I find sidequests really fascinating in modern games, and feel like we are so close to having the best version of them, but nobody has done it yet.
I played through FF7 Remake again after finishing FF16, and on paper, the FF16 sidequests should blow the FF7 Remake ones out of the water. They are meaningful, with significant story implications, many are multi step story arcs, and they provide resolutions and conclusions to character stories. And yet, somehow the ‘lame’ sidequests in FF7 remake felt better.
I feel like the big issues with sidequests in games today are pacing, discovery, refuseability, and presentation.
Of course, the original Deus Ex more or less nailed all these things as best it could given the technology at the time. Cyberpunk nailed pacing and presentation, FF7 Remake nailed pacing, and FF16 kind of didn’t nail anything.
Pacing is the first issue with sidequests. You’re all set, you’re ready to go off and kill a God, and then 13 sidequest markers appear. This is… not great. It feels really weird to stop the forward motion of the story to do sidequests. In FF7 Remake, the sidequests all occur at sections of the game that more or less feel natural. Cloud arrives at the Sector 7 Slums after blowing up a reactor, and the chapter is all about getting to know Tifa again after so long apart. Avalanche is planning their next mission, so it makes sense to meet people in the slums and make yourself known as a merc by doing sidequests. Likewise when you are in sector 5 with Aerith, and in the Wall Market. They present themselves at times where the narrative naturally slows down, and don’t carry over going forward. You do them there or you don’t do them at all, which leaves the propulsion of the narrative intact when you head for the climax.
Discovery is I think the biggest problem with sidequests today. Pretty much every game today will prompt you, alert you, and track your progress on sidequests. Most give you rewards for completing them all, either with game advantages or with a trophy or something. Rather than being things you can discover on your own, and do if you want, they are more or less ‘official’ asks from the game. You could go through Deus Ex doing all sorts of interesting things, but the game never really labels or tracks them as such. It just feels like parts of a world you can explore, and often the rewards are minor or absent. A lot of it is just because you want to, and want to see what will happen. Cyberpunk ALMOST had this, but the game would alert and prompt you to the quests instead of letting them be natural discoveries. Many were worth doing just for the story of doing them, and as far as I remember the game doesn’t track them with a completion counter.
Which brings me to refuseability. I feel like there should be more of a reason to say no. There’s really no reason to say no unless you just want to get on with the game and don’t care. But if you’re into the story, the world, and the experience, why would you not do one? Step one is having the sidequests be discoverable and not tracked. Step 2, is making them have more of an effect on the game world. Have quests that are mutually exclusive, and let the player decide which they would rather do. Have sidequests affect NPC characters, so maybe you say no because you think doing so would make someone you like mad. Make saying no open a story path or quest path different from saying yes. In short, make us think before we choose accept. Deus Ex did this in many ways. Sometimes doing something would be resource intensive, and you might run out of ammo or energy requiring you to buy more when money is tight. It might slightly alter the story in ways you might not want. It might cut you off from something else. Or, you might just discover a better way to do what you want.
Lastly is presentation. This is what killed FF16’s sidequests for me. Because on paper, they are indeed good. But they don’t get the treatment the story sections get, with full performance capture, and cinematic editing, pacing, and camera placement. It’s all boring auto cutscene shit, with canned animations, and awkward cadence as lines of dialogue begin only when the animations finish. It’s so stilted and undramatic, that it ended up being supremely boring. It’s the difference between a scene edited poorly, and one edited for maximum emotional effect. It really matters! If the sidequests had gotten the care that the main story got, I think the response would have been overwhelmingly positive.
So. Here’s where I think sidequests should go:
1. Don’t track them, and limit rewards for them. Make them doing more for their own sake; for the experience of it.
2. Give players a reason not to do them, or to choose one over the other. Abandon the idea of 100% being possible. Make the choice to refuse more meaningful.
3. Try not to let them interfere with the pacing of the main game narrative.
4. Give them the same care and presentation you would with your main story.
The industry can do better. Make sidequests more than just a checklist. I wonder if Baldur’s Gate 3 does all this.