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 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:
Character progression changes
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!