I’ve noticed something of a trend among games that boast huge worlds and complex characters: their side quests might yield a wealth of interesting lore and little stories, but the so-called main quest tends to be a by-the-numbers affair that’s afraid to step out of comfortable genre tropes. Why the disparity? Especially given that the central plot of a narrative would presumably get at least as much attention as content not everyone will see? More than that, though, the better question might be why this idea of a “main quest” persists at all.
To answer the first question, the problem might stem partially from the challenge of presenting a coherent world that stands up to scrutiny in a medium where the audience can quite literally walk off the intended path. Think of Skyrim, widely adored for its open-ended nature that can be explored in pretty much any order, but equally criticised for not adequately portraying the consequences of the protagonist’s actions after the apocalyptic main quest. Having a good story is one thing, whereas tying it into every other facet of a virtual world is a whole other challenge, so it must be tempting to keep the main quest wallowing in conventions while the more interesting stuff is resigned to side content whose consequences can be contained; it’s easier to come up with an interesting universe than to do that and make a good story out of it, which might also explain why I love Mass Effect’s optional encounters but find the main plots boring and superfluous.
And there’s the question that inspired this article: why do we need to rely on these core plots that don’t gel with the rest of the narrative? If the strength of Skyrim or Mass Effect is unconventional storytelling that lets the audience piece together a universe by following plot threads they find interesting, then why provide a “main” story at all? Skyrim in particular can’t provide meaningful consequences to the events of its main quest, which serves to take the player out of the experience if they want to explore the world some more after fulfilling their boring “chosen one” destiny. In short, then, any game which tries to embrace a less linear method of storytelling is probably shooting itself in the +10 Boots of Orc-Stomping by lumping a bland, unfulfilling “proper” story into the mix, when just letting the player unravel their own little narrative works much better in a sandbox environment.
That’s not to say that every game’s main story is tedious and unnecessary. In fact, it’s more common for games to have the opposite problem where the side content is vacuous. But if you’re going to embrace interactive storytelling like open-world roleplaying games often do, then why rely on hackneyed and unsatisfying main quests when the more interesting stuff already does your world justice?
Featured image rights: Bethesda Softworks