Critical Hit: A Question of Quests
Remember when the word 'quest' actually meant something? Remember when those syllables rang with power, adventure and drama? We need to retake it. We need to restore it. From now on, the word 'quest' can only be used to describe an epic journey of adventure, and immediately - right now - stop being shorthand for ‘stuff we told you to do'.
I'd like to offer this helpful test to help determine whether or not a particular job should be described as a quest. Imagine a great hero of legend, King Arthur for example, standing before a table of knights. He raises the mighty sword Excalibur aloft and announces in a loud voice "My noble knights! We have been blessed with a mighty quest! A foul dragon threatens Albion and the people cry out for a champion! Who amongst us dare answer this call to glory?"
If the response you imagine coming from around the table is a roaring cheer, a clashing of tankards, and bards tightening the strings on their lutes in readiness for the songs that will be sung, then the word 'quest' is permitted. Nay, not just permitted. Encouraged!
Rewind. Now, the hero King again draws Excalibur. Once again, he beckons silence as he addresses the crowd. "My brave knights!" he shouts, shaking the rafters, "By the names of God and Mithras alike, who can I count on to venture forth and find little Cindy's poor lost dolly?"
The embarrassed silence that follows should speak for itself.
We shall quest ‘cross barren lands forsaken by God Himself to rid Mother Fiddol of
the four slightly overlarge rats in her basement! Who’s with me?
Quests, or to be more accurate, 'quests', now infect every to-do list this side of housework. No, wait. Sorry, I forgot that Chore Wars
exists. Give it a few minutes, and you won't even have to click on that link. You'll boldly 'quest' to it instead, and maybe even pick up a few experience points that will let you level up your internet connection for 8 per cent faster porn, or a new skill that lets you e-mail painful electric shocks to anyone who annoys you.
There's no limit to the banality of ‘quests’ these days. Age of Empires Online, to name one example, offers 'quests' like ‘Use your Villagers to gather Wood and build a Storehouse,’ while Zynga's Adventure World has one about going into full screen mode and dragging the map. Of commercial games, Dead Island is probably the worst recent offender, not simply for abusing the big-Q for its random filler, but doing so for the most insipid assignments. At the very least, if a woman trapped in the middle of a zombie invasion with nothing but her skimpy bikini is going to assign you a 'quest' to retrieve a lost necklace when you should be finding a way to stop everyone starving, she could have the good manners to tack on the words ‘...because I have some seriously screwed up priorities!’
Your quest, should you choose to accept such peril, is to build… a house!
The problem with things like the degradation of quests into 'quests' isn't simply the same petulance as tutting over misplaced apostrophes. About 64 per cent of it is, sure. The rest is what it represents - an attempt to ration out success and create a regular, predictable stream of delicious little rat pellets where we once had big dramatic victories. The word 'achievement' is on a similar slope, with a few scattered here and there that genuinely qualify, but far more often an ‘achievement’ is just to pat you on the head for stuff you'll do anyway, like fully upgrade your character, or random crap like playing 25 multiplayer games.
The psychology behind this isn't complex. Companies like Zynga have made billions off the satisfaction of three gems going pop, or the jingle of a mouse scooping up some fallen coins. MMORPGs like World of Warcraft are masters of using techniques like variable ratio reinforcement to keep people playing. A steady stream of attaboys (and attagirls, of course) keeps people interested, and there's nothing wrong with that.
But there's satisfaction in a bigger picture too - in spending hours questing and fighting the odds in the name of something more dramatic and meaningful. That's what a quest should be, and how it should feel. When everything is treated the same, these grand victories lose their specialness. Look at achievements. Who's the best player in the eyes of the world - the one with thousands of Gamerscore points from mashing buttons, or the one who beat Mega Man 9 without taking a hit? Who even checks the details? In the middle of a shopping list that runs from stopping a necromancer raising an army of the undead to picking some herbs in the enchanted forest, how can an actual, authentic quest ever hope to stand out?
Do RPGs not have a mail service? Surely I should off killing dragons and whatnot?
One fix, obviously, is that tiresome filler like that should be banned, leaving only the good stuff. And yes, that would be lovely. Taking small, baby steps though, simply changing the words and creating a new class of ‘quest-lite’ would be a good start. It wouldn't mean random characters would no longer be asking our world-saving heroes to go collect the laundry in exchange for a glass of melon juice (though if I ever get the option to back-hand them in the face for their presumption, I certainly wouldn't object). Such menial crap-work would simply be treated with the honour it deserves, as an assignment or a bonus objective, or - slightly naughtily - even a ‘request.’
But a quest? No. That word is special. That word needs to mean something again. And unless the task hiding behind it is worthy of the name, no mere XP or melon juice can ever truly hope to compensate for the sense of satisfaction at completing a true quest.
Critical Hit is a twice-monthly column exploring the issues that surround and shape the games industry. Think of it as a quest to improve all aspects of gaming through discussion.