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!