One of the most important aspects of writing a story is to understand the scope of what you’re writing. In order to create a compelling story, you have to have a balance of goals and threats, so that everything feels right to the readers. If you have, say, a slice-of-life type story, the threats to your character’s goals will be normal, mundane things, and your character should react accordingly. If you’ve got a high fantasy story about a villain who wants to destroy the world, on the other hand, you’re going to have much bigger threats, and your characters will react accordingly to that instead. This applies also to the secondary threats. At least to my eye, high fantasy romance arcs often fall flat because I’m often left thinking ‘why is this as important as the world-shattering plot that’s going on in the background?’
That’s not to say that I think epic scope and romance arcs can’t coexist, but it does require the author to be conscious of the relative scope of the problems, and have the characters react to each with the gravity it deserves.
The epic RPG, particularly in the style Bioware makes, cannot do that in the slightest.
I mean, if you follow only the main quest and maybe the companion quests, you’re about looking at a well-balanced game in terms of scope. But then you get to the side quests.
One of the most well-known problems with RPGs, particularly the type of RPG that Bioware makes, is that a) you will be given a quest of world-shattering significance, and b) you will absolutely be asked to search for a small personal item of sentimental value at some point. Or to find someone the ingredients for the special cake that will save their marriage because they always make it for their wife for their anniversary. Or whatever it happens to be. Even if it’s something like helping a local police force solve a murder mystery, it’s important but definitely not on the same level as, say, giant rifts opening up in the sky that are letting demons into the world and may or may not eventually consume all life as we know it.
And yet, Bioware RPGs always seem to expect that their players will put their world-shattering quest on hold so they can go running after somebody’s small personal item.
They’re right. They’re so right that often people’s favourite parts of the game occur on little side quests that they’re running for someone they only just met in a part of the map they’d only be if they were already on a sidequest. I won’t go into them here, but I remember having to pause the game and step away from the computer on sidequests like Gray Matter – where you have to offer scavengers the equivalent of space-antidepressants and hope one of them agrees to treatment. I loved seeing the Krogan reference Dr Okeer from the second Mass Effect game, and I loved doing that side quest because of that. I’m still annoyed that I didn’t get a chance to actually have that movie night that everyone was making snacks for. I nearly screamed because I GOT A SPACE HAMSTER AGAIN AND NOBODY WILL TEAR US APART.
In fact, they’re so right that they felt justified in turning a villain from a side quest in Dragon Age II into the main villain from Dragon Age: Inquisition, though that did backfire on them slightly. I’m not arguing it was the right decision – but it shows a lot that the devs even thought it was a viable option.
What follows is a statement of my own opinion, with which you are free to agree or disagree.
Mass Effect: Andromeda achieved this scope balance quite well, where the side quests, unless I really got bogged down in them, never really felt like busywork, and they added to the game.
Dragon Age: Inquisition did not do this. I was often left wondering why I was spending my time on the side quests, and they sometimes made it hard to appreciate the main plot.
I can’t exactly put my finger on why this was, but I’m going to try.
See, by most measures, I should either prefer Dragon Age: Inquisitions side quest setup to Mass Effect’s, or they should be equal. The quests have roughly the same content, the same proportion of different types of quests (roughly), and the same range of scope in the side quests. Inquisition’s even ties the side quests into the main plot: You play side quests to earn plot points, which you can spend to advance the main plot and increase the capability of your army against the main villain (like Mass Effect 3 tried to do with the multiplayer feeding into the army’s readiness for the final battle, and I ignored completely because multiplayer is not and has never been my thing). It’s not very balanced – you’ll eventually earn so many points from side quests if you take even a casual interest that you’ll be able to complete the main plot with ease. I think this is a good thing – I can’t imagine how tedious the game would have been if you had to grind hundreds of side quests in order to advance the main plot, rather than just being able to do the quests as and when you wanted and still probably having enough to advance the plot. The point is, they were tied into the main plot (and even had a reason for being there: Your points represented the general opinion of the public and your resources, and the more people liked you and the more resources you could spend, the more freely you were able to travel through the map. Kinda makes sense).
And yet I just couldn’t get behind the Dragon Age: Inquisition sidequests. I ended up barely concentrating on them, using them as brain-off time to listen to podcasts. I did the main plot if I wanted the story, if I just wanted something to pass the time, I ground sidequests and listened to people talking about writing (you may have noticed – writing is sort of a running theme with me).
Mass Effect: Andromeda never even tempted me to do that. Sometimes, I would go on a nice romp through the fetch quests if I didn’t quite have the energy for something with emotional commitment, but I was never tempted to tune out to the extent where I was actively consuming other media to pass the time while I played.
I just remember coming away from Inquisition with an overwhelming feeling of ‘why’. Why was I here? Why was this my job? Inquisition gives you resources – people to play around with. You’re even supposed to do some side quests by assigning people to them rather than actually going yourself. And I think that’s what was part of what broke the suspension of disbelief for me. What was the distinguishing factor between sending my spies to scout a path through dangerous mountains, and sending them to listen in on conversations in the market until I found out the identity of Red Jenny? Why was I supposed to fight the wolves attacking a farm, when just across the map, my trained soldiers were being deployed to defend a caravan against bandits?
What was the difference in scope between these things that marked them “important enough for my attention”, when these other quests were being done by underlings?
I will note that I recall Inquisition having more quests that were just ‘explore until you find the things randomly scattered around’ – like the shards and the ‘find every area’ quests and so forth. They also had multiple steps to them – unlike Andromeda, where in the course of finding resources or travelling, you can pick up items on the ground and that’s the entire quest, Inquisition made you find the skulls and solve the puzzle and then go find the shards, which unlocked a side quest area that you could go to for rewards. I don’t recall Andromeda having a quest that worked like that – at least, not one with more than about five findable items. Certainly not the hundreds of shards that were scattered across the entire landscape in Inquisition!
Of course, that also might have been because I think there were more side quests full stop in Inquisition.
But that’s beside the point. Side quests across the board were more engaging for me in Andromeda, not just the trivial fetch quests.
Here’s where I feel like the difference was: Inquisition took place in an established world, with established powers. You had a small band of people who turned into a large band of people, and you were the ones the story followed because you were the only ones who could defeat the demons and close the shards in the sky. Your organisation was fractured by different political and religious views, and you had to navigate that as well as save the world.
But most of the people? With the exception of a few displaced areas, most of the power structures were still in place. There were resources available, people had their homes still, and the demons were making people nervous and causing trouble, but not actively causing massive damage until late in the game.
Andromeda also took place in an established world with established powers, who had political and cultural differences and struggles that you needed to navigate in order to save the world. But the difference was that your own population was exceedingly small and you were in a hands-on position of power.
In Inquisition, you were a Commander.
In Andromeda, you were the leader of a recon team.
It was an exceptionally important recon team, with a say in how resources get distributed, but it was a recon team nevertheless.
In Inquisition, your advisors were ready to carry out your orders, even if they fought over what orders you should give first – and those advisors themselves oversaw a whole lot of people.
In Andromeda, you were an advisor, and the people you advised didn’t really get along. You were in charge of a small group of individuals who would carry out your instructions out of loyalty, but it was just the ten-odd of you, and nobody else.
Andromeda played up the maverick role a little more – you were the one making first contact, and you were the one on the ground trying to make sure you had good interplanetary relations with different groups of people. And you did this because the people in charge on your side were, depending on how you spin it, either too busy trying to make sure that they weren’t starving to death/dying of equipment malfunction in space, or just too busy arguing with each other.
In Andromeda, it always felt like you were the only one who cared about a particular problem. Nobody cared about the bodies of murdered people on Kadara, because the whole port was overrun by scavengers. People cared about relations with the Angara, but you were often the only person of high enough rank to represent the Initiative interacting with them, and you had to make sure that those connections were made, and that meant going out of your way to show that you wanted to cooperate with the Angara. You were the only person who actually had the time and availability to deal with most of the problems that cropped up, and because nobody else could, you did.
That, I think is the difference – Andromeda never gave me a game-mechanics reason to do more side quests (it never made them worth points), but it gave me a game-logic reason why I was doing them. It kept the simple quests simple, but some of the quests had larger plots and they were allowed to grow a little bit more.
Most importantly, because Andromeda had that feeling of “Well, if I don’t who will?”, I never felt like the scope of the game was compromised by those quests, because I could frame it as ‘maverick hero looks out for the little guy as much as possible because, politically, we really need these people to say good things about us’. Inquisition didn’t let me frame it like that – it was ‘Inquisitor takes time off from not letting the world get consumed by evil to fart around in a cave that probably someone else could/should be taking care of, or to scour the landscape for bits of fancy rock’. And that, I think, is what killed it for me.
Now, I still think doing all the quests in Andromeda is going to ruin the immersion, and definitely get tedious. I didn’t do a 100% completion run and for a darned good reason. But I think I got around 80% of them if I recall correctly, and not once did I break immersion with the world because of boredom. And that means it achieved its goal, at least for one person