Saturday, January 9, 2021

My Learnings On Quest Design So Far

 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….

Now that we’ve discussed the parts and pieces of accepting a quest, I want to move onto what happens once you’ve embarked upon that quest. In stories like Lord of the Rings, this is the bulk of the adventure and excitement, the ring wraiths trying to kill you as long as you carry the ring, the events that unfold along the way to the goal, etc. This is also where emergent gameplay happens, and where many interactive story designers will default to telling linear stories. As in these last two sentences, being on a quest offers interaction types that will break down a couple of categories, so let’s dive into those.

When you’re on an adventure, there are two different ways that adventure changes over time. There’s the internal struggle and the external struggle. The external struggle is the sequence of events which happen around you as you progress. In the case of Lord of the Rings, it’s the various armies and nasty creatures which Frodo interacts with on his way to Mordor. The internal struggle is the way the rest of that affects the way you interact with it. As time goes on, Frodo becomes increasingly hostile as a result of carrying the ring, and this changes how he perceives people around him, most notably his friends. The internal and external struggles are the throughlines which define a character and the story around them, and so modeling those things in your game is extremely important. 

External struggles break down as follows:

  • Specific events

  • Environments

  • Mechanical stressors 

Specific events are the cutscenes and scripted sequences which happen along the way to your destination. They’re “story time” moments which tell specific, linear events that must be conveyed for the story to function. Environments tell the story of a particular region, if you need a forest full of zombie orcs in order to sell the threat of a nearby necromancer, this is all the ways you accomplish that. Mechanical stressors are things which fundamentally alter your interactions for a time, such as the vampirism system in Elder Scrolls or the covenant system in Dark Souls. These are external systems which alter the expression of internal struggles in some way, and which bridge the gap between the internal and external worlds. In other words, this is the one ring in LotR. The ring is an external object that causes internal stress on Frodo, and that stress changes how his personality is expressed. 

Internal struggles will list out slightly differently because internal struggles require external expression in order for the player to understand they exist. As such, it is that expression which may change in order to convey narrative, and that expression which is relevant to quest design. Here are some things which may be changed to express an internal mental state to the player:

  • GUI changes/animations

  • Character progression changes

  • Mechanical interactions

A character’s internal struggles over the course of a quest will be reflected partly in their perceptions of the world around them, expressed to the player through the GUI. So if Frodo starts to see Sam as an enemy, you would have to convey that to the player by showing Sam as an enemy in your UI elements. Character progression systems reflect a person’s internal conception of self. If a character no longer sees a way for them to grow as a person, this might be shown via a lack of skill tree options. They’ve reached their peak and are still unsatisfied, until some new event reveals a new branch of that skill tree. Mechanical interactions are simply the way a character directly manipulates the world around them (otherwise known as the game mechanics). Altering any or all of these things expresses a change in the player character. Obviously, this has serious ramifications for user experience, so handle with care. Notably, this is also where the forbidden phrase, Ludonarrative Dissonance, comes into play since gameplay systems are invented without consideration for how they express character, but they’ll do that expressing no matter how little thought goes into it. I realize I brushed past this section super fast, but it’s a bit much for the scope of this article, and you can read some articles I've written in the past to see my thoughts.

The specific events that happen to the protagonist of a story change the internal workings of that character. This is how most stories are told in linear media, just think of how much Frodo changes in Lord of the Rings, or how much Luke changes in Star Wars. These characters are exposed to new ideas as they explore their worlds, and those ideas change how they view those worlds, as well as themselves. The changing viewpoint changes how they interact, and all of this can be modelled through gameplay as long as we understand how to connect the dots.

Scrooge's end-game skill tree is pretty wild!

The last piece of the puzzle is the resolution of the quest and the reward. While studying the rewards systems of linear media, I came to a very quick realization that in the vast majority of cases the character just wants the world to go back to normal. This is the hero’s journey formula, which states that the hero will go on an adventure and return home forever changed in some way. That change is the reward, and the act of going home is part of the quest. If you’ve returned home, then the quest is over, there need not be any further reward. In games, quests are often simply part of a whole experience, and we use rewards to motivate the player to keep moving forward, since there’s no real way to generate internal motivation easily when you’re doing something just for entertainment.

In the end, I can’t think of a useful way to list out possible rewards that are in some way narrative, because there’s just too many options, you can reward a player with virtually anything. This is also the part of quest design that video games are the best at, and I won’t pretend to be a greater expert than those people who’ve made RPG games all their lives. Basically, you probably already know how this works, I have nothing new to add. 

So we’ve now covered how to begin, end, and design the experience of a quest. I’d like to take this moment to walk through a few quests from different media, and an example I make up on the spot, all just to show how to use this knowledge. 

The first example I want to look at is the Lord of the Rings example, since it’s just a very straightforward setup for us, and one I assume most people reading this article will likely be familiar with. In LotR, Frodo is given the one ring by his uncle. Upon receiving the ring, nothing of note happens, it just sits in an envelope for a while until Gandalf comes back and tells Frodo he has to bring it to the elves. On the way to complete this task, it becomes clear that the ring is drawing the forces of evil to it. The quest to destroy the ring actually begins with the elves. Frodo is present for the discussion of the quest, and agrees to the adventure after hearing the details. This is an explicit choice, it may as well have been a yes/no at a quest giver. He has been given time to understand that as long as he holds the ring, evil will be drawn to it, and that he must walk the ring through the enemy camp if he wants to succeed on his quest. The core of the quest involves simply walking to Mordor, and the dangers inherent to that act, since his enemies can feel the ring and constantly seek it. If this were a game, the ring might increase enemy aggression range or something similar. The quest resolves itself by throwing the ring into the lava, which destroys much of the forces of evil in the process, allowing the world to return to its quiet, normal state. That return to normalcy is, itself, the reward for the quest.

The second example will be the 90s film, Matilda (based on a novel, but I’ve not read it recently enough to use it for this example, so I’ll focus on the film). Matilda is the story of a little girl who develops psychic powers as a result of strong emotions while trying to navigate the abusive culture into which she was born. She uses those powers to bond with her favorite teacher, and eventually gets herself adopted by said teacher as her biological family leaves the area to flee law enforcement. The “quest” of the film is to understand herself and her powers as she grows up in a culture that wants her to be someone she is not. She gets this quest by using a verb in the form of arguing with her father, resulting in her accidentally discovering her powers. She accepts the quest eagerly after this, though it is an implicit acceptance, there’s no one asking if she wants to be psychic. Once she has accepted the quest, she begins exploring her abilities by using them to gain advantage over bullies who had used their own strength to get into their positions of power. The quest is an exploration of all the different ways her new verb can be used, and the quest is resolved once she has upended the power dynamics of her society enough that she can put herself into a better situation. The structure of the film is much similar to a Metroidvania, in that she wanders around in various environments, exploring new powers as she discovers them. The reward for this quest is a life more accepting of who Matilda was from the beginning, as she befriends Ms Honey and eventually is adopted by her. 

So let’s do a hypothetical quest, for the sake of exploring these concepts in a game. I’m going to try to make choices that aren’t genre-specific so you can hopefully imagine a number of ways this story could be told. 

Let’s start with the acceptance of the quest. I want to do something I see a little less often, so let’s go with an offer and a rejection. In games that amounts to the player seeing the quest, and then ignoring it. So let’s have an NPC quest giver, but the player decides to click no on the window when offered. But I want to force them to accept later, so let’s say there’s also a powerup that they can get which is related to the quest. Since there are two methods of acceptance, let’s design the quest around an interaction that can happen regardless of how you have accepted it. Let’s borrow from the nazgul and say that as long as you have a special power, enemies are particularly hostile to you and chase you as you pass by (which translates to an in-game mechanic of merely increasing your hostile range with enemies, and maybe causing neutral enemies to become hostile). The quest itself will exist as long as you’re within a certain area, so let’s say a particular town. The goal of the quest is to find someone who can dispel the aura of hostility for you, and you accomplish it only by going somewhere new within the town. Once you complete the quest, since this is a game, you get an item which does the inverse of what happened while you were on the quest: enemies are less hostile to you.

And now to put some paint on this. If the quest is all about overly hostile enemies, and your goal is to reach an NPC which causes those enemies to become less hostile, let’s say this all centers around village rats. When you enter the town you hear about Farmer Maria’s rat problem. You speak to her, and she tells you that ever since she went out into the woods last week, she’s had a terrible rat problem. Everywhere she goes, rats come out of the woodwork to terrorize her, and she desperately needs your help. You tell her you’d love to help, but you’ve got a world to save. You leave the village and continue your quest only to be confronted by a rat, which you kill as it’s your main mechanic after all. Upon killing the rat, you gain a special status effect called “Hated By [Town]’s Vermin” which causes rats to spawn every few seconds. This completely disrupts your plan, so you go back to the village and speak to Farmer Maria. She tells you about a rumor that deep beneath the village, in an old network of caves, lives The Ratomancer. You go down into those caves and find your way to The Ratomancer. You speak and quickly find that he’s actually a nice guy who just thinks mice are cute and pretty neat, so the villagers long ago nicknamed him The Rat Romancer, and he’s lived here in shame ever since. Really, he’s just a lonely guy who wanted a friend, and he’s sorry you got caught up in his war with a neighboring cave wizard who’s been cursing passersby with cheese pheromones. He gives you a rat gland and says to apply it twice a day and call him in the morning if the rats come back. This rat gland works beautifully and now rats don’t attack you anymore! 

Systems-wise, this quest requires several reusable implementations, such as status effects, the ability to either spawn enemies near the player or increase enemy aggression range, and the ability to cause enemies to become less hostile to you. These systems could be reused for many quests for many uses throughout the game, but it’s definitely a matter of if they’re worth it for your production. Hopefully, though, you can see how all this can be useful regardless of the systems available to you.

By breaking a quest down into its component pieces, you gain the ability to program reasonable systems that allow for interesting gameplay-focused stories. By telling gameplay-focused stories, you lessen the number of explicit story moments you have to craft, cutscenes you have to direct, and overall improve the flow of your game. You may even save some production time, or allow yourself to make a more complex game with a small team. You may also stumble over all this and ruin everything, but I believe in you! Go forth and use these thoughts to inform your game design, and if you’ve got any thoughts on how I’m just totally wrong, feel free to comment below. 

Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Quest Design for Character Verbs

What are the verbs required to complete a quest in Books or Movies, and how do those verbs inform the story?

In my previous articles I’ve examined how quests are set up in films and novels, how characters get them, what makes them interesting, etc. Then I examined what type of players are attracted to what types of quest. Now I’m going to combine the two a little and look at what type of characters go on these adventures, and how their personal skills and abilities inform that adventure.

As in the previous articles, let’s start with Lord of the Rings. Who is Frodo Baggins (the protagonist) and what abilities does Frodo Baggins have? He’s the star of one of the great adventures of all time, but he’s merely a hobbit. Hobbits are a race of people who relax in the hills, leading quiet lives. We think of great adventurers as being these amazing warriors, but Frodo doesn’t even know how to use a sword until after the adventure begins and Aragorn trains him a bit. Frodo also has no special abilities or magic power of his own, though he is, of course, carrying a cursed ring. In fact, his only viable option when confronted is to hide. The only verb his gameplay should have (aside from basic biped verbs like walk, jump, etc) is “Sneak”. That said, Frodo has two versions of that verb, one with the ring on and one without it. Being able to play as Frodo for the duration of a game would mean that the game can be completed entirely by avoiding combat situations. Technically, he does learn basic sword fighting combat, but he really only ever uses that to defend himself, because of his lack of prowess. 

If we look at a character like Aragorn, who is in every way the main character archetype, he also doesn’t have that many verbs. He knows how to use a sword, and he’s good at tracking. Aragorn’s personality is on display in how he uses those verbs, but most of his utility comes from knowing things, his only unique verbs are Use Sword and Track. 

For the sake of dialing things up to eleven, let’s look at Gandalf. Gandalf is the most robust character as far as player abilities are concerned. In the LotR stories, he summons eagles and fights off a fire demon, even turning the tide of several battles. So what are the abilities he uses to accomplish these incredible tasks? Well, he can summon light and create a shield to block attacks. He can push and pull things around with his magic. He has some power over fire, able to light and dissipate different flames. He also seems to be able to heal people and drive out evil. So to verb those, Gandalf has Heal, Push, Pull, Summon Light, Light Fire, Extinguish Fire, and Banish Evil. That’s basically it. Summoning eagles and turning the tides of battles are all things he does with nothing more than his wit. He’s a physically strong character, and skilled in combat, he may even be able to see the future to know when to use all this, but his active skills you can put onto your game’s UI is a relatively small list.

While considering this small list of abilities, I thought back to two things in my past. 

The first is a lesson I learned while in animation school, which is a lesson taught by Disney’s animators: Character comes from how a person reacts to something. 

The second is Magic The Gathering. Magic uses a relatively small pool of keywords that it gives to all its cards, and the way it uses those keywords (which are often literally verbs) does a phenomenal job of conveying character through a limited series of interactions. 

So to begin, I want to more closely examine how these things work. 

In animation, the way we choose to make a character react greatly impacts how that character reads to the audience. There’s a common example in a popular book that shows a character going from a standing position to a leaning forward position, as if peering over the edge of a cliff. In that example there are multiple ways to get from starting pose to end pose. Perhaps the character doesn’t want to lean, so they stay as far away from the edge as they can until the last moment. Perhaps the character reacts wildly to whatever they’re seeing, so we get a huge Tex Avery style take as the character jumps into the sky before settling into that forward lean. How you choose to get from A to B will completely change how the audience perceives the character. 

In Magic The Gathering, there’s a whole mechanic called the Stack, which organizes how actions happen. This organization means that if you play a creature, and I can respond to that action with a counterspell. If I cast a counterspell like that, you can respond by redirecting that counter to something else. I can then respond to your redirect, and so on and so forth. Each action I take, and each action you take, can be responded to by the other player(s) in the game. Because of this, cards will have abilities that change how they interact. Perhaps your creature has Flash, which means it can be played at any time. Perhaps your creature has Hexproof, meaning it can’t be targeted by enemy spells. Perhaps your creature has a non-keyworded ability, but even without a keyword, cards will have specific action verbs that convey their character. These verbs change the way a creature reacts and interacts with the other cards around it, and thus change the personality of that card. Magic uses these actions and reactions to convey different characters, or different aspects of the same character, all the time. Each card is designed to imply some story moment, or explore some personality.

A pirate, the queen of vampires, and a goblin who just won't go away!

So if personality can, indeed, be conveyed best through reaction, then it is those abilities in Magic which convey the story of whoever that card represents, since those abilities determine what reactions are possible. This tracks, there are a number of articles written by Magic’s designers to explain how they approach this process, so we know this is, indeed, true. So if that’s true, then in order to convey character in a game, we must use mechanics that can elicit a reaction, and we must then facilitate that reaction. In other words: If player A does something, player B should be able to respond to it. 

What does this look like? Well if Frodo has Stealth, his opponents need a way to pierce his stealth and reveal him. If Aragorn has Sword Attack, his enemies should have Shield Block. If Aragorn has Track Footprints, his enemies should have Conceal Tracks. And so on and so forth for each character relevant to our game design. 

One thing you might immediately call me out on is that “Conceal Tracks” makes “Track” useless, and other variations of this (Stealth isn’t useful if your enemies can pierce it). The way that Magic handles this is simple; Only certain abilities can be used fast enough to respond at instant speed, and there’s a cost associated with those abilities. Conceal Tracks takes a heck of a lot longer to do than Track. If you spend all your time concealing your tracks, you’ll never escape the person tracking you. Piercing stealth isn’t easy, especially when the person has magical stealth, like Frodo. Maybe you can pierce the veil, but only once per day and only for 5 seconds at a time, so you have to be PRETTY DANG SURE before you activate that ability. Blocking a sword attack isn’t very costly, but the longer you keep your shield forward in a defensive stance, the more open you are to attacks from other directions. Each skill you use can only be responded to by certain abilities. Each response should have a definite cost, and should be balanced. This is difficult, of course, but this is standard game design work. 

Everquest did tracking 20 years ago, and it's almost never seen since!

The other side of this coin is how do you design a quest to capitalize on the verbs of the characters participating in it?

In other words: how could you ever possibly predict who’s going to go on your quest, and cater that quest specifically to that person in a way that makes it feel compelling?

I want you to look at the mechanics of the quest design we’ve been looking at in this article series. Quests in movies and novels usually come as a consequence of actions the protagonist took for other reasons, and they usually maintain interest throughout the quest by expanding on the initial setup. In my romantic comedy example, the “quest” comes as a result of a choice the protagonist makes, and the film spends the whole story making increasingly ridiculous extrapolations on that choice. Olive feels invisible and decides to lie about her sex life, so she ends up branded a sex addict and gains a horrible sort of notoriety that makes her long for the invisibility she took for granted. To put that another way: Her verb is what accepts the quest. Olive, in Easy A, has one critical verb: Lie. Each time she uses Lie, her reputation gets worse, and the quest ends when she decides she can’t handle it anymore, so she begins using her other verb: Truth. Frodo Baggins has two verbs: Sneak, and Ring Sneak. Sneak gets him out of a number of situations, but he’s not up against normal adversaries, he’s up against the forces of evil. Some of those evil beings can see through Sneak, and so he must use Ring Sneak. Using Ring Sneak is what summons the Nazgul, the ultimate form of the enemy’s evil powers. In film, novels, and every other form of story throughout history, the character gets themself into a situation by using their verb, and out of that situation by learning a new way to use that same verb. If we want to improve quest design in open world games, we must learn to do the same. 

So let’s return to that question: How could you ever predict who will go on your quest, in order to cater the quest specifically to them? 

Lock your quest behind a verb. 

A new verb, fresh from the oven!

This is the crux of Metroidvania game design. This isn’t a new concept at all, it’s just something we don’t tend to use in open world titles. As players explore your open world, they get abilities and powers that allow them to enter specific spaces, and getting into those spaces is a quest in itself. If your enchanted ring can only be found by people who are small enough to fit into a tight space, then we know that anyone with the enchanted ring can reasonably be assumed to be small, and thus the enchanted ring can be what starts the quest that requires going into a tiny, hidden door. 

The verbs you choose will also matter. The current design paradigm for MMORPGs is that each verb is fragmented into hundreds of individual inputs. Your verb may be Sword Slash, but what you’ll end up with is a tree of 15 different attributes of Sword Slash that each changes your sword stat and then 28 skills that are affected by that tree, primarily including things like Sword Slash 1, Sword Slash 2, Poison Slash, Strong Slash, etc. This way of designing skills makes it utterly impossible to design a good quest based on them, because every character has an impossible to predict combination of these fragmented skills. The worst part is all of them effectively do the exact same thing just with different numbers anyway, so it’s really not any more engaging. Don’t get me wrong, I love MMOs and this way of fragmenting skills has never once bothered me, but it’s not simple. In my experience, simplicity is always the key to good design. 

In order to find that good design, I suggest we all simplify our open world games down to a key list of simple verbs. If you need suggestions of what verbs are the simple ones, I suggest looking at Magic The Gathering for inspiration. They’ve been doing this for 30 years at this point, and there’s all manner of articles, podcasts, blog posts, etc. from people on the design team discussing what techniques they use to decide if a verb is worthy of being turned into a keyword. I recommend this article and a podcast linked at the bottom of it, which I'll link directly here where Mark Rosewater discusses what motivates this decision for the game. 

For those in a hurry, the podcast mentions three key points to consider

The first reason you choose to keyword something: How much of the job is it going to do to set expectations? To draw the eye? To be splashy?

The second reason is: Does it need to be keyworded to make the set (game) work? 

The third reason is: Can it be conveyed through a non-keyword means? Does it need to exist?

I believe the same thoughts can be used to arrive at suitable verbs for an open world game’s mechanics, in particular an MMO where you really need to get mileage out of everything you code. 

And with that, I’ll leave you to it. 

Thanks for reading this continuation of my series of blog posts on quest design in games, as seen through the lens of non-games. The next article in this series will be the last, as I examine quest structure, linearity v nonlinearity, and how to wrap all of these other blog posts into a neat package to present to your manager who will tell you the game has been restructured for a more casual audience, and is now a match 3. 

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Quests Designed for Characters

 In my last article I asked the question: “What is the quest design in Lord of the Rings?”

That led me to look at how quests get assigned, what keeps those quests interesting while you’re pursuing them, and what the rewards look like?

This time I’m expanding from that premise to ask a new question:

Who is your quest for? What type of person goes on that quest?

In Lord of the Rings, Frodo's motivation is largely altruism. He goes on the quest to destroy the ring because he's a good person who sees a need that he can fill, so he does. He never wants to be on this quest, he simply does it because he feels like he must.

In the October Daye series of books, an urban fantasy adventure series, the title character largely accepts her quests because she is forced to do so by the rules of the world she lives in. She chooses to accept a quest mostly because not doing so would disrupt her desired daily life, so she sets off with a set of tasks to complete and returns once it’s done.

In Every Heart a Doorway, a novel about children who disappear into magical worlds via magical doorways (think Alice in Wonderland), the children are motivated to begin their adventures due to something lacking in their lives. They feel like they need to get away from their life, and when a doorway opens, they walk through it in search of something more.

In The Golden Compass, a fantasy series about a girl who uncovers a religious conspiracy, the main character begins her quest based on her own curiosity. She wishes to explore and understand everything she can, and this curiosity leads her into a situation where she is in danger. This situation spirals out of control rapidly, leading to ever-greater dangers and she is merely trying to survive the ride.

This is just a sample of novels that I enjoy, but as I'm sure you can imagine there are myriad different possible motivations for why a character in a novel might accept a quest.

Quantic Foundry posits that you can boil these motivations down to six key factors. 

People who like Excitement want to be involved in high-intensity combat situations, or otherwise amazing adventures. How many times have you read a character from a small town longing for a more adventurous life? Quests for these people will be your cliche “kill 10 dire wolves” quests, where the goal is simply to go into a dangerous situation and make it back out alive. 

People who like Competition want to test their skill against other players. Stories about these characters usually involve a rivalry that incites the events. Quests for this player type will focus on leaderboards of various kinds. They want to be part of the first team that slayed the giant dragon of legend, or to be known as the #1 fastest person to ever get from one side of the zone to the other.

People who like Challenge are all about doing difficult tasks. Maybe there’s a giant monster you have to beat, or maybe there’s just a difficult crafting recipe that takes a lot of skill to master. Another part of this aspect is strategy, where players specifically want a mental challenge, rather than (or in addition to) a physical one. These characters in novels are often people like Hercules, accepting fierce trials in order to test if they're good enough to complete them. Quests for these players would be to defeat the giant boss or invade the enemy base, trials they must eventually overcome. 

People who like Completion want to do everything the game has to offer. They want a list of tasks to complete, they want to find every mission and collectable available. These characters are the ones going about their daily lives when suddenly something else that must be resolved will appear. Quests for them would be “Find all 50 feathers hidden in the forest”, and any sort of linear quest chain that unravels as you complete more of it.

People who like Discovery are the ones who want to see the far reaches of the world. They want to enjoy the process of exploring new spaces and ideas. These are characters whose curiosity gets the best of them. Quests for this player type would be “visit every zone in the game” or “find all the scenic vistas”. They could also be quests that feature using skills in innovative ways, “exploring” in the context of game mechanics (perhaps combining random items to discover crafting recipes, for example).

People who like Fantasy enjoy the story world you’ve built, and may even want to role play. They want to participate in the narrative you’ve built into your world, possibly even wanting to read all the lore books you could write and stuff into the miscellaneous bookshelves you can manage. Characters of this kind want something new from their life, they want to be part of a story world different from their own. Quests for these players can be any of the above quest types, as long as it expands on the story of the world in some way.

So obviously not all of these are made equal. Fantasy/Story people will like your game based on its world-building instead of on its gameplay, the quest’s goals don’t matter so much for them, it’s all about what you learn along the way. Excitement people, similarly, don’t really care what they’re being asked to do so long as it’s really damn cool! Completion, Competition, and Challenge are very easy to gamify, those players are catered to in nearly every game already.

So how do you balance designing an area around all of these competing needs? First, figure out your tent poles. You know that Fantasy players don’t care what they’re doing as long as the story is interesting, so as long as you do a good job in your basic craftsmanship, and design your game to facilitate fun storycraft, you’re already set. Completion players just want a checklist, which basically just means they want a large number of things to do; another goal you’re already building into your production, presumably. Discovery players want to know what’s in the space, yet another thing you’re likely catering for already (and if you’re not planning to have a story-rich space with lots of things to explore and do, I question why you’re making an open world game). Excitement players want an exciting event, so give them the chance to steal the cursed idol and escape the giant rolling boulder just in the nick of time! Challenge players want some large THING to accomplish here, which may also be the really cool thing you put in for Excitement players, but while excitement players just want to dodge the giant boulder, Challenge players want to have to work for it. Competition players will want some sort of leaderboard, something I don’t often see in open world games. 

So to return to the original point I was making with this article: Who is your quest being designed for?

Go kill 10 rats is a boring quest that fulfills none of the above player type requirements. You fill your game with those types of kill quests because your game needs filler. Players do those quests because they need to get to the next level before they can do the quest they want to do. These aren’t quests, they’re jobs. They help the player earn enough of some currency (even if that currency is experience points) to pay for what they really want. This serves the same purpose as timers in mobile games, “wait 1 hour to get your health back, or pay $1 to continue now” except without the option to buy your advancement. I want to be very clear that I don’t consider that a bad thing, either! Open world games are all about ebb and flow of interest. If everything were exciting all the time, there’d be no time for fishing. I play open world titles for the down time as much as the excitement. But who is your 10 rats quest there to entertain?

Well currently the quest only fulfills the needs of the checklist players. It’s a quest to complete, though that quest isn’t particularly interesting. In order to make it interesting, you combine it with the needs of some other player type. What if the 10 rats are hard to find? You need an Explorer type player who has fancy tracking spells in order to find the 10 rats. That’s interesting. What if the 10 rats have to be killed within 15 seconds or they disappear into the ground? You need someone who’s very skilled, it’s quite a tough Challenge. That’s interesting. What if there’s a leaderboard posted nearby that shows who managed to kill the 10 rats the fastest? That’s interesting. All of these things improve the quest, and don’t require unique mechanics that can’t be reused. You can have a leaderboard in a million contexts throughout an open world game, design it to be reused and then milk it. Same with a timer, it’s trivial to implement and yields a ton of variation. Rats being hard to find requires a tracking spell to be implemented, but once you’ve implemented a tracking skill in your game you can get SO much mileage out of that! Imagine a game where you get to hunt your prey and players can be better or worse at hunting, imagine how many variations of that you can make into quests!

The trick to improving quest design in games, and aligning those quests with the quests you find in novels and films, seems to be that we need better verbs for our players. We spend so much time building out the combat loops that we forget that open world games aren’t about combat. Most of the people I know who played Skyrim never bothered to complete the main quest. In my experience, it’s often because the main quest just isn’t that interesting compared to all the other things you can do, and the specific complaint I’ve heard most often is that the dragons interrupt players doing all the other cool things they want to be doing. Which is because dragons in Skyrim are only for Excitement/Fantasy players. They aren’t a difficult fight, as long as you’re high enough level, there’s no leaderboard for who’s killed the most dragons, there’s nothing to explore in fighting them. Dragons are a niche interest among open world players. Plenty of people like them, don’t get me wrong, but they’re one element among many, and that exact combination of player types is already covered all throughout the rest of that game. 

Skyrim' 1.7 update will finally add mounted combat to PS3 version - Polygon

So what ISN’T catered to in Skyrim? Well, where’s the hobbit character? How can I play Frodo Baggins in Skyrim? The answer is that I can’t. The only way to play the game is to become the Dovakin, hero of legend and slayer of dragons. There’s no way to play the game if I don’t care to fight dragons. There’s plenty of game here that doesn’t involve fighting dragons, there’s quite a lot of exploration to do in Skyrim, and plenty of unique achievements, challenges, etc. But the game only has an ending for people who want to play the game in one specific way, and only a small group of players are likely to want to participate in that. 

This isn’t a condemnation of one of the most successful games of the last decade, I’m just pointing out that most of our games right now are Skyrim.Open worlds tend to cater almost exclusively to Excitement/Fantasy players. There are exceptions, of course, Outer Wilds is an open world catered to Explorers, and Genshin Impact seems to be doing some numbers right now, catering towards people who love collectables (which is a sort of checklist/achievement system). 

MMOs, however, seem to all exclusively cater to the Skyrim demographic. I’ve been making the rounds of them lately and there’s very few leaderboards for anything but PvP, very few exploration-focused mechanics that aren’t just “walk here so we can check off the box that you’ve walked here”. Which is a shame, given that I’m old enough to have played EverQuest and I know that it’s possible to have more interesting mechanics. EQ is old and clunky and kind of awful by today’s standards, but we seem to have thrown the baby out with the bathwater in streamlining early-MMO mechanics.

So if we want Frodo to take on our quest, we have to acknowledge Frodo as a noncombatant. We have to accept what Frodo brings to the table, even if he isn’t the great warrior of prophecy like Aragorn. His altruism will cause him to accept the quest if there is a need, but our players aren’t likely to be so giving to our fictional characters, and so we offset that with other motivations. Offer them a quest that works with them, regardless of what skills they may have.

And on that note, my next article is going to explore those skills an adventurer might have. We can’t design for Frodo if we don’t know what Frodo brings to the table. How can we approach our open world design in a way that more player motivations are catered to? How can we allow different player types to express themselves through action? Tune in next time to find out!

As always, thanks again for reading!

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Quest Design in Other Media

 What is the quest design of Lord of the Rings?

That’s the question that started me down a winding path and led me on my own grand adventure of discovery and personal growth, and that’s the question I’m here today to help answer. 

In this article I’m going to look at quest design in a variety of non-games ranging across nearly every genre I could find. By the end of this article, I’m hoping you can walk away with a better understanding of how to look at media in order to learn about game design, specifically focusing on quest design.

Will you accept this mission?

[Yes] / [No]

Ok, so that was cheesy, but I did that to highlight something. In games we’ve arrived at a convention with our quest-givers, in that we expect there to be one. We expect to see an NPC standing around with a big icon over their head telling us that we need to help them by going off into the forest and killing fifteen Dire Rats, or whatever. At least that’s what we expect in open world titles. When you look at a game like Tony Hawk Pro Skater, you get quests simply by choosing the location where you want to play, and you’re given all the various quests for that area when you arrive there. Mario 64 is another game where you are given quests based on selection of an area, but in that game those quests are accessed linearly. JRPGs, like Final Fantasy, tend to string you along on one giant series of quests, dropping sidequests for you as a diversion to keep up the pacing (and doing so in a way very similar to the exclamation-over-the-head style of quest giving). 

But what about other media? How does our hero get a quest in a film? Or a book? What are their narrative devices? And once we’ve gotten the quest, what maintains interest as we go about the task of completing it? After that, what do we get as a reward for completing the quest? 

I’m looking at a number of films (many of which are based on written stories) to answer those questions. The stories were chosen for a combination of reasons, some at random, some because I like them, some because I think they make good examples. In all cases my goal isn’t to point to these stories for any particular reason, but rather to look at a broad enough range that you can understand how to examine other stories I’ve not included here. Hopefully you’ll find enough use in this to want to do your own studies. 

So anyway, let’s get rolling!

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring | Gorton Community Center

Lord of the Rings

Lord of the Rings is a trilogy of novels I probably don’t have to describe here, but I’ll touch loosely anyway. Our protagonist, Frodo, finds out his uncle has been keeping an ancient ring of power, and that said ring attracts the forces of darkness to it. The only way to be rid of it is to throw it into the volcano where it was made.

How does he get this quest? Gandalf, a wizard friend of the family, shows up one day for Uncle Bilbo’s birthday. While visiting, Gandalf finds out about the ring and has a suspicion about it, which he goes off to investigate. He then returns to give Frodo a first quest: bring the ring to the elves. After this, Frodo leaves with his friend Sam to bring the ring to the elves, far away. However, that’s not the main quest. The main quest is the volcano-throwing version, and that comes once Frodo arrives at the elf village. This quest no one gives to Frodo at all. Instead, there’s a big discussion over who should get the quest, and Frodo offers himself once he understands the need. If this were a game, Frodo would have been given the quest in standard fashion by Gandalf, but then once he completed that quest and got its reward, he would simply continue on without being prompted for a new quest. 

Ok, so once Frodo is on this quest, what makes it interesting? Well the Nazgul, primarily. So long as Frodo holds the ring, undead wraiths called the Nazgul are drawn to him. He can’t possibly defeat them, so he must avoid their gaze. They only know his specific location if he wears the ring, so the forces of evil send out armies to cover the world, and Frodo must use the ring’s invisibility to avoid them, which draws the Nazgul. There’s also the ring itself which exerts its will on Frodo’s mind, making him want to wear it. The tension of both the desire and need to wear the ring, set against the danger of wearing the ring, is what drives most of the story. Throughout all of this with the Nazgul, Frodo also cannot simply walk into Mordor. He must find dangerous side paths hidden from sight of the evil armies, but filled to the brim with other horrors. Every path Frodo can choose is dangerous in one way or another, and it’s up to him and his companions to choose the danger they think they have the best chance against.

Once the quest is over, the reward is quite simply a return to normalcy. Frodo earns the respect of the people of the world, but his primary reward is to go home and relax for a while. And after such a journey, there’s nothing more that Frodo wants. The more tangible rewards are just icing on the cake, and not given all that much emphasis in the story.

Star Wars Movies - Home | Facebook

Star Wars

Star Wars is a trilogy of movies in a similar sort of vein to Lord of the Rings. Protagonist Luke Skywalker is a nobody being raised on a farm on a backwoods planet, when suddenly two robots come into his life with a quest that someone must complete for the safety of millions. Luke is in the wrong place at the wrong time and gets swept away on this quest along with a mentor who teaches him about the galaxy. Luke must learn to master his hidden past in order to overthrow the evil dictator who has gained control, before that dictator can blow up planets full of resistance fighters.

How does Luke end up on this quest? Well, a pair of robots stumble into his life without warning. One of those robots has a message that needs to be delivered to someone Luke thinks he knows, so Luke offers to help in this small way. Unfortunately, once he’s done so Luke returns to find his old life has been destroyed while he wasn’t looking, and the person he delivered the message to tells Luke that the only choice now is to leave the planet and go on this quest, which Luke accepts. In this case, there is an explicit quest-giver in this story, two in fact. R2-D2 gives Luke the initial quest, and then Obi Wan gives him the follow-up quest that carries through the rest of the story. Obviously there’s a number of other quests along the way, but those two first quests set the snowball rolling down the hill, and the rest happens as a consequence of momentum.

What makes the quest interesting once Luke is actively pursuing it? Well there’s quite a lot of discovery here, Luke doesn’t know anything at all about the Jedi until he’s told he is one. There’s a lot of hidden information about Luke’s past that he wasn’t aware of, and basically it turns out that Luke has all these connections to this story already and if he’s going to learn the truth about himself, he has to pursue the rest of this. While he’s pursuing this knowledge, the empire is pursuing him. The enemy army is out to destroy the resistance, and the information R2-D2 is carrying, as well as anyone helping. The setup here is similar to LotR in that an evil is pursuing the hero, but the difference is that Vader has many other things to do and only confronts Luke directly when their paths happen to cross. The rest of his time is spent planning the destruction of the resistance. If this were a game, Vader might be a wandering enemy that will gain aggro on the player as long as they’re within the same zone (or some large but arbitrary distance), but wouldn’t seek the player on his own.

The reward of Star Wars is pretty much just survival. Of course there’s a degree of notoriety as well, as Luke earns a few medals in his time, and gains a number of different powers over the course of the movies. But much like Lord of the Rings, Star Wars’ reward is just a return to normal life as best as is possible given the situation. The tangible rewards are mostly inconsequential.

Celebrating 15 years of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” – The Observer

Avatar The Last Airbender

Avatar: The Last Airbender is a tv series that follows 12 year old Aang as he tries to develop his skills and maturity to a point where he can defeat the leader of an enemy army. The story setup is that in every generation there is an Avatar who can use all 4 elements at once (while everyone else only gets a single element), and when Aang finds out he is that avatar, the pressure gets to him and he runs away, ending up trapped in an iceberg for 100 years. Upon waking, he finds out that his absence allowed the Fire Nation to take over the world, and he is the only one who can stop their reign of terror. 

The quest here is given to Aang in a vision of a past life of his, where he is told by a spirit that Sozen’s Comet is coming once again, and will give the Fire Nation a temporary boost of power that will make them unstoppable. It’s up to Aang to complete this quest or else every nation will be overrun, and the world knocked out of balance. If this were a videogame, the quest would be a pretty explicit quest giver scenario preceded by a cutscene. This is one of the rare situations where I think the natural instinct of your average game designer is actually the correct choice for this story!

So what makes the quest interesting once Aang’s accepted it? Well he’s far too weak to reach the Fire Nation, much less kill their leader. He’s also morally unwilling to do said killing. Over the course of the show he has to come to terms with his role in society and all the implications of that role. Most of the episodes focus not on the training, but rather on the needs of the people and how the Avatar can and can’t help them. Most of the story is about expectations vs reality. Each episode is an exploration of the perceptions of different people, there are running themes of coming to see the world from others’ perspectives, and the dangers of getting mired in what you think is the right way of doing things. There are also armies and constant battles that happen within this, but the primary driver of the drama is the willingness, unwillingness, ability, or inability to see the world from each others’ view. Most of the fights are directly caused by these perceptions, and the resolution to them is almost never to fight, but only to subdue and teach. Even the final conflict is only combat until the enemy can be subdued and prevented from further violence. 

The reward here is once again a return to normalcy. Aang wakes up in a world he inadvertently ruined, and quests until he can bring it back to the way it was.

But enough with this epic nonsense, these are too easy! Let’s look at quest design in things that don’t even have straight forward quests! 

Knives Out' review: Daniel Craig's new movie is murder most enjoyable

Knives Out

Knives Out is a whodunnit story following two characters equally. The perspective character of the film is Marta, a private nurse of the patron of an extremely wealthy family. Though she’s the perspective character we follow through the film, she’s not the protagonist, necessarily. That role belongs to Detective Blanc, who drives the plot forward through most of the film (trading off with Marta a few times). The plot of the film is that the patron has died, and Detective Blanc has been hired  to find who’s responsible, but he must do so while Marta tries to hide her involvement. It’s not really possible to objectively say that one of these characters is more important to the story than the other, so I won’t even try. That’s part of why I wanted to examine this movie anyway. 

So how do they get their quest? Well Marta wants to prevent anyone from finding out her involvement in the death of her patron, because she knows it would look like she killed him. She got her quest as a consequence of actions the night of the death of her patron, and she didn’t so much accept the quest as she was forced to carry it through to completion or else wind up in jail. Detective Blanc doesn’t even know what the quest is or why he’s been given it. He gets hired to solve a mystery, but only in the form of an envelope full of money and a newspaper clipping. He accepts the “quest” just because he’s so curious what is going on here.

What’s interesting once they’re already on the quest? Well the interest here comes in that Marta’s quest is to prevent Detective Blanc from completing his quest. Not in a direct way, this isn’t some deathmatch fight, that would be too simple. Her goal in this quest is to make Blanc believe he’s completed his quest, but to do so without exposing her role in the mystery. She spends the film foiling his attempts to solve the mystery in laughably ridiculous ways, as the universe seems to conspire to expose her. If this were a game it would be very similar to a game of mafia/werewolf (or Among Us, since that’s the new hotness right now), but with a much more intricate series of ways to expose each other’s guilt (imagine if the scene with the dog happened with a tiny alien walking up to the guilty astronaut in Among Us).

And the reward? Nothing. Nothing at all. There is no reward for this quest, Blanc was hired with cash up-front and Marta earns money over the course of the story, but not as a result of her quest (though there is a time where her money is tied to her completion of her quest, so maybe we could count that).

Watch Beauty and the Beast | Full Movie | Disney+

Beauty And The Beast

Beauty and the Beast is a Disney musical based on a fairy tale. A witch tries to seek shelter with a vain young man who refuses her entry due to her ugliness. She responds by cursing him to be a monster until he can find someone willing to love him. The story follows Belle as she is captured by the beast and eventually falls for him.

So how does she get the quest? Well… she doesn’t. The quest was given to Beast. Technically she does go on a quest of her own volition in the form of rescuing her dad, who she then trades for herself as captor, but that’s not really the main quest, and in this article thus far, we’ve been following just the primary quest of a story. So the beast got the quest, and he was given it in standard quest-giver fashion by someone who set him up with a situation to respond to, and he responded against that person’s preferences. Standard fairy-trickery sort of setup, except that it was ~5 years ago. So the movie actually follows someone other than the child of prophecy, as it were, as they help the failed hero to finally succeed before the time’s up. Belle never chooses to participate in this quest in the quest-giver fashion, she stumbles into the castle and gets trapped by its rules. Once there she promises not to leave, but it’s really up to her to stay. She leaves in the film, more than once, and chooses to come back. Something we don’t often allow players to do in this type of quest.

What makes the quest interesting once we’ve accepted it? Well it’s all intrapersonal relationship stuff as Beast and Belle slowly fall for each other. The quest is really just an excuse for these two to have to spend time together, which maybe isn’t something we map directly into a video game’s systems so much as just something we allow to exist. A quest with no purpose other than to get to know your teammates. What a concept!

The reward here is also in reverse. Belle’s actions complete Beast’s quest, and his reward is a return to normalcy, much like all the rest of these stories I’ve been looking at. Except, again, she isn’t the one getting that quest reward. She reaps the benefits, because she now loves the man, and a man he is once more, but still there’s no direct reward for our protagonist. If this were a game, maybe the player gets a new ally, but no direct reward themself. 

The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya review | Den of Geek

Tale of Princess Kaguya

Princess Kaguya follows the story of a young girl who is born into a bamboo reed that’s grown in a forest owned by a simple farmer couple. They raise the bamboo girl as their own, and as they do, a series of miracles happen that provide them with the means to take care of the girl as her family (gods who live on the moon), wish for her. 

So how do they get the quest? …..well there isn’t a quest…. A tale, in film speak, is a story told simply as a series of events that don’t follow your typical plot arcs. While Star Wars follows the Hero’s Journey very explicitly, Princess Kaguya needs no such structure. It’s merely a series of events in the life of a young woman whose story then resolves, and we’re left to consider why or if it meant anything at all. The parents get a bunch of money and sort of invent a quest for themselves, but it’s never something they need to follow and indeed they quit before ever completing it anyway. It could be said that Kaguya has a quest in her desire to come to earth for a visit, but if this were a video game the quest on your HUD would read “Go to earth” and would complete the moment the game started. 

What makes the quest interesting once they’re on it? Well I suppose the aforementioned miracles are interesting. They just keep getting random gifts from bamboo shoots in the forest, so that’s pretty exciting!

The reward here is a return to normalcy. This series of events happens in the lives of these people, and at the end their lives go back to the way they were, insofar as that’s possible after years of growth and personal development around each other. 

Easy A Wiki | Fandom

Easy A

Easy A is a romantic comedy film built on tropes from the 80s and intending to lampoon them while delivering a by-the-numbers film in its own right. In it, protagonist Olive must come to terms with her own self-confidence issues as they spiral out of control when she lies to a friend to get out of a boring weekend and keeps up the lie for the sake of appearing interesting.

So how does she get the quest? Well, she tells a lie and the plot sort of happens around her. The “quest” of the film is mostly at the end once she decides how to resolve the conflict of the film by hosting a live webcam show where she tells the story of what’s been happening, though there is a second quest in her need to realize her personal faults. Both of these come to her in the same way: she feels a certain way and acts on that feeling, her motivations are entirely internal. At the start of the film, her internal motivation is that she doesn’t want to hang out with her friend, and she wants to be exciting and popular in high school. At the end of the film, she wants to be rid of the notoriety and the only way out is by telling the truth. She simply decides to do both of those things, and the consequences of her actions play out naturally (if dramatically). If this were a game, there would be no quest giver, she would make a choice that leads to strong reactions from the people around her, and then she would decide that she wants to fix this situation. Another character might decide to roll with it permanently, or to immediately tell the truth and avoid the drama. 

Once she’s on the quest, what makes it interesting? Well the main interest in the film comes from the varied reactions people have once Olive tells her lie. Once she’s earned a particular reputation, people treat her very differently. For a time she decides to run with it because this is a reputation she enjoys, but once it all comes crashing down around her she decides to go back to the way things were. All the conflict in this story comes from interpersonal drama. If this were a game, we’d have to represent this by characters having altered dialogue based on a choice the player could make. As long as the player continues making that choice, the conflict escalates and changing their decision becomes increasingly difficult. The climax comes when the consequences start to interfere with the player’s core goal in some way. 

The reward for the quest is another return to normalcy. Once again becoming a normal teenager is plenty enough of a reward for this film, though of course there’s also the boy she picks up along the way because this is a rom com afterall. 

So that’s all the films I wanted to take a look at today. What did we learn from this examination?

Well, primarily I’ve learned that films and novels find people standing around handing out quests rather boring. Mysterious messages arriving through clandestine means are much more common. Sometimes you find someone who happens to need some help, but even if that’s how the quest starts it NEVER stays that way for long. Kill 10 rats is only ever the beginning of a series of events that snowball out of control wildly. 

What’s most interesting to me is the number of times that the quest derives from player choice. Easy A is entirely based on modeling out the NPC reactions to a seemingly inconsequential choice. Imagine if you were to allow a player to put on a mask, but that mask depicts an evil god. Maybe the player thinks the mask looks cool, or that the idea of flaunting the game’s religion is kind of subversive and fun. Once the player starts wearing the mask, the NPCs start to react to that mask. Over time, if the player keeps wearing it, the NPC reactions increase in intensity. Eventually wearing that mask starts to interfere with their other quests and gameplay. Now the player has to make a choice to take the thing off or double down on their mask wearing. This is how quite a few plots work in film, theatre, or novels, but we don’t often model this in games. Obviously it’s because doing so costs a lot of resources for something that may not be all that important, but I can imagine a smaller scale version of this could be implemented at the same level of effort as a normal quest in an open world game. 

Another point of interest, for me, are the spaces where there aren’t quests at all. Princess Kaguya is a whole story that just unfolds. This is basically what an emergent narrative looks like, if it had been recorded and set to film. These are just the choices a player makes in response to a game’s systems. Similarly, Beauty and the Beast is all reactive to someone else’s choices. An NPC that has a quest they can’t complete anymore, and is lost to despair. The player can swoop in and help to motivate them, but doing so comes at personal cost. And there’s no reward beyond helping that character complete a quest for themself. We see this sort of thing for helper NPCs in games like Dragon Age: Inquisition, of course, but rarely do we bother doing it for side characters that aren’t direct teammates. I think this would be a really fun way to recruit a character, and we did see this sort of thing for rarer characters in older CRPGs. 

And the number one takeaway from all this, for me, is the lack of a quest giver. Quests in other media don’t come from people standing around in an open world, waiting to ask for help. Instead, they exist all around us as we go about our day. If we’re doing quest givers, they should be NPCs yelling for help in the streets as you pass by, ideally with animations to reach out to you as you come close. But beyond that we should get quests as a consequence of our other actions. Game Devs often don’t trust their core mechanics to hold interest (often because their core mechanics just aren’t that interesting on their own). I imagine the ideal scenario for open world quest design is that you walk into a new region and you see a city in the distance. When you get to the city, you find lots of jobs posted on job boards available to you at any time. Let’s say you see a posting to help clear some rats off Farmer MacReedy’s corn field. Kill 10 dire rats, no problem! So you head off to do that, but when you kill the third rat, it drops a magic ring. What on earth is a rat doing holding a magic ring, you ask? So you pick it up and put it into your inventory when suddenly you’re surrounded by ghosts! You can’t even see the corn field anymore for the ghosts, so you throw the ring to the ground and are cured. This destroys the ring, since it’s an MMO or other open world game, but you wonder still. When the seventh rat then drops a similar ring, you stare at it for a moment before picking it up. This time you accept the call, fighting through the ghost blindness to reach the town and ask the local church for help. This starts you down a path that leads you on an epic adventure to kill a necromancer and save both the farm, and the whole city!

And I acknowledge that players aren’t going to enjoy being blinded, and a number of other concessions that should be acknowledged in my example, I’ve not put it into full production, but surely you can imagine a few tweaks to the standard formula that could give us a ton of variety at very little cost. Quests that begin on picking up an item don’t really need more resources to create, since you already have quests, items, and an inventory. Ghost blindness may not work for you, but maybe you start shooting fire from your face or something. Your game definitely has systems that can be used here, even if you’re a turn-based game no more complex than the original Final Fantasy. 

Imagine a world where you’re a wizard learning your level 15 skills and you find a book of dark magics somewhere. You see this really amazing spell in there, so you learn it, but once you do you become marked by the Wizard Council who demands you burn that book and never use that spell again. Technically this isn’t more complex than any Dragon Age quest, but it’s going to stick with you a lot longer because it came directly from a choice you made, and one you weren’t making in the context of a quest.

All player choices can create consequences. Some of those consequences can be “quests”, either immediately or revealed over the course of time. There’s quite a lot of research on player expression, autonomy, etc. and there’s a whole field of study into self determination theory, all of which basically says “I like it when things respond to my choices”.

I believe there’s a broad range of untapped potential in games to offer responses to player choice. I also believe that most of that can be done without any additional workload or at any greater cost of resources than we already expend on less engaging options. By looking into the way other media approaches its stories and quests, I believe we can learn to improve our medium and bring games into the future. 

To this end, keep an eye on this blog as I’ll be going much harder into this quest design research over the coming months. 

And as always, thanks for reading!