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What Makes a Good Quest?

You’re a level 1 warrior who has just walked into the local tavern, wearing naught but some poor-quality leather armor and carrying a rusty dagger and an old buckler. As you approach the bar, the tavern keeper tells you that unfortunately, there isn’t any ale; the cellar is overrun with rats–20 of them, to be precise. He offers you five gold to kill the rats. Congratulations, you’ve just received your first quest.

“Quests” are historically associated with the RPG genre, but they can be found in most genres, using different terms, like “mission” or “operation.” Quests allow game designers to influence the direction of a player’s experience, for a variety of purposes. In some cases, as with the classic rat-killing quest described above, they will act as a tutorial–an introduction to game mechanics by providing the player with a low-risk introduction to combat, movement, dialogue systems and user interface. In other examples, they might provide a broad, overarching goal for the player in an otherwise open world–The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim presents the player with a central chain of quests that guides them through a main story arc, but the player can ignore that central quest if they choose to. Quests can be further categorized into main quests and side quests. A main quest is, in some way, an essential part of the standard playthrough, while a side quest could be considered optional. Players tend to expect a higher standard of main quests, while side quests can often consist of the simple “collect five of X item” or “kill 15 of X monster.”

A quest is kind of like a miniature story within the central narrative of a game, and they are often structured in a similar way: an introduction, central conflict, resolution, and sometimes an epilogue. You might even consider the central plot of the game itself as a huge, overarching quest, if you are loose with the definition.

What makes a good quest, though? A game like The Witcher III: Wild Hunt contains some of the greatest quests in the history of gaming, but not all quests need to be of such high standard. Here are some examples of what makes a quest “good.”

Design

Design can make or break a quest, but there isn’t silver bullet when it comes to how to approach quest design–it depends on the game. World of Warcraft’s use of “!” and “?” is remarkably effective–it provides the player with clear visual feedback that a quest is available to either start, or finish. They also have a simple color-coding: yellow, grey, and blue to identify the type or level of the quest.

In an MMORPG, this is a very effective design, as the player experience is (usually) focused on progressing and leveling, not on searching for clues or reading quest text. But it’s not an approach that would work well with an in-depth RPG, such as Baldur’s Gate II. For a game like Baldur’s Gate II, good quest design might come from the fact that goals aren’t immediately obvious, requiring the player to use their brain, read in-game books for clues or solve puzzles. The Secret World challenges players by sending them on complex investigations that may even require some meta-knowledge, such as an understanding of Morse code. When it comes to quest design, good design seems to be about understanding what your players expect, and knowing which parts of the formula you can experiment with.

Distraction & Relief

Not all quests need to be directly related to a central plot, or have any particular purpose. The Grand Theft Auto series is filled with unrelated side quests that exist purely for comic relief, or to provide a mindless distraction. Maybe you want to ignore narrative for a little while and just jump into a battle–as with capturing forts in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. One of my favorite comic relief quests of all time is in The Witcher III: Wild Hunt, where Geralt and his old witcher buddies Eskel and Lambert knock back a few bottles of vodka and get into some drunken antics. It gives the player a chance to step away from the plot for a moment and smile, before diving back into saving the world.

Japanese games, like the Yakuza series, are particularly adept at these sorts of quests. But despite acting as relief or distraction from the central game, it helps that they still fit the context of the game world. Hunting wild animals in Red Dead Redemption was not only an enjoyable and challenging distraction, but it was something that I can imagine would reasonably happen within the game world.

Investment vs Reward

A good quest will respect a player’s time and efforts by rewarding them appropriately. Killing nightsabers for 4 hours in Darkshore to try and find 15 fangs for a quest that gives you a sub-par magic item will drive any World of Warcraft player mad. A good quest can be long and grueling, but you know you will walk away feeling like the reward was well worth the effort.

It seems simple, but this is far more difficult for game designers than you might expect. Players are fickle beasts, with vastly differing standards on what is or isn’t fun and what is or isn’t a suitable reward. So ultimately, what makes a collection of quests good is that they cater to the widest variety of players, and all players get the chance at gaining a satisfying reward.

Twists

Twists are dangerous–poorly executed, they can be predictable, unbelievable and can ruin a story–take the ending of Mass Effect 3 as a meme-worthy example. But when carefully woven into the story, a twist can make a game unforgettable. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic drove home its twist like a hammer, while the truth of Olgierd von Everec’s story in The Witcher III: Heart of Stone revealed more gradually. In both cases, the twist was subtly foreshadowed and delivered with class and restraint–not overdone, like the protagonist’s predictable descent into madness in Far Cry 3.

Planescape: Torment featured some of the most stunning character development in any video game ever released, and part of this brilliance was due to the writer’s use of twists. Each character developed in unexpected ways, and as the Nameless One’s memory gradually returns, the player’s perception of their companions frequently shifts due to surprising discoveries about their past. Torment demonstrates that a twist doesn’t need to be a single, momentous event–rather, they can be small and constant, keeping the player’s emotions always on edge.

Choice & Consequence

Of all the things that make up a good quest, the one that gets most frequently mentioned is choice and consequence. Players often say that what makes a good quest is the feeling of player agency, and the ability to see the game world and plot react to the choices made by the player. The Witcher series (once again) is rightfully regarded as a gold standard, and it is a pillar that CD Projekt Red has always strived for with quest design. However, a fine example from much earlier is 2001’s Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura by Troika Games. Every single quest, from the simplest fetch quest, to the central plot quests, could be completed in a myriad of ways, and even the same choices could play out entirely differently with a new character. Playing Arcanum with a beautiful and intelligent smooth-talker on one playthrough, and then an ugly, brutish ogre with the minimum intelligence score on another, really highlights the amazing depth in this underappreciated RPG.

That’s not to say that the lack of choice and consequence is bad. Some of the best quests are notably linear. Jan Jansen’s quest in Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn is an entirely linear affair, but it is written in such a way that the player feels like they are taking a back seat to their companion, who is making all the decisions. The player can influence Jan to a degree, but ultimately the gnome is set on his path. What is important here is that, when taking away player agency, the player should notice it as little as possible.

Impact

For me, the most important part of a quest is not the presence or absence of choice, rewards, or a twist. What is truly important in a very, very good quest is that is has a lasting impact on the player. It is honestly quite rare for a game to achieve that standard, but when they do, games are able to have a greater impact than any other storytelling medium, as the audience is able to become more heavily invested than they could with a book, TV show, or movie.

It might seem obvious to bring up The Witcher again, but I only do so because it is a series that has been so good at delivering emotionally powerful quests. “The Bloody Baron” quest in The Witcher III features one of the most powerful endings in gaming history, but The Witcher II: Assassins of Kings has several quests that are equally deserving of praise. The closing moments of Act I offer players a difficult moral choice, with far-reaching consequences.

Similarly, Planescape: Torment is a game that will forever live on in my memory due to the sheer emotional power of its quests, and how the game masterfully demonstrated that, no matter what choices you make today, your past may continue to haunt and even undermine you.

Final Words

There is no single formula to making a quest great, and every player will value different things. However, I think that the points highlighted above are a few of those most important ones. Which quests have you found memorable? What quests have you hated? What is it that makes a quest good, in your mind? Leave us your thoughts in the comments below!

In about 1989, Gavin Annand played his first games on a Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Thus, began a lifetime obsession with games. A gaming addict or connoisseur, depending on your perspective.

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  1. SetPhasersToStun on November 5, 2019 at 3:47 pm said

    Being able to approach and tackle a problem (or quest) in multiple different ways is the key aspect of good quest design, imo.
    Good examples for this can be found in Gothic 2, like the “Orc Weapon” quest:

    To get Harad the weaponsmith’s approval (in order to become apprentice of one of Khorinis’ masters) he asks the player character to bring him an orcish weapon.
    There’s no quest marker, no hint in the journal, no nothing telling you how to do this.

    Solution a) Kill an orc by yourself to get his weapon
    Which by the time you receive the quest is not impossible but very hard to achieve due to the player character still being a wuss and not having proper equipment.
    There are a couple orcs of varying strength in the surrounding areas, so you can definitely try your luck on your own (and fail horribly).

    Solution b) Team up with a NPC and kill an orc to get his weapon
    Another quest involves joining a NPC to go on a hunt in one of the nearby forests. During the hunt you come across one of the mentioned orcs, in this case an orc scout, which is low in the orc ranks but in a one-on-one could still kill the player character with relative ease.
    Having the NPC (an experienced hunter) with you he’s not that big of a problem any more – IF the NPC has still enough health left from the previous encounters during the hunt which can include wolves, goblins or even a shadowbeast.

    Solution c) Explore and look for a discarded or abandoned orcish weapon
    Which, again, is not handed to you on a silver platter via quest markers or direct hints of any kind. You might pick up on rumors of an orc being sighted near the city walls a while ago which may or may not have died from one of the city guard’s arrows and such things though.

    Solution d) Lure one of the orcs in the surrounding areas to the city guards
    Who will make short work of it. In some rare cases it’s also possible for one of the named city guards (who’s involved with another quest later) to get killed in the process, so there’s again a bit of a gamble here.

    Solution e) Buy an orcish weapon from someone
    You won’t be able to take it off this someone’s hands right away. To do so you would have to gain access to another nearby settlement first. And then purchasing the orc weapon won’t be cheap as well.

    Solution f) Trade the task in for another one
    If you don’t feel like doing anything of the above just ask Harad to give you a different task in order to get his approval.

  2. SetPhasersToStun on November 5, 2019 at 4:24 pm said

    Speaking of – good quest design would also allow for relying solely on one’s own faculties and intuition while doing the quest. This means that there would be no need for a quest compass, mini map, quest markers, dotted lines, indicators, arrows pointing, highlighting, floating question/exclamation marks above NPCs’ heads and all that hand-holding bullshit.

    Good quest design involves well-written journal/quest entries or dialogue lines giving you sufficient information in regards to

    -where (roughly) the quest objective is (cardinal directions, near prominent landmarks, street names, room numbers, etc)
    -when (roughly) the quest objective takes place (time and date, “tomorrow”, “in x hours/days”, under a full moon, at sunset, etc)
    -what else there’s to know in regards to the quest objective (optional)

    without EVER having to rely on the “hand-holding” mentioned above.

    The Gothic series again being one of the prime examples in this regard.
    As well as the games that were influenced by it (The Witcher III) or just followed the same principle, like the recently released Disco Elysium.

  3. As long as the quest isn’t just…”GO HERE, GET THIS!” or “GO THERE, KILL THING!” I think it’s an acceptable one. A good quest has a good plot, impact on the story, and makes it worth going off the beaten trail instead of the main quest.

  4. You mentioned impact, and I think that is the biggest thing as well. In WoW, there was this quest way back in the day to carry water to a house that was on fire. So you would to that, and put the fire out… except that once the quest was done, the house would remain on fire. I’d pass the place at max level for years, house would still be on fire. Completely took me out of the game every time.

    But a lot of JRPGs and Buldur’s Gate type of games have a lot of branching paths for your choices, and that makes it feel as if your choices have impact. Torment: Tides of Numenera for instance has a LOT of choice available to you as you progress, from which companions to take or not, which ones to betray or help, which quests to take, etc,. and it genuinely has an impact on the story and the gameplay.

    Great article, btw.

  5. When it comes to the main quest the way the story is told and supported by gameplay is what defines a good one. The story could be simple, but the presentation and the gameplay could elevate the importance and how memorable the quest is.

    If we’re talking about side quests I usually like something that is different from the main gameplay loop. Astral Chain is a great example of this. The side quests involve detective work, puzzles and character interactions, which bring gameplay variety to a mainly combat focused game. They also utilise the abilities of your character in a different way, which is always a plus. The same could be said about the side quests in the Batman Arkham games. It utilised Batman’s skills and gadgets in a slightly different way and pulled you away from the main story.

    When it comes to rewards for side quests I don’t necessarily needs to be something great as long as it’s proportional to the effort. Overly hard quests should get you a decent item with gameplay advantages and relatively easy ones could earn you a cosmetic or a bit of lore.

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