The Problem of Side Quests and How They Break Immersion

Do you know how long I’ve been playing Horizon: Forbidden West? According to the in-game timer, I have been playing for over 150 hours… and still going. I have already finished the game but before I did complete the main story, I have already clocked in around 100 hours. I filled all that time by completely exploring the entire map, upgrading most of the armors and weapons, playing and beating everyone at Machine Strike, completing all of the challenges of all the hunting grounds, beating all of the arena matches and, most importantly, accomplishing each and every side quest that was available before attacking the supposedly main baddies base. That’s a lot of in-game hours!

That is a testament to how good Horizon: Forbidden West is. Even though I’m playing this on my rinky-dink original PlayStation 4, I just couldn’t get enough of the game. The combat is really good and the graphics, even on just a PlayStation 4 looks fantastic. I just had to find some excuse from getting to the ending and that was accomplished by doing all of the side quests available. In fact, by around the 50 hour mark, I think I already maxed out my character level so I know I could’ve completed the game then. But I didn’t because I was having so much fun playing the game.

However, this did lead to a rather interesting problem I had while playing Horizon: Forbidden West and, in all honesty, a lot of the current open world games that are out in the market. While I was perfectly happy with doing all of the side quests, I totally forgot about the main quest. There were actual moments when I forgot what I was supposed to be doing to complete the actual story because I got totally engrossed with all of the other side activities. And if you think of it from a storytelling perspective, that’s actually bad.

In a lot of open world RPGs, there’s usually this world destroying thing or some event that needs the hero’s immediate commitment to resolve. In Horizon: Forbidden West, Aloy has to gather the other computer programs so the Gaia AI can fix the catastrophic climate change problems as the world will end in just a few months. That still won’t stop gamers like me to get distracted by silly side quests like helping a group of archeologists find a certain thingamajig. In the Witcher 3, Geralt scours the world in search for his adoptive daughter and he’s allegedly desperate to find her and he finally has leads as to where she might be. That still won’t stop Geralt from wasting his time fixing his bank account. Yes, the badass Witcher decides to take a break from searching for his daughter in order to content with bank red tape.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I actually like side quests. In fact, I usually find myself more engrossed with accomplishing all of the side quests first before moving on to the main story. After all, the benefits for completing them usually have its rewards. In RPGs, this allows you to grind for experience without feeling like you’re going out of your way to do so. You’re also rewarded for completing them with some of the best equipment when you do finish them off. This in turn makes completing the main story quests so much easier. It certainly doesn’t hurt that you seem to get more bang for your buck when there are so many other activities to do than just completing the story. It makes spending your hard earned cash on that one video game much more palatable.

However, more often than not, the number of side quests that are available does make it feel like your just playing a bunch of mini stories instead of one epic game. I’m the type of person who wants to go through every side quest before tacking the main story because, well, I already outlined the numerous reasons why it’s incredibly useful. Besides, time never really moves forward in open world RPGs like this. You can pick up the main story at any time you want. This is mostly a good thing, however, there are just some games when it feels like these distractions destroy my immersion. I’m not enveloped in the world anymore; I’m just playing a game. Oh, the game is good but I’m not enraptured by it. I’m not suspending my disbelief as I’m in full control as to when to push forward with the story. Saving my daughter can wait… I still have to help this lady get her frying pan from her house!

I’m fully aware that I don’t really have to complete any of the side quests and just dive in headlong into the main story. But those quests are there and they’re offering me the opportunity to get stronger so it would be easier to tackle the main story! If they’re giving me the chance to do so, why say no? I do feel there are a lot of gamers out there who feel the same way I do and get more than just a little sidetracked as they bounce all around the map, looking for side quests and totally overlooking the main story altogether.

I guess this could easily be fixed if they actually made me feel the urgency of completing the main questline by adding some kind of time limit. It’s not exactly unheard of as there are some old-school RPGs that have used time limits well. Star Control 2 has a time limit wherein the alien Ur-Quan race starts destroying the other galactic races by a certain stardate. The first Fallout gives you a time limit before your Vault runs out of fresh water. You can extend the time limit a bit and, once that part of the main story is resolved, you’re able to resume completing the rest of the game. I think I would appreciate giving players some kind of deadline to finish the main quest to make you feel just how important the main story is. After that’s done, well, you’re free to roam around the world and complete all of the remaining side quests you couldn’t complete before.

I do think I’m in the minority of this, though. Most gamers nowadays don’t like to feel rushed or pressured and they appreciate when they can do all the things they want to do at their own pace. I wholeheartedly understand that point of view. I do feel it’s kind of silly, however, how you’re able to postpone saving the world so you can help out hapless people with trivial tasks. But you can do that because, well, the world won’t start to end until your progress the story, so what’s the harm?

What’s your take on side quests and how they’re handled in big, open world games? Do you like taking your time with them or blasting through the main story? Let me know in the comments section below!

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