Monday, December 16, 2013

The Quest is Lost

Part of what's missing from my current gaming experience is the concept of the quest.  Historically, a quest is something more than just a task or errand, though that's part of it.   A quest is a mission that confronts me with the choices and challenges inherent in my personal struggle, and thereby carries me down my heroic pathway.  Often, the fate of a people or an ideal is hanging on the outcome of my effort.  Traditionally, to have a quest is to have a noble purpose.


The modern MMO concept of Quest is quite different.  Here, it's grown to mean a trivial task that your character performs to pass the time while you're chatting with friends, or watching re-runs of Black's Books.  These activities have become so banal that you're asked to do the same ones every day, to the point where any original meaning they might once have held for you or the quest giver has long-since faded into obscurity.  Now you've just become an employee of the NPC, and show up every day to do your job.  The identity of this quest as a mission of noble purpose has been lost.  Now it's a mere semantic convention.



To further demonstrate the decline, we now have games that promise "quest-less" adventuring.  Guild Wars 2 offers questless quest hubs that are supposed to emerge dynamically and organically from your wandering in the world.  No more quests to complete, just hearts to fill.  Except you are fighting the same mosquitoes and gathering the same dewberries that you would in a traditionally structured quest. 

On the other hand, we're moving away from the model of the checklist of tasks (which is a welcome change), but in doing so, we've abandoned the very thing I'm trying to save.

Star Wars: The Old Republic has done something similar with their sub-quest system.  As you are working your way through the vagaries of a a class story mission, you are given target kill counts to fill along the the way that reward xp.  These aren't labeled separate quests, though they function in much the same way.  What's different is that they fit into the story being told.  They are always optional, incidental to the main purpose of your being there.

What's happened, though, is that the emphasis has been returned to the main focus of your endeavor, restoring the Heart location to peace and harmony, returning the farm to order and productivity.  That becomes the quest, the true noble purpose, and all the individual pieces that go into this are acknowledged as something different.

Why is this important?  For the narrative game, the story being told and the character's participation in the story are the most important things happening in this experience.  Returning emphasis to the quest narrative and properly defining it, re-focuses the "game" on the story.  Conversely, corrupting the concept of the quest and trivializing it to include all game activities diminishes the impact that real questing has.  It takes a storytelling experience and transforms it into a series of mini-games you can play on your phone.

The Secret World has a similar concept that stratifies your tasks into main missions and side missions.  Typically the main mission is a storytelling experience that draws you through the zone while the side missions are more traditional assignments.  The story mission returns the player to the classic concept of quest as noble calling. 

When you play the later zones of Mists of Pandaria, a similar thing happens.  Nearly every quest in Townlong Steppes directly participates in the major or minor stories of the zone.  Blizzard has cleaned away all the random filler quests from an anonymous mage who needs us to collect pinecones for some minor spell he's working on.  Even if the tasks haven't changed (we still may be given a collection quest), we're always explained their importance in the narrative.



There's nothing like the experience of traveling to Mount Doom and throwing your ring into the fire and finally saving the world.  When you've completed this quest, you have a satisfaction that's deep and abiding.  Something fare more satisfying than merely logging on to complete dailies.


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