Last week I beat Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, the latest entry in Eidos's Deus Ex series. Overall, I really enjoyed the game, but for this piece I want to focus on something I didn't like in the grand sceheme of things: side-quests and their place of the overall narrative.
Mankind Divided (MD) follows protagonist Adam Jensen as he either sneaks, shoots or hacks his way through a variety of different locales in his attempts to apprehend those behind a train station bombing and unearth the illuminati, a group of old men who run the the world from the shadows.
It's a great, mostly gripping story that I totally lost myself in. What pulled me out of it, however, was the side quests and how they seriously broke the pacing of the game's narrative. I'm noticing more and more in games, that the side-quests that are fed to you just don't feel relatable enough to the main story, or there is a serious gulf in importance.
The side-quests in themselves are well made, but I don't want to pause the main story to go about wrapping up side-quests that hold no relation to what I've been doing up until that point. I did them though because I bought the game and wanted to enjoy all it had to offer, but it just dampens the effect of the overall narrative for me.
MD isn't the only game that does this. In fact, it's pretty common in games that feature side-quests. The problem is player agency. Optional side-quests almost always means that the player can move freely about a set game world, pursuing different story elements at their leisure. The Witcher 3 is another game like this. There's nothing you can do about preventing a player from following a main quest line to save the world and then stopping to go back and do a minor side-quest about killing five rats or picking five herbs or what have you.
MD was a little different in that it had a main hub level that you left and kept coming back to. Incomplete sidequests were cancelled when you left and new ones were available when you returned. This is a great system that allows developers to really control the pacing. MD, however, just didn't take advantage of it in ways that I'd have liked.
Towards the end of MD and any other game I play that has side-quests, I want the side-quests to become more and more in tune with the main quest. Early on in a game, when the narrative hasn't truly begun firing on all cylinders, I think its more acceptable to have less relatable quests, but as the main narrative begins to take over, you run the risk of losing me if the side quests and the main story aren't even making an attempt to intertwine.