In previous posts, we’ve mentioned that immersion into the game’s world can be a fantastic tool to enhance the appeal. One way to pull this off is by including small details which make it look like you’ve thought a lot more about your worldbuilding than you really have. Today I’d like to zoom in one way to pull this off: side stories.
Many games have side stories or quests, things that you can observe or participate in that have no relevance to the overall plot. Sometimes they give you nice rewards, sometimes they just offer a good story. When thinking of side quests, the first two games to come to mind are Majora’s Mask and Skyrim.
The main plot of Majora’s Mask is surprisingly short; it only has four dungeons. One appeal of the game, however, is that you can collect all the masks to unlock the fierce deity mask at the end. Some of these quests even have lackluster rewards, like the longest one
(Kafei and Anju) only gives you a piece of heart at the end. This quest, however, showcases the fact that you don’t need a reward for the side quest to be rewarding. I’d say the real reward is the sheer emotional impact at the end, where you see two lovers, separated by a curse, declaring their love mere minutes before the moon crashes into Termina. This kind of tragedy pulls at the audience’s heartstrings and makes the quest truly rewarding.
Skyrim uses a very different kind of side quest, mostly to take advantage of their enormous world. Side quests give you incentive to travel, explore, see everything there is to see. You can collect the Daedra artifacts from the Masque of Clavicus Vile to Azura’s Star, stop the resurrection of the wolf queen, or even lead a band of thieves back to their former glory. The Elder Scrolls has always been about player choice, and they emphasize this by giving the player so much content it’s almost impossible to run out.
Sometimes, however, the side quests don’t have to be grand adventures. They don’t even have to be playable content. For example, as I have mentioned before, the many books of Skyrim serve a role in giving out stories that are completely unnecessary but help flesh the world out.
A few months ago, I was sucked into the wonderful world of Dota2, and those of you familiar with the game will recognize that it has virtually no built in plot. In fact, each game plays more like a sports match than a story. The world of Dota, however, does exist, but it’s small, easy to pass over. Under the library tab, they list all the heroes, stats, abilities, and sometimes videos that go over each ability. Under each hero, though, is a short bio.
The longest bio I’ve seen has only been a few paragraphs, but they give you so much about the hero’s background that it feels a little less like you’re playing a character and more playing a person. It’s small. It’s almost nothing. Quite a few people will never notice it. But it’s there, waiting to be discovered, and when someone does take the time to read through it in the downtime while searching for game, it can be rewarding.
Because of their variability, side stories can serve so many different functions. They can give rewards, deliver an emotional narrative, incentivize content, and even just add a bit to the gaming experience. They’re a tool, and just like any other tool a good game designer knows how to use everything at his disposal. Just a little extra effort can go a long way.