RPG Grind Time – Making Side Quests Matter
I grew up completing every side quest possible in my role-playing games. I would buy strategy guides alongside my latest RPG conquest just to make sure I would know about every optional quest along the way. I loved getting the most out of my journey, even if it meant dealing ridiculous things like dodging 200 lightning bolts or completing a chocobo race in less than 0 seconds thanks to time reductions. I had a lot of time in those days – I wanted to spend as much time in these worlds as possible. Nowadays, I don't have the luxury for fruitless efforts, and find myself only wanting to embark on side quests if they're convenient or add something worthwhile to the story. Games have grown so much over the years that side quests should be more engaging, but I still encounter so many that don't seem worth my time and are flat-out boring. Yes, that means I'd never repeat those crazy Final Fantasy X side quests, and while I did them back then, I don't find them examples of side quests done well.
Here's what I find great about side quests – they give you the opportunity to extend your time in a world you're enjoying. RPGs are long affairs, but part of the magic is the attachment you get to the characters and universe. Sometimes I just don't want the journey to end, or I'm getting so into the world and people that I want to discover more about them. The best side quests add something new to the characters or the story, or are just their own self-contained affairs that tell a compelling tale. For instance, the Dragon Age series makes a point to give you extra character quests that help you better understand your party members. I still think about Dorian's journey about coming to terms with who he is and walking away from a life that his family wanted to force him into. Another example that comes to mind is Tales of Xillia 2, which had its problems (never force players into side content!), but my favorite part was the character quests because I felt like they offered some intriguing insight into each individual, like Alvin's tragic love and Leia's fight to prove herself as a successful journalist.
I can't mention good side quests without talking about The Witcher. In fact, I find these games to have heaps of quests that offer so many different things to various player types. You have quests for those who just like to take on the biggest, baddest monsters, for those who revel in hunting down the coolest gear, or those who want to learn more about the characters. Some also have self-contained stories that are just fantastically written and memorable; whether it's a humorous take on bureaucracy or helping a woman befriend a monster haunting her. Furthermore, doing some of these side quests don't just offer beneficial experience or items, but they can also shape the world around in you in interesting ways. I loved going back and seeing what my decisions in a side quest changed, which can range from a character living or dying to them opening up a shop that gives me a discount.
I feel the quality and variety of Witcher 3's side quests are the gold standard for them in this day and age and I hope to see that grow. Developers spend all this time creating these amazing worlds and I'd like more compelling reasons to spend extra time in them, doing every little thing possible. Side quests shouldn't feel like work or as if they're necessary to advance in the game, but should be an extra and exciting award for anyone who partakes in them. Instead, I see too many RPGs relying on the same tired ones without much creativity. Fetch quests don't have to be as mechanical, boring, and unrewarding as they often are and killing a certain amount of monsters should affect the area and bring you more than just a few extra healing items. The days of tedious side quests should be over; they shouldn't be something to dread or you just do for trophies/achievements. Something more should drive you to them.
That's not to say they all have to be story focused either. I enjoy optional bosses in games that are a proving ground for your skills (Kingdom Hearts is great at this, by the way). The sense of accomplishment and goodies for beating these baddies are enough incentive. And I'll still gladly partake in extra activities to get badass armor or weapons, but these should offer their own fun moments beyond the reward. I just feel like we're past the days of these feeling like a job and should be something you want to engage in. I get that side quests are optional, but that doesn't mean they deserve to feel like filler, second-rate content. I'd take less side quests in my games if they meant better quality than an abundance of them that are a bore. Sadly, I see the latter way more than I'd like in my RPGs.