I recently wrapped up Fallout 4, and one thing that stood out to me, after hours of playing it, is how much the main quest kinda stunk. Part of that was the finale, wherein you pretty much just storm a facility, kill everyone in it, and take their stuff; the only difference between it and any other quest in the game is that supposedly you have some feelings about the NPCs you’re gunning down.
It was a harsh contrast to the rest of the game, where the joy of stumbling over a random location and getting swept up in a quest out of nowhere was a thrill. I had way more fun finding vaults hidden in ruins or unraveling the story of a vicious mobster with some very old unfinished business than I did picking a side in the struggle between the Institute, the Brotherhood of Steel, and the Railroad. The quests you just stumbled over gave it the feel of a living, breathing world, that events were unfolding around me in the Commonwealth whether I was there to see them or not.
This seems to be an ongoing theme, especially in open-world games; Assassin’s Creed Syndicate has its best missions as side activities on the map. Just Cause 3 barely even pretends it’s anything other than a big toybox of explosions. Mad Max made building up fortresses and recruiting allies more fun than hunting down your car. Even The Witcher III, which has an excellent main quest, often makes the side quests just as rewarding to play.
Part of this is the nature of writing for video games. Compare the scripts of Grand Theft Auto III to Grand Theft Auto IV and it’s obvious writing a satisfying narrative in an open world is a monumental task almost certainly doomed to failure. It doesn’t help that time is essentially meaningless in an open world game; you finish a mission and are free to do whatever you want after, even if it’s just poking through. There are no stakes: You can save the hostage, disarm the bomb, or slay the dragon at any time. So, why have that in the first place?
The idea that games need to have a main, overarching narrative structure is a relic of the days when video games were just movies where you pushed buttons. But open world games in particular have less and less need of a tight, film-like narrative structure. Fallout 4, oddly, is a good example of how to make a game compelling without an overarching plot; it rewards you heavily for exploring and gives you little pokes and prods to keep looking around and visit new locations. Reading a note off a corpse leads you to a new hideout of raiders; browsing through a terminal gives you a new location to explore on your map; chasing a radio signal leads you to a new town packed with quests.
True, some players need that forward motion to be engaged, and there needs to be something along those lines in any game. But it doesn’t have to be a main quest, and increasingly, it feels like it shouldn’t be. Instead of one poorly written huge quest, let’s have dozens of smaller, better-written ones; if nothing else, it’d be a lot more fun.