After spending a whole lot of time with Bravely Default II, I got to thinking about sidequests and the weird way that some games use this category as a catch-all for everything that is not main path critical. Some games go a bit further to categorise things, but this is the exception rather than the rule.
So what’s the rub? Well, I probably wouldn’t mind if there wasn’t such a disparity in quality between the various side quests. Sticking with Bravely Default II as my example, you get side quests and the main quest. These side quests can range from unvoiced, pretty pedestrian quests that involve you heading off to find an item, or kill a certain number of enemies. You get a bit of text and off you go, hoping for a reward of some kind. These quests feel low-effort and are generally fetch quests or kill X of Y.
But then you get other side quests, with zero differentiating markers, that are fully voiced with animations and little vignettes. These quests could teach you more about the kingdoms you are in, or give details on bosses you defeated near the beginning of the game, and what they are doing now. Some side quests even lead to really powerful loot or a new Asterisk (new character job)!
Because the game doesn’t tell you what kind of side quest a person has, you have to talk to everyone and pick up their quests. If there is voice acting you probably should do that quest, as it will have some sort of worthwhile story and reward, while the quests that they didn’t bother to voice, you can do if you happen to be in the area for something else, or are passing by. Honestly if the reward isn’t that appealing, maybe just do it to tick a box, or ignore it.
Easy to do better
What makes this whole situation worse if that some games have done a great job of separating the wheat from the chaff for you. Final Fantasy XIV has a lot of quests, so the game uses a bunch of different icons to let you know more about the quest before you even click on the NPC that is about to get you to go around the world doing all sorts of chores for them. The game has symbols for the critical path, called the Main Scenario Quest, so you always know which quest to focus on or grab first in a new zone. It stands out, because it is an exclamation mark in a falling meteor. Then side quests have their own marker, which generally give you lore or side stories. These are marked with a yellow speech bubble with an exclamation mark. The ones you really want to pay attention to in FFXIV look a lot like the side quest icon, but the background is blue and there is a big plus on the speech bubble. These quests unlock something at the end, be it a new job, a dungeon, a new location or some game feature. The blue and the plus stand out nicely in a sea of side quests, so you know which ones to focus on, or if you took a short break, you can find them easily in your quest log again.
FF14 isn’t the only game to do this. Many RPGs have used clever systems to break side quests into more manageable groupings. Mass Effect Andromeda (yes yes, I liked this game) split quests into categories for you. There were Priority Ops (critical path), Allies and Relationships, Heleus Assignments and the fourth was Additional Tasks. If you ever felt overwhelmed by the number of quests in the game, you could safely ignore everything in the Additional Tasks folder, which was just busywork for some cash and XP.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey used a similar system. For some reason, I guess to help you get XP if you were lagging behind the main story, there are some really terrible, near-infinite missions that involve you doing things for various people in the world. These tasks were in their own section of the journal, away from big quest headings like learning more about the Ancients, or taking down the Order. Honestly, these tasks really offered nothing but a few resources and had such terrible dialogues that skipping them completely makes Odyssey a much better game.
Maybe games should aim for a less is more principal, and cut sidequests that are so inane that nobody even bothers to have them voiced, or work on them so that they are worth the effort of doing them. Or maybe take them out and question why players need to go to random boring tasks to get more XP before hitting the critical path again and go make changes to the problem, rather than just treating symptoms. Just please, stop making me sift through the garbage to find the good side quests.