The Side Quest & Random Encounters: Agency in Video Games

art-1850653_1920Have you ever read a book or watched a movie and wished you could know more about that one character kept in the shadows or spend a little more time in an obscure location? I certainly have. I still want to know more about the Entwives in The Lord of the Rings, dammit. One benefit of video games, often RPGs and open-world games, is that more and more they are offering a wider variety of adventures and excursions apart from the main storyline. I find this exciting because some of my favorite games are RPGs.

In December of 2015, I spent a good chunk of time playing Fallout 4, and in early 2016 I started my second play through of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (W3). These games are among my favorites and offer some interesting options regarding side quests that often reveal something about characters, monsters, locations, or game lore in general that players would otherwise miss if they only followed the main quest/story lines. Usually the information gained from side quests is not necessarily essential, but the rewards from completing such quests can be substantial such as gaining knowledge, armor, or a stronger sword.

Side quests in W3 come in several forms: Secondary Quests, Treasure Hunts, and Contracts. Secondary Quests have you complete a variety of tasks including locating someone’s missing relative, retrieving a frying pan, and appeasing restless ghosts. Treasure Hunts are exactly what they sound like and typically send the player off to locate hidden treasure guarded by unforgiving beasts. Contracts involve Geralt (the protagonist of W3) taking on the monsters of the Northern Realms for money or other rewards.

These side quests are optional but add a great deal to W3. They provide players with advanced equipment and provide insight into the world and politics of the game. Unless players are attempting a 100% completion run of W3, there is no penalty for ignoring side quests besides missed opportunities. Some of the side quests will become unavailable after other quests, particularly main story quests, have been completed.

The beauty of W3 quests is how much they reveal to players. They really do add depth to the game that makes it a more complete whole. For example, the Northern Realms are being torn apart by war. This is evident enough through the main story missions, but one of the Secondary Quests adds to this reality early on. “Missing in Action” involves helping a man find his brother who failed to return home after a particularly brutal battle between the Nilfgaardians and Temerians. Luckily, the soldier is found injured but alive and with one of the enemy soldiers. Together they escaped the battlefield and helped each other to safety.

This quest illustrates the brutality of war and shows the humanity of conflict through a soldier thought dead. Even though going to the battlefield represented physical danger, the man insisted that he go along with Geralt to retrieve his brother’s body. The man’s situation demonstrates the impact that war and violence have on family and shows the particularly devastating consequences violence can have on the general and lowly populace. The fact that the missing brother was found with an enemy soldier who he had befriended adds another element of humanity to the situation. The enemy is not some far removed entity or “other” but is in fact familiar.

These observations can be realized through the main story but become more personal for the player when they take the form of additional content not necessary for completion of the main story. It’s the kind of bonus material I sometimes wish for in movies—players have the option of experiencing more of the world. Not only is this content rewarding but players have the opportunity to participate in varying degrees.

Similarly, Fallout 4 contains side quests of impact. Side quests in Fallout 4 are provided by the game’s four factions, some of the companions, and others are non-faction quests picked up in the world through various encounters with NPCs (non-playable characters). Side quests often result in the player receiving experience points, caps (currency), weapons, and equipment.

One such quest is “Curtain Call.” The player must fight off super mutants while answering a distress signal. This quest results in the addition of a new companion, Strong, and rewards the player with a new outfit. Although Strong can be a difficult companion to deal with, he also adds the unique perspective of a super mutant to the experiences of the Sole Survivor (a human). Strong’s actions and comments serve as a foil for the human perspective of the protagonist.

Some quests in games do little more than add another activity for players to complete. This is true of many games including a few of the quests in Fallout 4. When side quests simply serve as a way to add more playtime to the base game it usually shows.

However, when done well, side quests can add more than additional playtime.

For example, “The Lost Patrol” brings to life the realities of the post-apocalyptic world of Fallout 4. Players follow the trail of a distress signal which leads to three holo-tapes that players must listen to. These holo-tapes explain the efforts of the Brotherhood of Steel soldiers and provide insight into their demise. Their efforts in the wasteland become more significant for players and the dangers more apparent. Good people have been lost and the chaos will only continue if the Sole Survivor does nothing.

There are many examples of impactful side quests from both games (sometimes these side quests overshadow main quests), but these quests aren’t the only elements that add to the experience of one’s game time. Beyond scripted side quests, both of these games include the potential for random moments capable of the same brevity as the examples I mentioned above.

While playing Fallout 4, I experienced moments that many players may never see if they only stick to the main storyline. I have walked through decaying buildings and stumbled upon the skeletons of an embracing couple, the beloved toys of children long gone, and listened to the terrifying tales of individuals who perished. And in W3, I overheard a father firmly scolding his son for mocking an authority figure and came across a wailing woman distraught over the deaths of her loved ones.

These moments, though short and in passing, have their emotional weight and create a more believable human world. They also give the player further agency. With side quests and other experiences waiting for players, games have become more open in regards to player actions and experiences. Obviously, this is particularly true of open-world games. Players can decide to only focus on the main story, they can spend as much time on side quests and world exploration as they choose, or they can combine these two endeavors into their own balance.

Typically the agency a game affords players has an impact on the narrative created by the game’s designers and the more personal narrative that each player experiences. I put at least 120 hours into Fallout 4 and one of my friends played for close to 300 hours. While we both completed many of the same quests, we have different experiences with the game. This matters when we accept and expect that video games can provide more than entertainment—they can provide significant experiences worth sharing with others. An open world is often the “choose your own adventure” of video games. Combine that with powerful and purposeful experiences waiting for players and you have a video game worth more than mere entertainment or fun.

Some games provide players with more agency than others, but this is not necessarily “good” or “bad.” For example, a developer may want to tell a very specific story and so offers players with few choices that could impact the narrative. These narratives are still complex, but the forces behind the complexity are predetermined. This can hardly be criticized considering traditional books and films have a set narrative to share. But with video games, player choice can lead to deeper, more natural experiences that can
often be relived with different outcomes.

Exploring player agency in video games is important to me as a player and as an educator interested in the making of meaning and rhetoric. Video games are unique in that they are interactive, and the level of interaction is constantly changing thanks in part to the varying levels of agency and opportunity that developers are building into their games.

In years to come it will be interesting to see how far video games go in regards to player choice and agency. Video games, with their side quests and random encounters, give players that extra little bit that we often do not have with films and written texts. Video games have unique ways of world building, and the additional experiences they provide keep games engaging and players immersed in worlds that often draw parallels with the joys and turbulence of the human experience.

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