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The Problem With Narrative Sidequests

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! May 13 2017 · 136 views

Essays, Not Rants! 268: The Problem With Narrative Sidequests

One of the most striking features of the planet Elaaden is a huge derelict Remnant ship. Sticking out broken over the desert planet, the ship could hold answers for the mystery of the old killer robots that populate Mass Effect: Andromeda. The latest game in the Mass Effect video game series has a strong focus one exploration, namely that titular distant galaxy. There’s so much to see, so much to find out.

But I still haven’t gone to the ship, despite having done basically every other sideqeust available on the planet. This isn’t so much a case of saving the best for last, as much as it is putting off what I expect will be a fun-if-pointless mission.

Because the Remnant Derelict is not a Priority Mission (that is, a story mission), it’s highly unlikely that any Major Plot Twisting Details will happen. If there is some massive revelation about the Remnant waiting in the wings, whatever’s aboard that ship will either tease it or corroborate it, depending on when I play it in relation to that story mission.

Andromeda is an open world RPG. There are Priority Missions I play one after another, these make up the main plot. I complete Mission A, then I can do Mission B, and so on until the game ends. Meanwhile, there are these sidequests, things I can do around the galaxy be it earning my squad’s loyalty or blowing up a Kett tower. Those sidequests can be done in any order and at any point after you’ve unlocked them (usually by completing another sidequest, or progressing to a certain point along the Priority Mission chain). This means that I could have explored that Remnant Derelict when I first found it a couple Priority Missions ago, or I could wait and only explore it after I’ve finished the main story – and the central plot played out. Thus, the mission has to accommodate either timeline. This in turn limits the developments that the sidequest can have, nothing can happen here that would affect a Priority Mission in a big way.

Consider, if you will, a hypothetical game based on Firefly and Serenity. Midway through the movie, we find out that the Reavers, a savage group of spacefaring barbarians, were in fact accidentally created by the Alliance (spoiler). In the hypothetical game, you wouldn't find this out in a sidequest, it'd be a paradigm-shifting story quest that would affect the crew through any major plot developments. Thus if there was a sidequest where you could explore an old Reaver ship or an Alliance Databank, this twist wouldn't be there. Anything you found would be cool, but self-contained.

This is the hurdle that open games have to deal with. Something more linear, like Uncharted or Halo, progress in one direction like a movie, scene 1 into scene 2; there's no scene 1.5. Every level/chapter/scene will affect the plot in someway. Giving the player a choice means the game's writers and programmers have to have planned whichever path the player takes.

In Kingdom Hearts the player can visit a variety of worlds in whatever order they want. They'll pal around with Aladdin, Alice, and Ariel, then have to go to a specific world where More Story happens. This isn't too pressing most of the time, but as the plot picks up, visiting Halloween Town or Monstro’s belly feels like a filler episode in the larger narrative of Sora and Mickey's adventure. They can't impact the plot too much because the player may have another world to complete before the next Big Story Moment.

There are game critics, Ian Bogost and Johnathan Blow among them, who argue that games and stories don't mesh well. And in some ways they do have a point. Either you have a linear game (like Uncharted) where the player is given no narrative agency (and so is a glorified interactive movie) or you have the case of Andromeda or Kingdom Hearts where the extent of then player's agency affects the distribution of the game's narrative. Either the narrative ignores you or you strain against it. Digital gaming can't seem to catch up with good old tabletop rpg's, where the game master is making stories on the fly in response to their players' decisions.

But video games are still a young genre. The amount of player agency in Andromeda would have been unheard of twenty years ago. It's a bummer that it can't anticipate and account for everything, but who's to say games won't in the future? Exploring a virtual world in Andromeda is a great experience, even if it exposes some of the issues with open world games. Yes, the narrative failings are frustrating, but it's a step forward towards what games could be. Risks propel the medium forward; who knows where we'll be in twenty years.


Of course, I could be totally wrong and that derelict ship may have a load of secrets about the Remnant and it turns out Andromeda has untold variations of its Priority Missions prepared in its code with each one voiced and animated ready to go. But the point stands; for all the issues with open ended video games, the potential remains. And that's exciting. Bring on the AI game masters!

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~Shockwave~
May 13 2017 10:48 PM

I'm afraid I'm going to have to disagree. admittedly, my experience with side quests come from different games than the ones mentioned here (Namely the NieR games and the Xeno series, as well as a few others.), which could be why. Side quests can be used for many things, some of them are extremely important. in Nier: Automata, after a certain point in the game, you can converse with a machine called Engels, while, no, he doesn't  give you any story information, at least not directly, it was a character that was previously trying to kill you, so that's a pretty interesting conversation. You can also go and murder a bunch of pacifists if you so choose. No, they don't fight back, and yes, that's extremely important later. Not quite a side mission, but there is an achievement for it. There are some other brilliant side stuff that does many things in NieR: Automata, but it drifts heavily int spoiler territory, so I won't go any further. (Sorry, I've been playing this game a lot so it's very fresh and easy to pull stuff from.) 
 

There are game critics, Ian Bogost and Johnathan Blow among them, who argue that games and stories don't mesh well. And in some ways they do have a point. Either you have a linear game (like Uncharted) where the player is given no narrative agency (and so is a glorified interactive movie) or you have the case of Andromeda or Kingdom Hearts where the extent of then player's agency affects the distribution of the game's narrative. Either the narrative ignores you or you strain against it. Digital gaming can't seem to catch up with good old tabletop rpg's, where the game master is making stories on the fly in response to their players' decisions.

 

I take issue with this mindset in particular. I know in the first 3 Mass Effect games you can create your own character, so maybe it's more of an issue there, but I think it's important to separate the character from yourself. If the character doesn't have agency of there own, there's not much productive they can do with a narrative game. It can't possibly account for everything, and that's okay. When I play Xenoblade Chronicles, I'm viewing the world through Shulks eyes, so Shulk is the main character, not me. He's the one who ends up putting the plot in motion, I'm simply along for the ride, same For NieR and it's androids, and Xenosaga and Shion and the gang. And that's okay. I would argue that this isn't a problem, but just how the stories we tell work. How are we supposed to tell a story when the main character can just suddenly behave in any random number of ways for no conceivable reason? Well, I suppose we can, but those stories look less like the thought provoking NieR games and more like Minecraft and Terraria. I would argue trying to force player agency where it has no place is worse.

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Ta-metru_defender
May 13 2017 11:10 PM

(I haven't played Nier or Xeno)

 

To the first, with linear, the argument goes that why is the story interactive if you don't get to affect it in any meaningful way? I disagree heavily, but that's the point. The other argument in that realm is that sometimes story has to ignore gameplay – Nathan Drake kills, like, two hundred, people in a playthrough, but that's not what's happening narratively.

 

I'm okay with the tension in video games. Some of my favorite games are incredibly linear – Uncharted, for example. Maybe one day digital RPGs will be far more open, like a Mass Effect where you have to stop the Reapers, and these are the missions you go on, but the small choices you make affect the story more. 'cuz in ME one of the fun things you do is define your character through your actions, more of that could yield some dope things.

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it's 3 am when i'm writing this so im probably not the most clear but, for a game that gives you plot stuff for sidequests, I've found Prey (2017) to be a fairly decent one? several sidequests are just "go to point y find thing z" but a good number of other ones actually continue to have consequences later on?

 

one that comes to mind and isnt super spoilery is essentially like. at any time, i can end the game. that's what a sidequest lets me do here.

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~Shockwave~
May 15 2017 09:05 PM
But we have games that are open and give you tons of freedom, the trade-off is that the story has to suffer, because it's hard to tell a compelling story when the player can do whatever they want. Those games usually have their story in the form of lore and it's discoverable, but not interactive in any way. In order to tell a compelling story, it needs to have a logical progression via cause and effect. Without that, it becomes extremely hard to tell any form of story outside of lore based history lesson type of things. So, basically, the more drastically you can influence the world around you, the less you can interact directly with the story. But this isn't something that needs to be fixed, there's nothing wrong with using side missions to flesh out the world around you. Saying they're useless or broken because they can't influence the main story (in that game at least) is kind of short sighted, as there's much to gain from being able to interact with a somewhat interactive world, but being able to fully control it will makes a compelling story nearly impossible.

You see what I'm trying to say? I guess it was my fault for using such a niche game as my main point, but it's the best argument for my point that I have.
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Ta-metru_defender
May 16 2017 12:16 AM

@Xaeraz: That actually sounds really cool. It's a gutsy move.

 

@ShocK: No, I totally agree. I think calling it a 'problem' may be a bit strong, maybe it's more of an inherent tension in game. But to what you're saying, there's a wonderful article by Henry Jenkins, Game Design as Narrative Architecture, that looks at creating spaces for stories that the player can discover. 

 

I love sidequests. I'm bummed that the effect they have overall is limited by gaming-as-we-know-it, but there's no denying they're fun. I'm also fascinated by the way gaming works, and how open world / map games navigate that tension.

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~Shockwave~
May 16 2017 05:52 PM

@Xaeraz: That actually sounds really cool. It's a gutsy move.

 

@ShocK: No, I totally agree. I think calling it a 'problem' may be a bit strong, maybe it's more of an inherent tension in game. But to what you're saying, there's a wonderful article by Henry Jenkins, Game Design as Narrative Architecture, that looks at creating spaces for stories that the player can discover. 

 

I love sidequests. I'm bummed that the effect they have overall is limited by gaming-as-we-know-it, but there's no denying they're fun. I'm also fascinated by the way gaming works, and how open world / map games navigate that tension.

 

Ah, ok, may have just missed your point a bit. It happens.

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Ta-metru_defender
May 17 2017 08:11 AM

Totally cool. Still a great conversation that helps me mull over my ideas about sidequests. Didja check out Jenkins' article?

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~Shockwave~
May 18 2017 06:05 PM

Just now actually, I've taken a look at it, lots to go over, as you probably know. Though I took a specific interest in this part: "When gamer magazines want to describe the experience of gameplay, they are more likely to reproduce maps of the game world than to recount their narratives.(9)" It's accompanied by what appeared to be a source but it was just an explanation. But that probably has do do with explaining how the game plays more than anything else, also, if a magazine goes a even a bit too far on describing a games story, people may not appreciate that. 

 

It's all very interesting though, and it's one of the reasons I like games more than I like more static forms of storytelling, there's a lot to analyze on how we interact with it, rather than just how we intemperate or perceive it. I'll take a closer look at the article soon and see what more I can get from it.

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josh

twenty-five


grew up on a ship


studied Narrative (Re)Construction

at New York University


frequently found writing in a coffee shop, behind a camera, or mixing alcohol and video games

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