Semantic shift is a phrase I've recently acquired for whenever I want to sound insufferable at parties. It refers to the phenomenon of a word's usage changing over time, sometimes to the point that it's completely the opposite of whatever it originally meant.
I believe that the word "quest" has undergone a semantic shift in the MMO community (and video games at large). What once had roots in the long, difficult journeys that take place in life and fiction has quickly become reduced to a trivial task of gathering, killing, or clicking in-game. The sheer volume of such quests and that meaninglessness of their charges has reduced the word to bargain basement kitsch. If we're supposed to be heroes, why then are so many of the quests we're given are no more exciting than going to the grocery store?
"Quest" as a word has lost much respect in the community, almost completing its semantic shift such that it's almost pejorative. Yet there is a movement right now to reclaim the word and restore it to its proper meaning, and it's happening right in front of our eyes.
Believe it or not, World of Warcraft's biggest selling point in the media in 2004 was its quest system. It took a loose association of mechanics and concepts from previous games, tightened it up, made it completely intuitive using the now-ubiquitous punctuation hovering over heads, and focused the gameplay on it. There once was a time when people would read the text, care about the world and journeys it described, and eagerly run on to the next one.
Unfortunately, one can have too much of a good thing. This text box quest system suffered from too much proliferation and simplicity, and it allowed players to quickly skip past the story. It wasn't a system that encouraged interaction, deduction, or input beyond completing the basic objectives.
I'm not going to bore you with an attempt to analyze how quests went from bad to worse because we've all been there. Some of us are still wallowing in that quagmire, unable to escape. Personally, I like these quests in moderation as a replacement for the old grind, but they're just nutrient-free calories to me. We need something far more substantial. Developers know this too, but there's a risk in trying something too far off course from the mainstream, so we've been taking baby steps away from the stale and toward the delicious.
Man, I need dinner.
Lord of the Rings Online: An ongoing, central questline
While LotRO subscribes to the WoW quest formula pretty closely, it certainly diverges in a couple of key aspects. The first is that the game clearly expects many of its players to be interested in the lore and therefore willing to do more reading than the Twitter-sized quest boxes in other games. But more importantly, LotRO features a giant storyline that became one of the crown jewels of the game. From the very beginning, players were invited (but not forced) on a journey that would take place over many "chapters," "books," and "volumes" -- much like the game's source material.
It took cues from television serials and great novels, enlisting players on long and sometimes arduous adventures during which characters could return, the past was explored, and world events were affected. It was the mother queen of all text quests, and it earned respect for both its size and its engaging properties.
Warhammer Online to Guild Wars 2: Public quests
Warhammer Online is largely credited with pushing public quests -- dynamic, scripted events in the world that anyone could join -- to the forefront of players' attention span. Since then, variations on this type of play has popped up as core features in many subsequent titles, most notably RIFT and Guild Wars 2.
These dynamic events helped shake out of us the notion that quests waited for us to amble by and do them when we felt good and ready. Instead, they occurred without our say-so and brought change and movement to the world around us. For a good quest, I think there needs to be an element of it feeling much larger and more out-of-control than the adventurer. It flipped the food chain from player > quest to quest > player, which feels like the right relationship. Heroes in books and movies are caught up in events; they don't plan out when and where they want to do them, after all.
For the sake of space, I'm going to quickly mention that the increased usage and tools for storytelling has had a very positive effect on giving quests the proper context. But what I really want to dig into is how The Secret World has bucked the trend of "to do quests" and given us bloody raw meat for our plates. Or bloody raw asparagus if you're a vegetarian.
First of all, the game purposely limits the number of main quests you can have to... one. It forces you to stop multitasking among the stories and tasks that are out there and instead use your time to fully absorb one story, one journey, and one mission. For some of us, this required an adjustment period.
Secondly, quests were integrated into the environment on a level that we usually don't see in MMOs. There's a lot more internal logic going on (thanks to TSW's roots in adventure gaming), which helps with cohesion and progression. People in town are missing? I should go to the phone book, write down their addresses, and go check it out.
Thirdly, Funcom introduced "investigation quests," which I like to think of "quests in which the game stops treating you like a toddler." These quests require actual thought and deduction, investigation, and intuition. You're given an objective and some clues, but it's up to you to figure it out. Again, it's quite similar to how adventure games operate, but it's almost an alien concept for players who are used to having big obnoxious arrows pointing the way to the next thing to kill, collect, or click.
Sure, these investigation quests have guides all over the internet if you are fearful of using your brain, but I've seen a groundswell of players eschew even the thought of cheating their way through them. By taking away the hand-holding but leaving enough for the player to figure out on his or her own, investigation quests have reclaimed the immersion and interaction that some players been dying to see for years now. The rush that I've gotten from finishing one of these quests is phenomenal and quite unlike anything I've experienced in MMOs to date.
Fight on, good devs
Of course, the quest to save quests is far from over. The damage from trivial photocopy quests runs deep in the industry, and even efforts like the above might be too little too late for players unwilling to change from what they've always known. The temptation to continue to keep quests trivial and numerous for the sake of a good back-of-the-box quote has to be strong for studios.
However, the framework for a quest renaissance is there -- great, ongoing stories that are compelling and involving. Quests that come out and affect the world, asking you to react to them. Terrific storytelling techniques that utilize scripts, voice acting, cutscenes, and branching choices. Quests closely integrated with the environment. Games that focus on a smaller number of high-quality missions than a large number of forgettable ones. Player tools that allow us to craft our own interactive stories for others. And adventures that ask the player to use his or her mind in addition to weapons and potions.
We can win this fight if we hew to that which is admirable in quest development. I have hope that both players and developers will strive to make "quest" a word that gives us the giddy thrill of anticipation and wonder once more.
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