Saturday, May 29, 2010

Spare Me Your Overquest

So, I have been playing more Dragon Age since that post a few weeks ago—I play games at a glacial pace, sorry—and I love the game, but you know what? I'm just about over main quests.

Seriously. Every time I play a game that has any sort of overworld to roam around in or any kind of exploratory element whatsoever, I find myself just wanting to tell all those NPCs to sit down and shut their yaps for a while. Let me go mess around in the wilderness and fight some goblins and find some gold and stuff. The end of the world will still be there when I get back. kthxbye.

I've noticed this before, but I think it really pulled me all the way out of the game experience for the first time when I played Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. I realized that the game was pulling me in two directions at the same time: on the one hand, I was supposed to cough up some serious rupees, rupees I didn't yet have, to pay Tingle to interpret my Triforce charts, and at the same time, the King of the Red Lions kept yelling at me to get a move on and get on with the quest.¹ Didn't I realize how desperate things were getting?!

Anyway, I had to go off the main path and collect tons and tons of money before I could advance, which, amusingly enough, the best way to do this was to solve lots of sliding puzzles in my personal cabana. Although this money was integral to completing the main quest, the game didn't think that making rupees should be my priority. As much as I love that game, and I do truly love Wind Waker, that contradiction really pulled me out of the experience, to say nothing of the fact that there were tons of other side-quests I could have been working on that were far more flippant.

In Dragon Age, I want to explore the Wilds, not leave immediately and save the world from the Blight. Yet the game is absolutely railroading me. I know, I know, at some point the game is going to open up and let me play, but it's not like I'm ever going to be free of the insistent demands of preventing the damn demon apocalypse for everybody else. Oh, also, Bioware should have picked a different word for the demonic blood infections that afflict people and animals in the game. All these warnings that it's crucial to "master your taint" are just too much for me, and I can hardly be the only one.

I guess what I'm saying is, what happened to the Baldur's Gate model? If I remember correctly, and I think I do, where you went and what you did was limited only by your character's abilities, which is perfectly acceptable to me: I don't expect to sneak in the back door right off the bat and kill the final boss; if the game wants to punish me for that kind of hubris, then that's okay. Also, the quest in BG, and this is important too, the quest in BG felt so much less pressing. I mean, there was important stuff going on, but you sort of had to find it out for yourself, and the game didn't condescendingly make you feel like everything you did was either "advancing the quest" or "worthless tomfoolery." Just don't make me feel like I have ADD just because I want to explore a little.

I've played precious little Morrowind, but so far it feels pretty gentle in this regard. The goals at least at the very beginning are kind of vague enough that you can go off the beaten path without feeling like a jerk. The game drops you in this new world with no real responsibilities, and if you don't do what people suggest you do, so what? I can't say the same for Oblivion or Fallout 3, though. It feels like a cold thing to do to let those people in the one town suck it while the demons pour out of the gate to hell while I run off and find lettuce for a statue—which is literally one thing you might be asked to do in that game—and what was the point of breaking out of the vault if you're not going to track down your father after all? Again, going off the reservation feels like a thing you'd have to be selfish, crazy, or very easily distracted to do.

If you're going to call these roleplaying games, please don't force me to break character just because I want to enjoy the other 80% of the game! It's there, isn't it? Why, then, can't I access it without feeling like I'm doing something wrong? Seriously, "Western" publishers proudly stick to this "Western" RPG tradition that's supposed to give us more freedom, but I feel less constrained in some ways by freaking Dragon Quest (pick one) than I do by Dragon Age!² That's just not the way it's supposed to be.

Oh, and in case you think I'm suggesting that everything become a sandbox game, don't worry. I've got a few complaints for those guys, too. The GTA games, for instance, have done a good job of giving space and scope for messing around, and in fact, their "main quests" are generally segmented into such poorly differentiated missions that I can't imagine wanting to stick around long enough to finish them. How many people can I chase down in a car and shoot? I realize that that's pretty much about all that GTA's controls and mechanics are good for, but jeez!³

Also, side quests in RPGs still tend to be a bit on the fetchy side. Tracking down X item to give to Y character in return for Z item to give to whomever else for whatever else, ad infinitum, is not original or interesting, Zelda games. When we tolerate these kinds of quests, it is because we love the world the games create, and we are happy to spend our time in those worlds doing just about anything, but make no mistake: most of us, I think, are performing these tasks in spite of the quests' limited nature.

So why not make a game with, I don't know, several tracks for questing? I don't mind fetch quests here and there if they're in the service of something greater, but in isolation, they're just not compelling to me. At the same time, I don't want to feel like there's one thing I should be doing in the game and that's it. These are supposed to be living worlds we're stepping into; why is it that they're so limited that all they feel like are locations for the (mostly not brilliant) narratives our game designers want us to experience? There's nothing wrong with putting the story first, but let's just break it up a little bit. Every game doesn't have to be about saving the world, and frankly, I'm finding my ability to suspend disbelief sorely tested after all these years of constant from-nobody-to-savior-of-existence narratives. Every once in a while those main quests should be, well, just a little pettier. Not every death cult is summoning the destroyer of reality; sometimes they're just causing problems for the local populace. Not every orc tribe serves the incarnation of evil himself; some of them just get a little rowdy now and then. Just make a few big quests, have them stack up a little bit, let us feel that progression from level 1 to level 20 or whatever. It's not that I don't want to save the world every now and then, I just don't want to save it to the exclusion of everything else. And I'm sorry if that sounds horribly selfish of me.

¹There is absolutely nothing wrong with you if you have no idea what I'm talking about here.

²If you're not sure what I mean here, I do have a post that touches on the difference between Western and Japanese RPGs.

³I admit, GTA: San Andreas broke the mold a few times—stealing cars all the time gets boring, but stealing a combine is something else entirely—but Rockstar did a great job with Bully, which had missions that really did feel different from each other, at least enough to hold my interest. Maybe it was because you couldn't kill people!

EDIT: I forgot to add a link to this hilarious comic strip that shows the King of the Red Lions being the King of the Red Lions. Enjoy.

That nifty King of the Red Lions screenshot comes from

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