Warning: Spoilers ahead for Dragon Age: Inquisition (specifically the Hinterlands).
The week before last I analyzed side quests and how you could make them more compelling than the generic fetch quests one might see in a grind-like MMORPG. At the heart of the matter, I illustrated three ways one could make them interesting, namely: having side quests add to the story, having side quests with worthwhile loot, or having side quests with an enormous gameplay challenge. In regards to story, I discussed certain aspects in Dragon Age II and how some of its side quests vastly change outcome of the story. However, today I would like to expound on this point some more, and also tackle fetch quests which I didn’t talk about fully in that post.
Before we begin, let’s first discuss what will and will not be included when I say fetch quests. For those unfamiliar, fetch quests are a specific type of quest that basically involves you getting an item to give an NPC. An NPC may say they lost an object and need you to find and return it. Some NPC may request you clear an area of spiders and bring their fangs as proof (i.e. kill a certain number of this creature). A different NPC may ask you to collect so much of a specific herb that spawns in an area. These are the sorts of quests will be discussed in this article, but I am also including similarly simple quests that don’t necessarily involve lots of fighting. For instance, if you find an ancient scroll that tells you to go to a cave to find loot or fight a monster, those are close enough in simplicity that they will be included in my analysis.
With that established, one must wonder how such simple tasks could be interesting. After all, in the last post even I acknowledged the criticism that these are what make MMORPGs a grind sometimes. Certainly, my purpose here is not to say fetch quests are the most interesting of all, and I stand by my post that there are ways to make more interesting side quests. That being said, fetch quests still have their place, if not for the sake of giving players an easy way to kill some time, take a breather, and still earn EXP and money. Since they are most likely going to stay in gaming for a quite a while, it doesn’t hurt to try and make them more compelling. This is where story and world-building comes in, which even fetch quests can tap into and enhance. Even if they cannot change the story, there are two things fetch quests can do very well, very easily: enhance the tone and atmosphere of the story and add to the world lore.
To illustrate this, I am going to discuss Dragon Age: Inquisition, so spoilers ahead for those not familiar with the Dragon Age series.
One manner in which fetch quests can aid a game’s story is by reinforcing the tone or the atmosphere. One of the primary background problems in Dragon Age: Inquisition is, of course, the mage rebellion. The fight with mages has progressed so badly that even the Templars have gone rogue and hunt mages at their leisure. Unfortunately, innocent people have gotten caught in between the fights, and there are a lot of refugees as a result. This background setup primarily comes into play in the Hinterlands, where the player experiences first-hand how devastating the mage rebellion has been.
This being the case, many of the fetch quests in this area help reinforce this sad devastation. For instance, some of the starting quests involve you getting supplies for the refugees, specifically food and blankets which the refugees have none of. Through the dialogue of the quests, the suffering of the refugees is emphasized, as how they have no food or warmth is discussed by people at length. Though a subtle insert, it helps drive home how devastating and far spread the war is. Another example quest is obtained by entering a house that is fairly in the middle of nowhere. Upon entering, you can speak with a woman who asks you to retrieve a ring that Templars took after killing her husband, who they suspected was an Apostate (a rogue mage). Though, again, the dialogue is simple, it revolves around the thoughtlessness of the Templars and mages at the devastation that is being wrought upon the civilians.
Though I could name many like this, what should be clear is these specific fetch quests help emphasis the tone of war in the area. The quests often revolve around the setting of the mage rebellion, involving issues with helping the refugees and trying to repair the area from the rampant destruction. This being the case, the player is immersed further into the setting, as these quests aren’t random happenstance. Rather, they are used to reflect a cause and effect in the world, which allows it to feel more real. The flavor text also showcases the expected emotions in such a case, such as sadness, desperation, and hopelessness. Everything about these fetch quests has an overtone of the setting, so though simple, they allow the player to remain immersed in the world, rather than be reminded they are playing a game.
The other manner in which fetch quests can be interesting is via their ability to add to the lore. At least for fantasy and sci-fi set RPGs, the general rule of thumb is the better developed the world, the more immersive a setting you give the player to get into. However, one never wants to dump too much lore at once, so adding and increasing the world lore must be done in small chunks. This is something fetch quests can be very good at in the right hands, since they are short, simple quests that the player can have a low key commitment to do.
For instance, let’s take a look at the landmark quests in Dragon Age: Inquisition. As the player travels throughout the various areas in the game, they can claim landmarks. This is a simple matter that literally involves traveling to the area and pressing a key/button in the right spot. However, when the player claims the landmarks, they receive a codex entry (a small collection of world information). The player can, of course, choose to ignore it, which is perfectly fine. Yet, if one chooses to read the codex entry, they find out interesting world information that is tied to the landmark. Though it’s a small addition, the world can grow via these landmarks and they cease to be just polygons on a screen. Rather, they begin to live up their titular title of landmarks. As a whole, though, they help increase the lore of the story, but also keep it optional for the players who don’t care about lore.
While I could ramble on and on about other sorts of quests in Dragon Age: Inquisition, let alone some other games, these are a few examples of ways one can make fetch quests more interesting. Though, of course, I still wouldn’t say they hold a candle to more in-depth quests, they can be handled in a manner that continues to immerse players. For game development, at least for story heavy games, the last thing you want is for a player to be reminded they’re playing a game. This is, sadly, where a lot of MMORPGs fail with their quest design, since they add so little the player is hyper aware they are playing a game. In Dragon Age: Inquisition’s case, though, the quests are generally always designed with heavy world overtones. So, even if they can be a grind sometimes, the story additions make it worthwhile to still complete them.
Regardless of what you’re designing your quests for, the key is to always give them purpose beyond EXP and virtual money. Compel the player to complete the quest, even if their additions are optional flavor text that just add a smidgen of lore or atmosphere. You ultimately shape the experience for the players, so even if it’s fetch quests, use them to bring out the very best of your game.
Dragon Age: Inquisition is © to Bioware, Electronic Arts, and all affiliated parties.
Image: Dragon Age Inquisition concept art from Concept Art World.