Elder Scrolls Video Games Quest Design Critique – Part 3
To round out our discussion on quest design, let’s talk about narrative, and how an interesting narrative can mask relatively lackluster gameplay. We’ll take a few quests from different games, two from Oblivion, two from Skyrim (one good and one bad from each). Spoilers for all four quests follow, so be warned.
All four of these quests have one thing in common: Low complexity gameplay, high player engagement. This is something Bethesda is…hit or miss with, but in my opinion has become worse over time, culminating in Fallout 4.
The Oblivion quest is Paranoia, perhaps the epitome of this kind of quest design in terms of narrative to gameplay ratio. The quest is possible to complete in large part by simply mashing the wait button and talking to at most two total NPCs. The premise: Glarthir thinks he’s being spied on, and he asks you to keep an eye on those spies one at a time. You can observe these NPCs, and they are clearly not watching him…but if you so choose, you can tell him that some are and get paid for it, or get paid even more for helping to assassinate them. At its core this quest is very low on gameplay variety: It is essentially just a kill quest where you can choose not to kill anyone, or only kill the quest giver. But it grabs you and sucks you in, with the fervent, mad surety of Glarthir drawing your attention, and his ever more apparent insanity keeping you around.
Skyrim has the Hangover-inspired (a lot of RPGs had Hangover-inspired quests in 2011-2012, The Witcher 2 had one as well) A Night To Remember, which is in most ways better. The premise: You have a lot of drinks with a man at a bar, named Sam Guevenne and pass out drunk. You wake up with no recollection of the previous night, and go around piecing together everything that happened and wacky shenanigans ensue. For most of these quests you simply talk to NPCs or perform a series of fetch quests to find out what happened, and long story short it turns out you got drunk, stole a goat, and got engaged to this beautiful lady:
And the whole thing was organized by Sanguine, the Daedric Prince of Frat Parties. This one manages to take some of the most boring quests in any game (fetch quests) and make them fun by simple context. It’s excellent. By stringing you along with a good mystery, it lets you overlook the fact that you’re just running from Point A to Point B and grabbing a thing to bring back to Point A. I only dock it points for basically punishing people with a high Speech skill: if you take the Speech check options at each juncture, most of the quest becomes a simple exposition dump and much of the comedy is lost.
Now let’s look at the bad ones. For Oblivion, let’s have a look at the Arena. The Arena was a good concept. It even attempts to bring in a narrative at the last minute but…too little too late. As you might expect it’s a series of kill quests and not much else, but that’s no excuse. The success of the Starz Spartacus series’ (and the movie for that matter) shows how much drama and narrative can be milked out of a gladiatorial arena setting. But no, only at the end do you get a largely tangential quest to find out the Grand Champion’s origins…and finding out he’s descended from a vampire even cheats you out of what can be a difficult fight* (*only if you have the Unofficial Patch) as the man becomes listless and wishes for death.
And for Skyrim…well, I’ll cheat a bit. Every Radiant quest in the game. I’ll be honest, I think these were a complete mistake. They lack even a cursory narrative, being either kill quests (Dark Brotherhood), fetch quests (Thieves’ Guild), or a mix (Companions and Mage’s College). The worst part is, for three of the above, excepting the Mage’s College, these boring quests are necessary to complete something faction related (the restoration of the Dawnstar Sanctuary or Ragged Flagon, or reconstruction of Wuuthrad for the Companions).
The two bad ones show two ways quests can go wrong: Either not properly taking advantage of narrative opportunities (the Arena) that can be used to elevate gameplay, or padding the game out with pointless fluff that is just there to artificially make the game larger. The latter is all too common, but I actually think the former is the worse of the two. Having the chance to provide a great experience and not even trying is a bigger sin than the seemingly noble, if misguided, attempt to give the player more.
This will wrap up discussion on the Elder Scrolls, however. Next week we’ll start on something else for a while.
#Elder Scrolls Video Games Quest Design Critique part 3