Design Flaws – The Quest Log
I’ve been thinking about this issue rather a lot of late, and I’ve come to the realization that I dislike almost everything about the modern quest log. Apostasy, I know, but it’s true. World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings Online, City of Heroes*, Age of Conan, WAR… they all have quest logs. And in every case I feel that the basic concept of the quest log does a disservice to the game’s design.
* City of Heroes has a smaller quest log, usually holding only a few at a time, and so it suffers less from this malady than the others.
What’s to dislike? You run around a quest hub, clicking on the NPCs that have punctuation floating over their heads (absolutely no immersion there, thanks), until your quest log is nice and full of quests you didn’t read the text for and don’t care about. Then you run around the questing area until you’ve completed a batch of quests. Return to the quest hub, find the NPCs with punctuation floating over their heads, and turn in the quests. Rinse and repeat.
How mind-bogglingly dull this is, and how unlike how humans actually act. Never mind the floating punctuation (immersion is a subject for another time)… this basic model for questing strips away whatever mythic elements might remain from gameplay, leaving us with nothing but mindless errands. Gone is Isis’ journey to recover every one of Osiris’ severed body parts strewn up and down the Nile, gone Odysseus’ long trip home, gone Xuánzàng’s Journey to the West, gone Thor and Loki’s trip to recover Mjöllnir, and in their place, we have errand lists. You know what? I’ll take the mythic approach, thanks.
I differentiate between three types of activities in this regard: quests, subquests, and errands. A quest is, properly speaking, a concept carried down from ages of myth and folklore, examples cited above. Quests are serious endeavors, not to be undertaken lightly (in most cases anyhow). Going to recover a major artifact, seeking to find and destroy a threat to the kingdom, traveling through peril and adversity to rescue the princess from the wicked enchantment that holds her in thrall… these are quests.
Subquests are a traditional part of questing; often the heroes find that in order to slay the terrible monster, they must first find the Sword of Terrible Monster Slaying. And in order to recover that, they need the Wallet of Prosperity and the Sandals of Surefootedness. The main goal remains paramount though in basically every story, myth, and folktale I’ve ever read; you don’t read about Frodo and Sam deciding that what they really needed was some more experience, heading out into the Plains of Gorgoroth to farm orcs for a few levels (the Ring can wait, whatever, it’s a static quest with no timer anyhow).
Errands are what most of our gaming quests come down to. “Carry this envelope across this courtyard and hand it to that guy over there, yeah, in the blue hat, yes I know I can see him from here but I need your help, brave adventurer!” There’s nothing wrong with errands; they provide a lot of minor and individually unimportant things to do and the keep the world running. All of us do errands in our real lives, and we often do multitask these; if I head to the market to buy some fresh produce, I might also stop and pick up a loaf of bread at the bakery, and maybe a nice bottle of wine for my wife and I to enjoy. Multitasking doesn’t diminish errands because they were always trivial in import. There’s nothing to lose there. Errands don’t make us feel very special though, and when we complete them we don’t get much of a rush for our accomplishment – again, because they’re just errands.
Quests, though, are, or rather should be more important. Heroes don’t EVER multitask quests in story or myth; Jason didn’t set out to find the Golden Fleece and also the Golden Apples of the Hesperides (Hercules was on the Argo after all, could have saved him his 11th Labour). So why are we expected to do so in games? Often I find my characters have quest logs full of errands (which are all pretty innately meaningless) but also multiple quests at once. I’m supposed to kill a bandit leader in this ruined fort (that sounds like a proper quest!)… but I have three quests like that at once, making each less meaningful. I gather the quests up then look at my minimap and find the quest goals thereupon, then I merrily move from quest point to quest point killing everything that my quest log tells me to kill, collecting what my quest log tells me to collect. How dreary and above all how unheroic.
In World of Warcraft there’s a popular addon called Quest Helper that keeps track of where all your quest goals are. They’re clearly marked on your minimap and you can even see a path leading you from one goal to the next, so you don’t have to think about the process at all, and can just mindlessly complete that mess of ‘quests’. Age of Conan took this one step further and built this functionality into the game, such that all quest goals appear by default on the minimap, and I gather WAR does as well. Yes, we can turn these features off, or not install them in WoW’s case, but they’re symptomatic of a greater problem – how our modern games approach questing. If we didn’t pick up twenty quests at once we wouldn’t need the minimaps to show us our goals.
These games all promise that we can be heroes; why then won’t they help us to feel heroic? The modern approach to questing is nothing more than a list of minor errands, to be completed at any time the player wishes, with no pressure from the outside world, no sense of the importance of the quest, and no sense of accomplishment when the quest is done. Quest logs are the antithesis of heroism. And I, for one, would like more opportunities for heroism in my RPGs. Isn’t that what they all advertise, after all?