Every week, Richard Cobbett writes about the wonderful world of story and writing in games.
Adventurers, I have a quest for you. I want you to save the honour of the word 'quest'. It currently lies, bound and gagged, in the middle of a tower made of meaningless crapwork. Help me return it to its days of glory, when a quest was something to aspire to, to put fire in the blood, and not merely some designer trying to artificially slap some drama onto their busywork. Never again should we sit idly by as trumpets blare and fireworks explode in the sky to hail us as the champions who dared to pick up five apples and give them to some lazy git standing just a mild jog away in exchange for a few measly drops of XP.
A quest should mean something. It's a word steeped in epic stories and tales of gold and glory. It is a word that brings to mind dragons and princesses in towers, of ancient treasure and threats of potentially world-destructive power. In recent years though, especially with the rise of casual games and mobiles, it's been watered down so much as to be meaningless. Game characters don't go shopping, they go on a quest to the marketplace. Building a small hut is hardly a quest, yet quite often simply picking up the wood is treated as if you were King Arthur himself, sipping Soda-Stream from the Holy Grail. I'm not calling it out as a particularly bad offender you understand, but at one point in Final Fantasy XIV, you get a fireworks display and proud musical sting... for getting someone orange juice. Fie on that, I say! Enough!
Honestly, this is symptomatic of a larger problem, that many games - some of them not even from Ubisoft - currently feel compelled to fill worlds with endless meaningless crapwork to pad out the running time and fully mock the idea of actually doing anything interesting in locations like realistic open-world cities. But that's another rant. For the moment, I'd be okay if we could just sort out the taxonomy issue here, and for that I have a few suggestions. The first I think is the fairest, and simplest. Since the word 'Quest' is primarily misused due to having simply become the Accepted Word To Use, we need to agree on a suitable alternative that is closer to the actual truth.
I would like to propose "Shit To Do". If everyone accepts this, and I see no reason why they would not immediately, Shit To Do will proudly sit next to the Quest Log of every game character from now on, and filter objectives accordingly. It will work something like this. Find The Lost Sword of the Hundredfold Emperor. That is a quest. Find a small child's doll? Shit To Do. At any point in the game you can simply glance at it and think to yourself "Well, I have nothing else to do with the precious gift that is my short existence, so sure, why not?", or alternatively, focus on the business at hand.
It's such a simple tweak, but one I think would be to all our benefits. It means that valuable questing time isn't wasted, yet there is still scope to do random acts of kindness for those in need. I mean, I'm not knocking the potential importance of Shit To Do, especially to the people requesting a hero's assistance. There is no shame in Doing much Shit to, say, raise money for the actual Quest, or to boost your presence in a town, or for the benefits that go with it. A blacksmith's Shit To Do for instance could be the first stage in persuading them to forge you a mighty blade that will come in very helpful on your actual Quest. Conversely, it might turn out later on that what initially seemed like a mighty Quest was actually, in the great sweep of things, merely Shit To Do. In moving one from the other, you can see your evolution as a hero, and how yesterday's great challenge was merely a prelude to your true adventures. A bit like how in something like World of Warcraft, you fight evil world-conquering sorcerers at Level 10.
The nice thing about Shit To Do is that it's so flexible. It covers everything from a humble collection quest to errands. Heck, in most cases 'Quest' is but a wrapper around many of these smaller tasks. What matters is the overall sweep of it; how important it truly is. To help with this, I've assembled this quick table to help you, and the developers I am almost positive are even now implementing this change.
|QUEST||SHIT TO DO|
|Save the kingdom||Save a kitten|
|Collect three pieces of a magic sword||Collect ten bear asses|
|Go to Hell||Go to Hull|
|Beat up a necromancer||Beat up some rats|
|Anything involving a Dragon||Anything involving Kim Kardashian|
I like to think that this will be the starting point for a new set of ground rules that will be as codified into gaming culture as the ability to do a double-jump in the air and that the correct number of lives is three. Over time, we can tighten it up. Anything for instance that you can accomplish with a single tap on an iPad screen will be automatically disqualified. Heroes with more than, say, three quests at a time will be shunned for not taking any of them seriously enough, given the stakes that by this point will be established. To compensate, developers will of course initially just fill the Shit To Do list like normal, only to look at it, murmur "Wow, that's a lot of shit..." and then slowly start to wonder if maybe more time should be spent on filling up that whole "Quest" side of the journal screen. It'll mean a few NPCs go without their orange juice, sure, but that's a sacrifice I'm willing for them to make. Let the lazy buggers get it themselves.
The big picture though is much simpler. When everything is falsely treated as special, nothing is. Completing a Quest shouldn't simply be important to the world, it should feel important, not just another line of a shopping list crossed off along with 'bought milk' and 'built storehouse'. A little like Achievements, there's no point if something hasn't been Achieved. What's meant to make you feel good about that accomplishment just renders it utterly hollow. Under this system, there could still be recognition of Shit successfully Done, it'd just be a more restrained one. A polite round of applause and a voice saying "Goodness me, well done," perhaps. Save the fireworks for when there's something to hail and celebrate, and everyone will inevitably enjoy them far more.
To be reasonable, I'm giving the industry three months to action this change and bring their games into line with the new order. If not, I will immediately set out on a noble quest to strike them down with flame and fire. Unless of course, some random Shit To Do gets in the way. It has an annoying tendency to do that, after all.