I’ve written pretty thoroughly about how I am a particular type of gamer. I prefer games that are story and relationship focused, and that don’t require a lot of level grinding or random quests. This includes my tabletop play style—apologies to my DM/wife who is sitting on a bunch of Kingmaker sidequests that our party has ignored! Because of my pickiness, I don’t play a lot of games, but lately I’ve been feeling like this framework of “pickiness” is unfair. Am I a gamer aberration? What makes me different from all of you? Why the heck do y’all enjoy repetitive level grinding?!
To dive deeper into this question of taste, I’m peppering my fellow Sidequest writers with questions about why they like what they like—specifically, why sidequests? What is it about fetching recipe ingredients and catching fake fish that brings you joy?
Tell me about your favorite sidequests you’ve completed, from any game!
Zora Gilbert: This is actually really hard to answer, because I think my brain has encoded a lot of my favorite sidequests as mainline story content—I don’t think of them as optional anymore, because they were core to my experience of the game. I know there was a sidequest series in the new Nier Replicant that led to literally nothing, which was incredibly frustrating to do at the time but has really stuck with me because they’re such a clear representation of the world the characters lived in! I’m sure there were also a ton in Tales of Symphonia, but because that game doesn’t have any sort of quest log and I played it more than ten years ago, I… genuinely couldn’t tell you what was core plot and what wasn’t.
Zainabb Hull: Before I actually answer the question, I just want to say that I agree with you, Alenka—”pickiness” is an unfair way to frame personal taste. It’s okay to enjoy a very specific type of game, and also, I know a couple of people who love big, open-world games but will never, ever touch a sidequest because that’s just not their thing. All ways to play games are good ways to play games! And as someone who personally fucking loves a sidequest, I entirely accept your judgment.
My Swiss cheese memory is unlikely to reveal to me specific sidequests that I’ve enjoyed over the years, but I know that the types of sidequests I love the most are ones that deepen character development or immerse me further into the setting. For instance, the party member sidequests in the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series are some of my faves—I loved spending more time with my companions and getting to know their motivations better, even when I wasn’t their greatest fan (looking at you, Leliana, sorry).
I’m also a fan of weird or unexpected sidequests, like that one time me and my friend’s Dungeons & Dragons characters invented skateboards.
Melissa Brinks: Apparently sidequests don’t leave much of an impression on me, because I sat here trying to think of one and came up with nothing. After googling other people’s lists, I’ll cite a couple from Red Dead Redemption 2, which I love despite its many flaws.
The main story in Red Dead Redemption 2 is about a man who feels caught between wilderness and civilization in a number of literal and figurative ways. The sidequests in this game range from being downright silly (and sometimes offensive?? Rockstar, I swear.) to quite serious, sometimes overlapping in the two moods. My favorites—the questlines revolving around Charlotte Balfour, Albert Mason, and Hamish Sinclair—make use of Arthur’s skills (typically hunting) in a way that is less destructive than the main story’s money-grubbing. Charlotte Balfour is a widow trying to make it work on a homestead, and Arthur helps her learn how to survive. Albert Mason is a photographer out of his depths, but Arthur helps him capture vanishing wildlife on film before it’s gone forever. And Hamish Sinclair, a disabled veteran, becomes a friend and potential mentor to Arthur, giving him a precious gift that makes the game’s ending even more impactful if you make use of it. I like these stories because of what they add to Arthur’s characterization—sure, you can play him a variety of ways, but when he takes the time to help these people, it suggests the version of the character that I appreciate. Who is Arthur when he’s not a money-hungry outlaw? He’s the kind of person who helps people. Games being games, he also kills a lot of people—but that rather large hurdle aside, the game’s Stranger missions are where some of the best moments of characterization are hiding.
Cress: I’ve recently been playing Elden Ring, and the sidequests in FromSoft games tend to be esoteric in nature. It’s a bit of trial and error and vague hints to find where a character is or what happens next. And, unfortunately, the ends to them are usually tragic. Still, I enjoy figuring them out and fleshing out the few non-hostile denizens of those worlds.
One quest stands out to me in Dark Souls 2: there are two mercenaries that trail and track each other, which comes to a head in you finding them fighting. At this point you may choose one to aid. Due to these games being confusing, I did look up which would be better. Neither are great choices; the suggestion was to kill both of them. So I did. I had no attachment to either, but I remember standing in the room next to their corpses and thinking, what was the point of this? Considering the themes present in Dark Souls 2, this choice I made stood out to me since it seemed the most hollow. What was gained by this violence?
Maddi Butler: I have only played a handful of hours in Yakuza 0, but I remember being instantly obsessed with the game’s sidequests, which included coaching a bunch of faux-punks on how to make their band appear more hardcore and tracking down a stolen video game for a child.
I’m also a huge fan of the sidequests in Nier, many of which are completely irrelevant to the story. In Nier Automata, there’s a sidequest where you go around collecting stamps from the amusement park machines, and another where you escort and protect a machine who is trying to put on a parade. I also love the quests in Nier Gestalt, which add a lot of humor to what is, frankly, quite a bleak game. There’s one where you have to hunt down cooking ingredients for Nier’s daughter, Yonah, who turns them into the most inedible dishes imaginable, and another, where an old man berates you for weeks (in-game, not in real life) on end until you have unlocked every fishing secret.
Zora: For what it’s worth, those are not the Nier Replicant sidequests I was talking about, but they’re also very good. I also thought of another sidequest I loved (and by “thought of” I mean “played between when I started this response and now”). Star Wars: The Old Republic has a bunch of companion sidequests that tend to be pretty good, and the one for Corso (the first Smuggler companion, who I hate passionately) absolutely rips—he goes looking for his cousin, who he both looks up to and feels sort of patriarchically protective over, and learns that she’s a ready and willing drug runner for a cartel. Maybe the devs didn’t mean this to be empowering, since both Star Wars and Bioware have… limited approaches to morality at best, but god it felt good to watch him have a bad day and then be like, “Yeah, man, that’s how it is on the crime planet in the crime profession.”
OK, so, you’ve given me examples of joy you feel when completing sidequests. As a chase-the-plot type Pathfinder player, I must ask—does it bother you when you have to deviate from the plot and wait to learn more about the main story? Why deviate at all?
Zora: I mostly play no- and low-prep TTRPGs, so the idea of a sidequest in a tabletop game is throwing me for a whole loop, haha. If it’s interesting to pursue, it IS the plot—I’m not deviating! In video games, I think a poorly executed or inserted sidequest can be really frustrating. For example, the sidequests in the FFVII Remake are just stupid and frustrating on a narrative level, even if I enjoyed them as excuses to bum around in the world a little more… I just can’t understand why the game designers thought putting a four-hour series of quests into a bit of the game where you’re trying to hurry from one slum to another made any fucking sense. On the other hand, in games like SWTOR, I sometimes find it fun to deliberately choose to blow off plot for a while to do a companion sidequest or something—in that case, I’m making a roleplaying choice that says something about my character’s priorities!
Zainabb: I agree with Zora, I think great sidequests don’t feel like a deviation from the main plot but act as a supplement to it, serving to enhance your experience and understanding of the world, its characters, and your place among it all. For me, this is one of my favourite things about games in general. If I want pure plot, I prefer films, but games are more about feeling like I’m an active player in the story and the world. Sidequests support that feeling for me by fleshing out my character’s experiences, and allowing me to see more of the game world than I would if I only went from point A to point B.
They also serve a mechanical purpose—for example, finishing a sidequest might earn you experience points, extra loot, or even information that unlocks new story or conversational pathways. I get as much satisfaction out of these rewards, and feeling like I’m getting the most out of the gameplay, as I do from the main plot.
Melissa: I agree with everything said so far. A good sidequest will enrich the experience, whether by contributing to the main story or by fleshing out the world or the characters. I don’t mind spending more time in the world if that’s what’s going on. Now, if we’re talking about collecting items for the sake of having them, no thanks. I usually leave those kinds of sidequests alone, even if there’s a nice weapon reward or something similar at the end.
Although, now that I think about it, this changes for me in MMOs. I spent my last months with World of Warcraft completing the holiday quests so I could get the purple drake. I got it, parked it on a roof in Dalaran (at the time, that was the big endgame hangout), logged out, and canceled my account. Why did I do all that grinding for something I wasn’t going to use? I couldn’t tell you, but that felt like the right ending for me.
Cress: I feel the same way as the others. I especially love sidequests that may cast a different light on the story or possibly lead to a new ending!
Maddi: Ignoring the plot to pursue various sidequests is a very important part of playing video games to me. I agree with the above that a good sidequest will supplement the plot and tell you more about the world, but I also think the pointless sidequests have a place, too. When I was playing Nier Gestalt, I thought the fact that Nier took on the most insignificant tasks was an important aspect of his character. Nier is incredibly determined to save his daughter and find a cure for her illness, but that requires money he and Yonah don’t have. He travels often to complete odd jobs for the townsfolk (to the point where an NPC comments, “Hey, you’re that guy who does odd jobs for money, no matter how stupid or demeaning!”) even if Yonah would be perfectly content to spend more time with Nier. It adds a layer of depth to their relationship that I really appreciated.
In Automata, I appreciated the more meaningless sidequests because the story is about saving humanity… until you realize all of the humans died long before the events of the game ever began. But I think doing things simply for the sake of doing them is something humans do often, and so to me the pointless sidequests you play out for machines and other YoRHa androids subtly suggested that the human spirit lives on in 2B, 9S, and A2.
At the same time, I don’t need sidequests to provide a deeper philosophical understanding of myself or the game. If the characters and world are cool, I want to spend as much time as possible hanging out with them and running around, enjoying the scenery. Plus, many sidequests are just straight-up goofy (Final Fantasy XV Cup Noodle Quest, hi) and a nice break from the often-heavy story beats of the main plot.
Zora: Maddi, your experience with Nier Gestalt is so interesting because the impetus for doing the quests feels so different with Replicant‘s baby Nier! As both a kid and an older teen, it feels much more like he just can’t say no—he loves his community and cares for the people in it so much that he finds himself doing wild bullshit and totally overloading himself.
I must pause my question-asking for a moment to admit that I do, in fact, think of many sidequests in the Yakuza games as part of the main story. We wouldn’t really know Kiryu and Majima as deeply without them, and some of them build crucial relationships, like Kiryu’s relationship with Haruka. Also, before someone calls me out: no, I did not play Yakuza myself! My wife plays and makes sure I see all the important cut scenes. Getting back on track—do you play level-grindy video games and visual novels? What is the difference in appeal amongst these games—do you derive a different kind of enjoyment from each?
Zainabb: I really enjoy level grinding, although I have less time to play level-grindy games these days than when I was a kid. I find it immensely satisfying to take the time to do something simplistic but repetitive, and be rewarded with great power afterwards. Look, I’m not someone who enjoys difficult games, so for me, level grinding has always been about getting strong enough to be able to defeat the next boss in one go and with relative ease. It’s never the most enjoyable part of a game, but I’ll appreciate enemy and level design while I’m doing it, and at least I can listen to podcasts at the same time.
In comparison, I don’t really enjoy visual novels—I prefer physically controlling characters and moving about video game worlds. Brain fog and a poor attention span makes reading more difficult for me these days, too (and obviously neither of those things are a barrier to entry when level grinding). I’ve definitely enjoyed the story and characters in several visual novels but, at this point, I don’t seek out visual novels unless I know they’re pretty short. Even with lots of level grinding, a 60+ hour RPG still appeals more to me because it feels like I’m actively working towards progression: story progression, sure, but also developing my skills, building a party, racking up achievements. Of course there are some visual novels, like many dating sims, that allow for greater player agency and meaningful decision-making, but I find a lot of visual novels too passive for my tastes.
Melissa: Sometimes! It depends on how fun and rewarding the grind is for me. Something like Cook, Serve, Delicious! is a grind, but I enjoy it. On the other hand, I used to avoid tall grass in Pokemon, because I had enough little friends that I liked and I played favorites to the degree that my party was usually overleveled. It all depends on how much I’m enjoying the gameplay and what I’m getting out of it. If I’m bored, I will drop a game without hesitation.
Cress: I think it depends. Like, if I see a difference in my abilities or that things get easier after a few levels, then I’m good. But games like Dragon Quest start to drag for me. I made it all the way to the endgame of Dragon Quest VIII because I really enjoyed the story. But I was getting tired of losing to one of the final bosses. You have to grind for hours to just get 1 or 2 levels at that point. By then it just wasn’t fun. It’s put me off playing other games in the franchise.
Maddi: If I’m enjoying the combat, I don’t mind grinding at all because it becomes kind of a mindless way to move through the world and level up my character or collect materials. It’s really dependent on the combat, though! For example, I didn’t enjoy grinding in Horizon Forbidden West, because I’m much more methodical with the bow and arrow, and it felt like a lot of work for relatively little payoff.
On the other hand, I have run the Junk Heap dungeon in Nier probably hundreds of time because I get into such a flow state with my preferred weapons. The turn-based, mix-and-match combat system in Final Fantasy XIII is a little finicky and difficult to get used to, but by the time I reached the open world late in the game, I spent a lot of time grinding in order to level up everyone’s Crystariums going into the endgame. It’s incredibly satisfying (and efficient) to use giggly, chirpy Vanille to spam Adamantoises with Death.
OK, I will be honest—I am seeing some value in sidequests now! I am typically not the type of player who wants to spend time getting a specific prize or item (the one exception is this fat princess cat icon in Wordscapes that I really wanted… don’t judge me) so I definitely see how certain sidequests that seem like an absolute drag to me are fun to others. I do have to agree that sidequests that become or enhance the plot sound fun and make sense!
I’ve got one final question for y’all, though, and I think some of you have already touched on it—what about terrible sidequests? Are there sidequests you played through that you just hated? Did they give you a sense of what makes an ideal sidequest?
Melissa: Any sidequest that requires me to collect a large number of something to advance the story is my enemy. I hate collectibles, for the most part. If the experience of collecting something is enjoyable, I might dabble in it, but I almost never pursue a collectible mission to the end because it’s not usually worth it for me, especially now that I can go watch a true ending online. I’m sorry, game developers—YouTube has forever ruined my desire to go for a true ending.
I think I hate these missions for the opposite reason that I like sidequests—they don’t feel like they meaningfully add to the experience, other than to add time. My time is in short supply these days, so if the pursuit of whatever it is isn’t fun enough in itself, I simply will not do it.
Zainabb: I was going to say I hate escort missions, but I hate them when they’re part of the main quest, not just when they’re sidequests, so I don’t think that counts.
I was really frustrated by the Riddler sidequest in Batman: Arkham Knight—it’s totally optional, but my completionism got the better of me at the time (spurred on by the secret “true” ending you’re rewarded with if you get 100% on the game). For those who haven’t played, the Riddler sidequest is a series of increasingly difficult skill- and puzzle-based minigames, some of which could only be completed if you master some janky mechanics from the main game. I am not a skill-based gamer, mostly because I have very little skill, so any sidequest that requires me to be good at a mechanic is not the one for me.
An ideal sidequest feels like it’s adding to my enjoyment of the game as a whole, not like I have to prove myself or get my creaky bodymind to function perfectly to complete the quest.
Maddi: Escort missions. And timed tests or races. I am not actually very good or skilled at playing video games. Please give me anything else.
Zora: Escort missions are the devil, and rhythm quests make me feel. Bad lol. I appreciate that the rhythm minigames are part of Night in the Woods, and I appreciate how my being terrible at them characterizes Mae… but geeze, woof, ouch. Regarding sidequests, I’ve found that the planet missions in SWTOR are really hit-or-miss, especially if you’re playing a character who’s not super bought-in to the Republic vs. Imperial conflicts! I’m playing a Smuggler who doesn’t really give a shit right now, and I actually had to stop doing the planet missions entirely. They all assume I’m willing and enthusiastic about doing jobs for the Republic military, and I just don’t care… which makes them boring and frustrating! I’m super curious about how they’ll come across when I play a different, more bought-in class, though—I bet I’ll have more fun.
Alenka Figa is a queer librarian obsessed with D&D podcasts that have solid queer rep. They frequently tweet about them @alenkafiga. Catch their reviews of zines and indie comics over at Women Write About Comics.