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  • Quest Design In Linear Media

    - Nathan Savant
  • Video games are built on the basis of choice. When a player is presented with a scenario, it is up to them how to adapt. Storytelling in games is based on presenting interesting scenarios and allowing interesting adaptation. The difficulties lie in that while we are accustomed to stories being recorded in linear fashion in the form of books or films, we haven't yet mastered what it means to tell a story involving choice. Games are a young medium, and so we look to our elders for advice. Those elders, unfortunately, do not know how to walk our path, but they can teach of their own journey, and we can adapt from there.

    With this idea in mind, I've been studying how linear stories are told for the sake of better understanding how nonlinear ones might be. Recently I've done a series of articles examining linear stories through the lens of quest design. What is the quest design of Lord of the Rings? And then what is the quest design of a romantic comedy or a mystery novel? These questions are explored further in those articles, but in this article I'm summarizing the lessons I've learned. Please join me as I go on my own quest to better understand quest design in games!

    One clear lesson has been that quests, as any other form of a story, come with a beginning, middle, and end. You must first accept the quest, then you must be on the quest for a while, then you must resolve the quest, either by turning it in or by giving up. Knowing that, let's break down those different parts and their elements and examine them closely.

    The first part of a quest is the acceptance of that quest. You can't begin a story without someone accepting some element that will cause an increase in drama over time. Perhaps your character must pick up an enchanted ring, or uncover a magical castle that had been hidden away. Perhaps your story is more mundane, and your character simply accepts a rumor that has been spread about them. The methods for accepting a quest vary based on the personality of the character and the type of story being told. While one character might accept a quest eagerly, another might refuse the quest, but then later end up in a situation where they're forced to reconsider. In each of these cases, there is some form of acceptance, directly or indirectly. So what are the elements of accepting a quest?

    • Accept the quest

    • Refuse the quest, then accept later

    • Refuse the quest, then be forced to accept later

    • Refuse the quest

    Those few options are the basics, but you may well be able to imagine others that could be on this list, I'm more interested in you being able to understand how to add to the list, rather than being comprehensive myself. So we have multiple ways to accept or refuse a quest here, but there's another aspect of this acceptance/rejection of the quest. What is the specific method of acceptance? In other words, HOW is the quest accepted or rejected? In game design, we only consider something a quest when there is an explicit acceptance or rejection, usually in the form of a UI element. In other words, if you don't walk up to a quest giver and say yes or no to them, it's not a quest. However, I submit to you that any player choice can be the acceptance or rejection of a quest.

    As an example, look at the quest design in the romantic comedy, Easy A (which I dive into in more detail here). The protagonist of Easy A never accepts a quest, the drama of the film arises as a consequence of her telling a lie about her weekend plans, and that lie spiraling out of control. The quest was accepted, but only in the form of an action, the protagonist was not consciously accepting a quest. We also do this in games, we just rarely discuss them as quests due to that lack of conscious acceptance. Metroidvania games give players different abilities throughout their adventure, and once a player finds an ability, the world reacts by allowing them to access new regions, and there are entire schools of game design devoted to ensuring the player will accept those quests and go where the designer intends.

    In other games, such as Demon's Souls, you will be given a quest as a consequence of your exploration, without the need of a new ability. When you open a particular door, a dragon will arrive to spray fire at you. There is an implicit quest built into this exchange, as the game is subtly offering you a chance to slay this dragon, even if not at the moment. In open world games like Guild Wars 2, you will often receive a quest simply for entering a particular region. When you cross the border into this area, a quest is assigned to you as a way of giving you something to do in that region. Other games might do this by way of a hub world, where you are presented with the list of quests associated with a region before you accept entrance to that region, such as happens in Mario 64. All of these are methods by which a player can accept a quest through their own action, without ever being forced to walk up to a quest giver.

    This act of being offered a quest breaks down into two parts. The method by which the quest is offered to you, and the method by which you choose to accept it. Here are some ways a quest might be offered to you:

    • Interact with a character

    • Interact with an object

    • Gain an item

    • Gain some knowledge

    • Enter an area

    • Use a verb

    And here are some differing methods you may have of accepting that quest:

    • Explicit binary choice (yes/no)

    • Implicit choice (automatically happens as a result of the action)

    • No choice (happens whether you act or not)

    For some examples, think back to Super Metroid. When you get the Super Missiles, there's an implied quest to go and open all the Super Missile doors. You can reject that quest in some cases, but progression is locked behind acceptance of at least a few of these. That's an example of gaining an item. Super Metroid also uses Enter Area quests, which appear on your map when you trigger those sequences, offering a more explicit version of a quest to keep you aware that you're moving forward, instead of relying entirely on implicit agreements.

    In Outer Wilds, the quests are all implicit, and locked behind gaining knowledge, as is the case in most mystery stories. You unlock new information and now you want to go somewhere to uncover yet more new information. These types of quests happen without any direct agreement and are sometimes required before you can progress, thus they fall into either the implicit or no choice categories. And hopefully that gives you enough to extrapolate from there, imagining other types of quests or just noticing how games handle these implicit and explicit agreements.

    Sorry, Kaltunk, you're obsolete buddy!


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