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 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 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.
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.
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.