I recently came across this great article on side quests over at Gameranx. In it the author makes the claim that side quests nowadays are boring, uninventive, and do little to add to the overall experience of a game. He points out the potentially large value that side quests can lend, and he sites Majora's Mask as the perfect example. It is true that Majora's Mask presented a very unique and engaging array of side quests, especially considering the constant time restraints.
There's a challenge for me in commenting on side quests, because when I was much younger I didn't care for them. I didn't understand their presence in a game and always did my best to ignore them. It wasn't until I was much older that I grew to appreciate their existence, and also to understand why they were in the game in the first place.
The first game where I acknowledged side quests was in Ocarina of Time. It was a universe that I cared about, so the quests lent understandable sense to the main story. There weren't many, but, for instance, the long arc to achieving Biggoron's Sword was incredibly fun. Minish Cap was the first game where I was excited by the side quests. Many fans complained that Minish Cap was too short, and compared to traditional Zelda titles it was, but it offered so much in the way of exploration that I feel it was more than acceptable. Who else absolutely loved the kinestones? I found it to be a great mechanic to encourage exploration of the world.
The author of the Gameranx article points out that the reason side quests are so great in Majora's Mask is that the game doesn't hold your hand through the process. Your success or failure depends entirely on your sleuthing skills. There are no indicators on the map, no sign posts telling you where to go for the next step. This is a reason that I actually disliked them; they were incredibly difficult. I wanted to be able to accomplish them, which was not a simple task. Add in the constant three day restart cycle and you had an equation for a game that made me want to flip over tables.
Items consumed in addition to everything: my sanity.
Image via Kyandi.tumblr
I never finished Majora's Mask.
But, he has a point! Even though that aspect frustrated me to no end it was still fantastic. Everyone remembers what it's like to discover something new, right? Find a secret, crack a code, get past a particularly difficult hurdle. Most game side quests take away the triumph and accomplishment and add little to the overall experience.
There needs to be a balance though. Video games appeal to a wide range of ages, experience levels, and interests. I believe that developers such as Nintendo have the right idea in adding "helpers" in case the player is having a particularly difficult time. In NSMB for the Wii, if you fail to complete a level a certain number of times in a row then you have the option of calling on Luigi to show you how to survive to the flagpole. There's a similar mechanic in Super Mario 3D Land, where, again, if the player repeatedly fails a level then they're given a helpful power-up to get them through the difficult aspects and to the flagpole at the end.
An ever comical and poignant take on the situation by Penny Arcade.
These helpers are entirely optional and, in my eyes, are added simply to cover the wide range of player types and ultimately to help everyone have as much fun as they can at a game. Isn't that the point? Games frequently incorporate some form of helping/hinting system for the main story line, but I can't think of it happening that often for side quests. I sometimes think of returning to my Majora's Mask file and tackling some of the side quests, because I know that they are well done and worth playing. I also know that they're going to be incredibly difficult and I'll spend a lot of time attempting the same thing over and over again because there won't be any indicators for what I need to do next.
Really it comes down to playing styles. I'm the kind of person that appreciates a little help and nudge in the right direction. Others would rather figure out everything for themselves and damn any help that is offered up. Of course, even though I prefer help, I can agree without hesitation that no one should be led by hand. That takes out the fun and satisfaction. Let people think for themselves and experience the game on their own.
What about you? Do you partake in side quests? Do you wish they were more like Majora's Mask, or do you prefer hints and help?