Stepping off the beaten path in any given game can open up a whole new world. Main story lines are fine, but side quests often contain better writing, funnier jokes, and more interesting mechanics. Sometimes they’re so good that when the credits roll, the distractions and detours burn brighter in your memory than the central journey itself. With that in mind, here’s a list of the best side quests on PC. Don’t blame me if you suddenly have an urge to reinstall that RPG you sunk 100 hours into five years ago. Oh, and leave your own suggestions in the comments below the story.
Oasis, Fallout 3
“I had you brought in here to ask one simple favour. Would you kill me?” It’s one of my favourite lines from Fallout 3 within arguably its best side quest. Tucked away in the corner of the grey wasteland is Oasis, where flourishing plant life obscures a tragic tale.
At the centre is Harold, a mutant with a tree growing out of his head. It’s grown so large that Harold is rooted in place, and he wants you to end his miserable life. But killing him will destroy this pocket of calm, stopping any chance of it spreading life to the rest of the world, and end the hopes of his followers. So what do you do? It’s a great opportunity to role-play, and the writing is superb whichever option you choose.
The Harper Hold Quests, Baldur's Gate 2
Bioware’s 2000 RPG remains one of the best in the genre, and it’s largely down to its side quests. The Harper Hold quests are a perfect example: complex, fiddly at times, but ultimately rewarding. It’s all about the characters. Two of the best from the first Baldur’s Gate—Xsar and Montaron—return fleetingly (one dies, the other is turned into a bird), and most of the tale centres around Jaheira, and ties in with her excellent romance story.
It’s really, really long but you don’t have to pay too much attention. There’s splices of action—mainly fighting the Harpers—followed by days of downtime, and then suddenly a character will pop up on your travels to move the quest forward. It’s not something games do much nowadays, sadly.
Blood on the Ice, Skyrim
Skyrim’s main quest is, let’s face it, a bit rubbish. The meat of the game lies around the fringes, and this murder mystery is a stand out. It only activates once you’ve visited Windhelm four times; on the previous three visits you’ll hear whispers of a serial killer on the loose, building the atmosphere. Solving the mystery involves gathering clues and interrogating suspects, and when you finally piece the puzzle together and nab the killer you feel like a genius. It’s CSI: Cyrodiil—a welcome change of pace from slaying dragons.
The Last Wish, The Witcher 3
The Witcher 3 is packed with hilarious side quests—I’m fond of Novigrad’s Hospitality, where you get drunk with a couple of bards and wake up to discover they’ve stolen your clothes.
But The Last Wish is a different breed. It’s all about its final few minutes, the culmination of a three-game relationship between Geralt and Yennefer. Sitting together in a shipwreck on top of a mountain (yep, it’s nuts) you have the power to either cement the love you share or break her heart. It’s poetically written, and the delivery and facial expressions make it perhaps the most emotional moment in the game.
Oblivion’s Dark Brotherhood quest line outshines the game’s main plot, and Whodunit? is its high point. A wealthy client has organised a treasure hunt party with five guests, and has paid the assassin’s guild to kill them off quietly one by one. You can convince Neville, a Redguard, to go upstairs and take a nap so that you can murder him in his sleep. You can joke to Matilde Petite that you’re an assassin (ahem) to get her to like you, and then ask her to come with you to the basement to search for the loot. Or, if you’re really evil, you can cast a frenzy spell and let the guests rip each other apart. It’s a great example of Bethesda’s imagination at work.
Lair of the Shadow Broker, Mass Effect 2
Lair of the Shadow Broker is three hours of pure Mass Effect magic. It explores the relationship between Shepard and Liari T’Soni—who featured heavily in the first game—as they delve into the dealings of the Shadow Broker, another returning character.
Every cut scene oozes style, and its breakneck shoot-y action has the pacing of the best action movies. There’s two particularly memorable boss fights, but the dialogue steals the show: it’s one of the funniest, most heartfelt sections of the entire trilogy, and listening to Shephard and Liara poke fun at each other during a car chase is a clear highlight.
A Night to Remember, Skyrim
Skyrim meets The Hangover in this tale of a tavern drinking game gone wrong. The mighty Dragonborn blacks out after a heavy session and wakes up in a trashed temple. After cleaning up you’re given a giant’s toe, two bottles of Alto wine, a Hagraven feather and a note from your drinking buddy Sam, telling you that they’re all somehow related.
The bulk of the quest is piecing together what happened the night before – you nicked a goat, apparently—and ends in the wedding of a Daedric prince. Brilliant from start to finish.
You are Cordially Invited, Borderlands 2
It’s perhaps the most twisted, disgusting ‘tea party’ ever: you act as a bouncer fighting off hordes of enemies while Tiny Tina, a pyromaniac teenager, tortures a psycho who’s tied to a makeshift electric chair in her workshop. It’d be chilling if it weren’t for Tina’s giggling monologue on everything from the weather to desserts, punctuated by the buzz of electricity.
The contrast between her cutesy words and actions is jarring, and the revelation that the psycho killed Tina’s family gives it a tragic tinge. I didn’t know what to feel after the shooting stopped – I just knew that it was very, very good.
The Ultimate Heist, Oblivion
The culmination of hours of work climbing up the ladder of the Thieves’ Guild, this heist to steal an Elder Scroll more than lives up to the build-up. It’s the kind of epic finale that should’ve appeared in the main quest, bringing together several items that you’ve pilfered in previous outings – such as the Boots of Springheel Jak—in a multi-part sneak fest.
It’s an operation planned with military precision, and dodging between shadows in the Catacombs, the Hall of Epochs and the Imperial Palace makes you feel like a real thief. It’s tense, rewarding, and you’re never in one place long enough to get bored. Easily one of the best hours in the Elder Scrolls series.
Come Fly With Me, Fallout: New Vegas
Come Fly With Me is just plain cool: you’re helping a bunch of ghouls build a rocket ship so they can blast off into space, escape the wasteland, and find a new home.
The mini story that plays out is surprisingly complex. A human called Chris who thinks he’s a ghoul plays a starring rolem and if you can convince him that he’s human after all he will vow revenge on the ghouls for tricking him. It’s then up to you to talk him out of sabotaging the rockets.
The launch itself is a real spectacle, and a worthy pay off. Plus, if you’re an evil bastard then you can side with Chris so the rockets crash into each other on launch in a shower of flames, wiping out the group. Fun for all the family.
Return to Crookback Bog, The Witcher 3
The Bloody Baron is one of my favourite Witcher 3 characters – and Return to Crookback Bog is a chance for him to get some closure as he searches for his wife, Anna, in the misty marshes. It encapsulates CD Projekt’s penchant for telling great stories while maintaining constant action as you fight your way through packs of drowners and a particularly memorable Fiend.
It ties in elegantly with the main quest, and depending on your choices there the ending can be heart-warming or gut-wrenching. The intimate tale of a single family takes on more weight than most games can manage in entire playthroughs.
The Silver Shroud, Fallout 4
The town of Goodneighbor in Fallout 4 has one standout feature: the Silver Shroud radio. It broadcasts re-runs of the adventures of the super hero ("Aw geez Louise, why did you go and do that?"), and it’s run by a ghoul called Kent Connolly. Kent wants nothing more than to see the Silver Shroud come to life—and his enthusiasm for the character is infectious. I couldn’t help but oblige.
It turns into a role-play within a role-play, as your character dons the Silver Shroud outfit and puts on an over-the-top superhero voice to dole out justice throughout the town, which is apparently packed with criminals. It’s fantastically camp, well-paced, and keeps on escalating, and the humour provides a ludicrous contrast to shooting bad guys in the face.
Siegmeyer of Catarina quest line, Dark Souls
Nicknamed ‘Onion Bro’ by fans because of his bulbous grey armour and ever-jolly outlook, Siegmeyer of Catarina’s quest line is the most bittersweet in the series. His enthusiasm for adventuring was infectious, but by fighting alongside him you become the author of his demise.
He prides himself on his bravery, and every time you help him out that pride diminishes. In a last hurrah he sacrifices himself for your survival, leading to a number of outcomes each more sad than the last. If he dies, you mourn the passing of a great friend. If he lives he is shamed, and turns hollow, only for his daughter to come along and slay him in a last ditch attempt to preserve his honour. An epic tragedy in a small corner of the Dark Souls universe.
Kasumi's Loyalty Mission, Mass Effect 2
I could’ve picked one of a number of Mass Effect 2’s loyalty missions for this list, but Kasumi’s feels the most unique. Bioware aimed to create a mission in the style of James Bond, and they nailed it: Shepard assumes a fake identity and glides around a party full of arseholes sipping drinks, looking at art and sweet talking his or her way into getting a few items needed for the upcoming heist.
Kasumi is an interesting character, and despite the fact that the mission is only an hour long the story—you’re there to steal a brain snapshot of her deceased lover—sticks the landing. She really shines when you rob the vault and the combat starts. Having two party members rather than three means the combat is hectic, and Kasumi’s ability to turn invisible, run behind an enemy and stab them in the back is cool every time.
Lord of a Barren Land, Pillars of Eternity
Decisions, decisions. What made this quest stand out was the amount of options it gave you. Kolsc has asked for your help in getting one over on his brother and ruler of the region, Lord Raedric. First, you had three ways to break into Raedric’s Hold: sneak, climb, or go in blasting through the front door.
Then when inside your options for getting to the throne room—your goal—are endless. There’s sewers, secret buttons and passages, guards to kill, a key to talk out of a man in need of a favour, prisoners to free, and wine cellars to raid.
Then, when you ascend to the throne room you have the ultimate choice to side with Raedric or Kolsc, along with plenty of unique dialogue that’s dependent on exactly how you got there. Lots of Pillars quests give you choices – but this one is the best.
Vinewood Souvenirs, GTA 5
GTA V’s Strangers & Freaks missions were generally pretty dull. But Nigel and Mrs. Thornhill, an old posh British couple with an unhealthy celebrity obsession, made this series of quests special. Trevor first spies them rooting through some bins, presumably in search of some memorabilia, and from then on helps them accrue a stash of their favourite actors’ stuff. Gold teeth, golf clubs – you name it, they want it. They’re charming, and the back and forths between them and Trevor is some of the best in the game. There’s a good chunk of GTA dark humour thrown in too: it’s all very innocent until they ask you to kidnap Al di Napoli, throw him in their trunk, and leave him on the train tracks. Trevor, naturally, is eager to oblige. Who could say no to such an adorable pair?
I Remember Me, Mass Effect
A solid example of Bioware’s penchant for emotional storytelling elevated by a personal connection to the player. The quest is only available if your Shepard has the ‘Colonist’ back story, in which you grew up on a planet called Mindoir and saw your parents slaughtered by raiders when you were 16. Talitha, another survivor, cannot face the trauma of the event any longer and is threatening suicide in a Citadel docking bay.
It requires delicate handling—a misstep will make her shoot herself in front of your eyes. Her pain is palpable, and the well-written dialogue means you actually care about succeeding. It’s one of the few moments where your selected background actually influences a quest in a meaningful way, and if you do save the day you’ll get a thank you message in Mass Effect 2 from Talitha. It’s a nice touch.
Shoot This Guy in the Face, Borderlands 2
Pretty self explanatory, this one – and that’s what makes it so hilarious. All Face McShooty wants is for you to mcshoot him in the face. Not in the arm, not in the leg, not in the chest – right on the noggin. It’s Borderlands at its absurd best.
If you delay, Mr McShooty will go on a long rant: “I NOTICE YOU HAVEN'T SHOT ME IN THE FACE! CURIOUS AS TO WHY! Maybe you're weighing the moral pros and cons but let me assure you that OH MY GOD SHOOT ME IN THE GODDAMNED FACE!!”