Elder Scrolls Video Quest Design Critique Part 2

Let’s talk about quest variety. I do want to reiterate, this is not an issue unique to the Elder Scrolls series, but to most open world games, but the Elder Scrolls series provides an easy frame of reference and set of examples for our purposes.

So, many games fall into a trap. A trap of only having four kinds of quests: Kill quests (go here, kill this), fetch quests (go here, get this, bring it back), collect quests (bring me X of these; usually just a subset of kill quest), and delivery quests (take this, bring it there; a subset of fetch quest). For MMOs this is…fine. It’s not ideal but sometimes you just need cheap and easy content, whatever.

For a single player RPG though, this is less forgivable, and this is where many of Bethesda’s games fall flat, though not as flat as certain other games (I should really do an article on Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning some time). These quests are simply padding, and it’s what most of Skyrim in particular’s quests boil down to in the form of “radiant quests” or meh little side “quests” (more “tasks”, they’re not grand enough to hold the title quest). But if it was confined simply to the radiant quests that would be fine…but when it creeps into the design of main questlines, that’s an issue.

I had such high hopes before this actually released.

Let’s take the Dark Brotherhood questline, in both Oblivion and Skyrim. Absolutely it is a series of kill quests in both games, when you boil them down to their core, but Oblivion has something more going on that makes them interesting: Incentive to kill as little (and as creatively) as possible in many quests. The bonus rewards for remaining unseen when you go to murder that little Dunmer prick who taunts you at the start of the game, or are encouraged to kill a man by dropping a moose on his head and so on add an extra layer to the proceedings that elevates them above simple “go here, kill this”…which is where Skyrim’s Brotherhood falls. Narratively this is somewhat justified, as the kookier murders aren’t the more boring, less cult-ish Brotherhood’s style, but that narrative could have been altered, or more interesting quests justified in other ways.

Very satisfying contract.

This is the second biggest failing of Skyrim’s quests, and contributes to the blase nature of quests becoming a checklist of things to do that we discussed yesterday. They lack personality and nuance, and so are on their own boring, requiring the player to make their own fun. Which can amuse for a time but sometimes you just want the game to entertain YOU. Thankfully not all of the quests are like that, but enough are that it becomes tempting to simply console in quest rewards rather than slogging through questlines to get them. Why should I assassinate a bunch of helpless schmucks for the Brotherhood when I could be dungeon delving with a woman who wants to lay a family member’s ghost to rest, or helping a priest regrow a sacred tree? That’s a big issue when it’s one of the five biggest questlines in your game, and NONE of the others are any better. Oblivion had its own failings (especially in the Fighter’s Guild line), and Morrowind hits lower lows than any at certain points (even having a right proper “slay rats in my basement” quest, how quaint), but Skyrim has the largest number of quests…and most of them are uninteresting because they offer no twist on the classic four quest archetypes.

This, mind, is why you may feel yourself tiring with other open world RPGs following suit, mind. It’s not a problem contained to Bethesda’s games and they are far from the worst offender when it comes to boring busywork quests (yearly Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed releases spring to mind), but Bethesda can (and has done) better. I feel like going back to Fallout 3’s approach of having relatively few quests but all of them given a little more love would be best. I fondly remember almost every quest in that game, while I struggle to remember most from Skyrim.

I think we’ll wrap this up next time with a talk about narrative engagement in quests, and where so many games fail at this.

#Elder Scrolls Video Quest Design Critique Part 2