting and an even deeper tactical battle system that ditches the rock-paper-scissors for more nuanced character progression options. As with many Japanese RPGs, the story is also a major focus and hinges upon a time-jump.

The early part casts the player as a teacher at the Officer’s Academy, situated in the center of the game world and attended by students from the three most powerful nations. Five years later, the second and likely larger part concerns the drama between the player’s teacher and their former students, whose nations are now locked in a massive three-way conflict.

As is to be expected for a series finally coming back to consoles after a long time on the 3DS, Three Houses is a massive technical leap over its predecessors. The game boasts better realised battlefields, more detailed armies, and a slick animated style that appears much more consistent compared with the three or four different art styles on the 3DS.

With such improvements, as well as the overall pedigree of the Fire Emblem brand, Three Houses should have no trouble satisfying single player fans looking for a meaty middle-of-the-year RPG.

Wolfenstein: Youngblood

Release Date: July 26, 2019
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One

The recent Wolfenstein revival series is such a remarkable achievement in traditional shooter design and great, if goofy, sci-fi worldbuilding that the co-op focus of this latest instalment is somewhat disappointing.

Yes, as with F.E.A.R. 3 and Dead Space 3, following a well-received second chapter the Wolfenstein series now pivots to a co-operative focused chapter. Though the game is not a mandatory multiplayer experience, combat encounters and puzzles have been redesigned to accommodate the two player mode, giving single players an AI-controlled partner and bullet sponge enemies.

However, all hope is not lost for Wolfenstein: why else would it be the third game on the list? The narrative has been pushed forward in time, as B.J.’s twin daughters are now in their adolescence, now giving players a glimpse at the 1980s of Wolfenstein‘s skewed universe. Additionally, the level design itself is more freeform thanks to development assistance from Arkane, the developers of the Dishonored series.

Will Wolfenstein: Youngblood successfully deliver more of the series’s goofy charm and crazy alternate reality? Almost certainly. On the other hand, will the game be as fun to play alone as in multiplayer? That remains to be seen. Last month’s E3 demo that raised such concerns was naturally only a snapshot of a game in development, so MachineGames and Arkane have had plenty of time to resolve these potential downsides to a co-op focused game.

Those are our three big single player games to look out for this month. Other interesting titles coming soon include Stranger Things 3 on July 4 and Attack on Titan 2 on July 5, both games hitting Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.

On July 12 we will see the sequel to an almost-fantastic Minecraft-like RPG spinoff, Dragon Quest Builders 2 on Switch and PlayStation 4, as well as the Switch port of “anime Monster Hunter”, God Eater 3

The week after, July 19 brings us Switch-exclusive Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order, and at an undetermined time during the month Klei Entertainment’s anticipated survival-sim Oxygen Not Included will finally leave early access on PC.

Have we missed anything that you’re looking forward to? Let us know in the comments below and be sure bookmark OnlySP and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. You can also join the discussion in our community Discord server.

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