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Quest For Change

Quests are meant to tell stories, to show how a character or world changes. But video games seem intent on keeping that from happening. Even the lowly fetch quest can be the fulcrum for a character arc or world-shifting events.

Gregory Pellechi, Blogger

April 27, 2018

12 Min Read

Fetch quests are the bane of any gamer. If you’re old enough then each and every time you’re presented with one you do it begrudgingly, swearing at the designers who were so lazy. If you’re young enough for it not to matter. It so soon will. You’ll be asking yourself why the NPCs couldn’t collect their own damn wolf skins or pixie wattles. Sad to say, it’s just one of those things… But it doesn’t have to be.

“Our stories come from our lives and from the playwright’s pen, the mind of the actor, the roles we create, the artistry of life itself and the quest for peace.” — Maya Angelou

So you’re probably wondering what’s wrong with fetch quests, asides from the fact they’re boring. Truth be told, nothing’s wrong with them.

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Fetch quests are as good as any other quest.

To get reductive all quests are about one thing — change.

If you’re on a quest you’re either seeking something — a person, place, thing or information. Basically a noun. Why? Because you don’t have it. You are in effecting fetching something. Alternatively, you do have it and are seeking something else. You want something different. In either case, you’re after change.

What makes fetch quests so boring is that the change you’re after is not for you. Those 10 wolf skins could be tied to an epic saga where the quest giver is using them as a disguise to sneak their way into the realm of the gods in an effort to steal a golden urn.

You’ll just never know because you’re not involved in that story, beyond running an errand. You as a player and a character are left on the side like so many NPCs. Which begs the question, why have the quest in the first place? It’s hardly emblematic of the power fantasy a player is participating in, unless it’s to show humanity’s dominance over nature as you beat over the head for the umpteenth time.

More often than not it’s because the player character is a low level, or the game is one that doesn’t let the world change. Think any MMO — EverQuest, Anarchy Online, World of WarCraft, The Division, or Destiny 2.

To be fair to those games and their creators, most RPGs have the bad habit of doling out quests that result in no changes to the world. It doesn’t matter if an NPC sends you seek badger pelts or bugbears who stole their favorite pug, the NPC will still be standing there whether you complete the quest or not. They’re just always standing there.

Of course some games have their NPCs on schedules so they’re not always literally standing in the same spot. But similar to West World, the NPCs will soon return to their starting positions. The major exception to this, I’m sure you can guess — The Witcher 3. Where killing of a creature has a noticeable impact on the world. You can clear out a monster nest or rid the countryside of a particularly burdensome beast and the people will return.

But Geralt has a very good reason to be taking on fetch quests on a regular basis. It’s his job. Hunting monsters pays, and as a player we can gain experience and special loot. That loot, be it ten wolf skins or a unicorn horn, serves another purpose in the game beyond being sellable. It’s crafting components for potions, arms and armor. So even if there isn’t an NPC that wants that results of the quest, the player can make use of them.

Those are mechanics and as a writer you never know what will make the cut. Between the time you’ve written something and the game ships an entire systems that are justified by your story can be stripped. But that’s why it’s important for the story to justify the decisions to have certain types of quests. By that I mean, the player character needs a reason to take on such quests, to gather items for others, beyond the grind. Geralt has a job, he’s a witcher. Mario may be a plumber but he isn’t laying pipe.

So if we’re going to have fetch quests, what can we as writers do to make them more palatable, given there’s no guarantee certain systems will be in the game? Asides from having the player character have a profession that makes searching for such materials relevant, we can write more.

Not more fetch quests

But more steps and aspects to the quest. The hunt for wolf skins can be a front for something else. The NPC who gave you the quest may have ulterior motives for killing all those wolves. Or someone else doesn’t want you to kill those wolves, putting you in the middle of a conflict between two parties.

Fetch quests, like any quests, are a framing device for the reality of the world the player character inhabits. And because you as a writer create it all, there’s no reason to leave it at just “return when you’ve collect 6 platypus bills”. That is unless what you’re creating is not actually a quest but a mission, job or duty. We all have our responsibilities be they to our home or profession. So why shouldn’t video game characters?

We take out the trash, go grocery shopping, turn in TPS reports an does any of it say anything about us as people? Do we change by doing it? Only if your life is a post-modern novel, and even then there’s a distinct lack of self-referential analysis. Jobs offer the perfect reason for repeating tasks, because they are by nature repetitive. Even creative professions like writing, painting, or performing have a litany of actions — it’s called practice and you never stop doing it. Or as a writer, editing. After all, editing is iteration.

Professions common to video games like soldiers or police officers have a lot of routines. Going on patrol for example, guard duty, trainings and briefings. None of it sounds terribly exciting and most times its not. Of course as we know things can get crazy. That mundanity of the everyday video games tend to ignore, except for farming and transportation sims. When it comes to being a soldier or police officer, more often than not you don’t play the lowliest grunt.

The exception to that of course is the Arma series, but its focus is on simulation and not arcade-style action. That said, who has the time for a job when they’re saving the world?

That’s honestly why we see people who inhabit special positions in games. Special forces soldiers, spies, super heroes, bounty hunters, outcasts, exiles, explorers, smugglers, and more — basically anyone who has the ability to cross lines and make decisions is great a choice for a protagonist.

Because they once again are the epitome of a power fantasy. They have an agency over their lives and their world that most of us do not. That’s why you’ll never see Master Chief picking flowers as he attempts to save the world. In fact I’m thrown out of the fantasy I’m supposed to inhabit as a particular character anytime there’s collecting and crafting. Seriously, why should I as this all-powerful badass have to do such menial work?

Dragon Age: Inquisition I’m looking at you. You have me quite literally running a country and yet I still have to find my own raw materials and then forge armor? There’s the most qualified dwarf sitting in the bowels of my castle and she can’t do it for me? She has to just sit there and watch and comment?

Hunting and gathering along with crafting can fit a world and a character that’s based around being self-sufficient. Think the Fallout series. But in most cases the systems that gamers want don’t fit the story, or even the power fantasy all that well.

If a character is a part of a system, be it a military order, a society secret or otherwise, or even a family there is always a certain amount that is done by others. Humans and other creatures are social animals. Hell half the creatures we kill in video games are social creatures. So there are going to be mechanisms within those groups for hunting, gathering, crafting and sharing of resources.

I know it sounds like I’m off on some anti-libertarian tirade, but I’m not. No man, elf, super-soldier, or sim is an island.

The real exception for video game characters is whomever you play in MineCraft. There is no support system. There are no other characters. You’re on your own and so it’s all on you to create something. But then that’s a game without a plot to concern yourself with.

Enough about crafting, back to quests.

Every quest is about change, whether it’s reactive or active choice. If you’re holding to the hero’s journey then every quest is reactive because something else has changed that prompts the character to go on the quest. But if you’re not concerned with the hero’s journey the difference between the a reactive and an active quest is whether or not someone or something forces the character on it.

An active choice, an active quest would have the character looking around at the state of the world and wanting to change it. They don’t necessarily have to have something happen to them to make that occur. Which is a contrary idea to how comic books work, but hey I don’t think you need an inciting incident to do good. A reactive quest is something a character is forced onto, like revenge. Or attempting to revert the world back to a previous state — similar to Lord of the Rings.

But quests, reactive and active alike, aren’t always one or the other. Any ensemble is likely to have characters that go on the quest as a reaction while others chose it actively. Take Star Wars for example. All the guys in the original trilogy are reactive. Princess Leia is the only active character as she chose to fight the Empire. Luke, Han, Chewie and Obi-Wan all are forced into that fight. Hell Princess Leia takes charge the moment she’s rescued and comes out shooting.

What’s does change mean?

Two things — the character and the world. It doesn’t have to be both, but for the power fantasy to be present then the world at least has to change. Not every quest has to be dramatic in its change, merely incremental in a way the player feels as if they’ve accomplished something.

But if you listened to my last episode, Try Fail Cycles, then you know that’s not always the smartest thing to do. Sometimes quests need to fail, to give both the character and the player a chance to learn and reassess, as well as to heighten the odds they’re playing for. For a character to change they need an arc. Any quest they take that affects them and changes them is going to provide that arc. But we’ll explore character arcs more in a future episode.

For now, it’s just worth thinking about how a quest can change a character. Take Geralt’s quest with a cast iron pan. Does he change from it? Yes he can, though only if the player uses that opportunity to have him become either more charitable in his actions or more wary of the jobs he takes on. Hunting down missing cookware isn’t exactly his prime motive, yet this is an opportunity for the player to reflect on how they play and the role they want Geralt to take in the world. It’s also a super simple fetch quest.

Quests are always going to be relative for characters, that relationships in turn affects players who are going to perceive a certain value for that quest. And I’m not talking about the rewards they receive or the time it takes to complete. Rather was it worth it. Back in EverQuest there was a lot of grinding fetch quests to complete. It’s not just the nature of MMOs, but any game where you have to raise your position within a faction. At the time I considered it worth it. But I was young, and focused more on other aspects of the game.

Now I want more from my quests.

I don’t expect all of them to be perfect or life changing for the character I’m inhabiting. But I do expect them to serve a purpose within the story and plot of the game.

One final thought on quests, and since I haven’t mentioned it this episode. Firewatch has the anti-fetch quest. Hear me out. Firewatch has you as Henry at one point searching a camp site with the option to pick up the cans. Some of the stuff you pick up as you do serves the purpose of moving the dialogue forward and advancing the plot.

However, you don’t actually have to collect the cans. There’s no reward, no achievement, no little ding or check mark to show that you’ve collected all the cans you find throughout the game. What there is, is roleplaying. Feeling like you’re Henry doing your job of maintaining the Wapiti wilderness and watching for wildfires. And that’s its own reward.

Thanks for taking part in this episode of The Writing Game, I’m Gregory Pellechi. Everything I do can be found at OneGameDad.com and I can be reached there or on Twitter @OneGameDad if you want to talk writing, games, this show or even working together. The Writing Game is hosted by Third Culture Kids which can be found at ThirdCultureKids.net, where the full transcript of this episode is available. Please be sure to like & subscribe or rate and review this show on whatever platform you find it. I’ll see you on the next episode.

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