Note: these are my opinions as a player of games, not a developer or any sort of professional.
Playing Knights of the Old Republic got me thinking about BioWare’s other hit RPG-sort-of-thing, Mass Effect. Their storylines both have an epic/space opera feel, and the dialogue system is quite similar, with KotOR‘s Light/Neutral/Dark options being replaced by Paragon/Neutral/Renegade in the Mass Effect series. If asked, I would be hard-pressed to tell you which is really the better game, because in some ways they feel like different iterations of the same game, set in different universes, with KotOR‘s round-based combat as a precursor to Mass Effect‘s real-time-but-you-can-micromanage-and-pause-when-you-want-to combat. It feels like Mass Effect is using the old KotOR combat system, but smoothed out, sped up, and with almost all of the numbers hidden away. In any case, they’re both great games, but one thing that really struck me that KotOR does better–way, way better–than Mass Effect is sidequests.
In any RPG-like game, in any game with a semblance of an open world, in any game where the main storyline just isn’t quite long enough for a full experience, you’ve got to have sidequests. There are some games you can sink forty hours into and still not go past the first few story missions because you’re too busy becoming the head of the Fighter’s Guild or finding artifacts or murdering old ladies (yes, I’m talking about Oblivion).
Now, I realize that developers probably don’t want to put as much effort into sidequests as they would into the main storyline, because if you make content optional, most players will skip at least some of it so they can get to the good bits of the story. On the other hand, many players in the modern RPG will spend more time doing sidequests than they will on the main storyline, particularly if you advertised “80 hours of action!” on the box and they paid $60, damn it. In most RPGs, walking down the street and talking to random passersby will net you several more quests on your growing “to-do” list that some people (I among them) feel compelled to clear up before moving on to saving the universe.
I enjoyed Mass Effect immensely, but it dragged a little bit when I was out finishing all of those sidequests. I accepted it as “just the way things are” until KotOR, when I realized that I was having just as much fun on most sidequests as I was during the “saving the universe” parts of the game. I’m going to try to compare different aspects of the sidequests in both games (I’ll talk only about the first Mass Effect game for now, but most of the criticisms apply equally to the second game) and see which game did it (unscientifically and subjectively) better.
Presentation: How did you get the quest? In Mass Effect, you get a lot of calls from Admiral Hackett to investigate things, but you can also find bits of information on a computer, hear something on the Citadel news network in the (long, boring) elevator rides, be approached by a random stranger, go up to a random stranger, or get a quest from one of your squadmates. In KotOR, your options are pretty much limited to random strangers, although both games have quests that tie to your squadmates (it’s just that in ME, they’ll tell you what they want to do, and in KotOR, some random person will run into you while they’re in your party and trigger the quest). Mass Effect wins on this one, mostly because its system helps the sidequests feel more important. Some random stranger you can blow off, but if Admiral Hackett tells you to do something? Sir, yes, sir!
Variety: This is where KotOR really shines. What side quests can you get in Mass Effect? Well, you can go to a planet in the X system and shoot a bunch of husks/geth/bionic terrorists/Cerberus agents, or you can go to a planet in the X system and shoot and thresher maw. Occasionally, you can do quests on the Citadel or other urban areas, which amounts to either talking to several people several times, or doing that and also shooting some guys. Commander Shepard is sort of a one-trick pony, and that trick is shooting things. In KotOR, the options are much more diverse. Solving two murder cases and acting as someone’s defense attorney (three different cases in all, so far) was fun. Swoop racing (which is a bit like podracing, but less complicated and somehow a lot harder) was fun for a bit, but not really my thing. You can join an elite group of assassins. You can convince the Sand People (the covered-up guys on Tatooine) to tell you their history (much harder than it sounds). You can accidentally smuggle adorable little animals. You can play cards. You can free Jawa slaves. You can save families from poverty. You can cover up some of the Republic’s shady dealings or expose them to the local governments. You can freelance as a bounty hunter. You can become champion of the dueling ring. These are all side quests that aren’t really integrated into the main storyline, either (we’ll get to that in a moment); they’re just given to you by random people you talk to. It’s a lot easier to stay excited about playing a game when everything you do feels fresh and different, instead of looking at your quest log and seeing a bunch of nearly identical missions
Payoff: What do you get at the end of the quest? Well, the games are pretty similar in that your official reward is usually some combination of credits and experience points, with Light Side/Paragon points available if you forgo the credits. Sometimes you can get a sweet weapon or some medpacs or something.
There are some aspects of how both games handle sidequests that aren’t definitively better one way or the other, just different. Things like:
Integration: By this I mean the connections between the sidequests and the main storyline. Mass Effect and many other “new” games keep their sidequests and main quest in separate rooms with a tiny window between them. This can be nice, because if you don’t want to deal with the main quest for a while, you can do something completely different within the same game, and it helps you in the main quest by giving you more levels, equipment, and gameplay experience. On the other hand, it leaves me (and possibly you) feeling disconnected from the main quest. In Mass Effect and Oblivion and other “epic” RPGs, there is some theoretical urgency in the main quest. In Mass Effect, you’re trying to save the galaxy from the Reaper threat, and there are many missions that you wouldn’t want to postpone in real life (“Commander Shepard, we’ve lost contact with the colony on Feros.” “Oh, no! I’ll be there as soon as I’ve finished helping this guy cheat at Quasar and gone treasure hunting on a few planets in a completely different part of the galaxy”). In Oblivion, you’re saving the world from demonic hellspawn invasion, but you can literally walk right past a town that’s being attacked by said hellspawn in order to steal stuff from the next town over, and nothing will happen until you’ve come back and decided to actually help this time. You could probably do all of the sidequest content in the entire game before you started the second mission on the main quest.
In KotOR, many of the sidequests are intimately related to the main quest. This has the disadvantage of blocking content if you’ve gotten past a certain point in the main storyline (SPOILER ALERT: the Sith destroy the surface of Taris, the first planet you land on, right as you’re leaving, so you can’t go back and do quests there. You can be kicked off Manaan if you make certain choices in the main quest, and all of the humans on Kashyyyk can be killed/driven off if you make a certain choice in the main quest there), so you really want to do everything you can on each planet before you do the main quest. On the other hand, making the main quest affect what happens on the rest of the planet gives a real sense of importance and weight to the main quest. It makes you feel like what you’re doing actually matters (because, the way it’s written, it does), which gives the entire story a more epic feel. Integrating the main and side quests (by, for example, having the key to resolving a side quest be further inside the Sith base than the main objective) also rewards exploration, while Mass Effect practically makes it mandatory. The integration aspect of sidequests is partially related to
Openness: Both of these games put you in charge of a space ship and open up the galaxy for you to explore. The difference between them is that Mass Effect actually does that, and KotOR says that, but actually only lets you visit about 5 planets at any one time. This might sound utterly lame, and in a way it is. The Mass Effect method gives you a real sense of the galaxy being a huge place. This is somewhat undermined by the way that each planet apparently has only one rectangle of explorable space on which everything of interest is located, and the fact that there are only about six unique environments and two base designs for about a hundred explorable planets, means that all of the amazing places you visit start to look the same after a while. KotOR has about the same number of planet environments (so far, the environment types have been city, pastoral, desert, forest and aquatic; I can only assume the ice planet and the volcano planet are coming up), but they’re all uniquely fleshed out. The urban planet of Taris has issues with class divides and social stratification (literally), while the Jedi enclave on pastoral Dantooine is surrounded by people looking for help from the Order. In the worlds you visit on the main quest, you’re pretty much restricted to the city you land in and its immediate environs, but you can really affect what goes on there, and often affect the entire world as a result.
The choices the developers made in these games in side quests (and main quests) are showcased, in some ways, by the difference between what is implied or said and what actually happens in the game. Mass Effect promises hundreds of worlds to explore and hundreds of side quests, and delivers small portions of very similar worlds to explore and many side quests that are repetitive and formulaic. KotOR‘s galaxy map shows you a very small number of worlds to explore, but each of them feels unique and alive, and the side quests are similarly engaging. While both are great games, and the sheer size of Mass Effect and the effort it must have taken to produce it mean that fully realizing all of those worlds is hardly practical, it was a little disappointing to realize that a game from five years before made some significantly better choices.
[Featured image: technobuffalo.com.]