The Quest, the Quest Log, and Elden Ring

Elden Ring, Siofra River

Small spoiler warning

This post describes a sidequest in Elden Ring, but not in specific terms, and avoids explaining the ending to the quest. It also has a screenshot from a location in the game, about midway in. It also includes a screenshot of a quest log midway through Xenoblade Chronicles Definitive Edition.

I’ve been playing both Elden Ring and Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition lately, and I’ve also been spending way too much time on Twitter. When you do the latter, you end up falling into the The Discourse™ about something, and at that point you’re just trying to come out of it sane.

Elden Ring‘s big discussion topic is whether the game needs a quest log or markers in the name of “accessibility”. FromSoftware’s games (Dark Souls, Demon Souls, etc) tend to have vague questlines, prompted by interactions with NPCs. Usually by exhausting dialog options with them, you’ll get asked to do something specific. They’ll sometimes tell you where to do this, but other times they won’t: the game is counting on you to remember who told you to do something and what, at the right time.

An example of this is 10ish hours into the game where you strike out from the first “province” of the map into another, The Weeping Peninsula. A girl on the side of the road asks you to give a letter to her father, who is a warden of an overrun castle. He’s still there, and if you go to the castle and defeat the Boss of the area, you can advance the questline.

Where this differs from most games (especially open-world ones) is that there’s no journal that says “Go deliver the letter.” It doesn’t put a marker on a map to point you in the right direction, or give you GPS directions on the mini-map. It doesn’t give you any indication you’re in the right direction until you talk to the father, and get an extra line of dialog about the letter in your inventory. If you didn’t complete the castle, or just happened to miss this one guy, that quest would remain unfinished and unacknowledged.

The argument is this is opaque, “bad”, and wastes the time of people that don’t want to look through wikis, or keep a physical notepad beside them when they play. This argument was also usually snuck in with the argument that FromSoft games need “easy modes” or difficulty options — again, in the name of accessibility.

Now that I’ve played a bit of Elden Ring I can say that the exploration of the Lands Between would probably be marred by something like this, because it would force the player into a tunnel vision.

Elden Ring, Grand Lift of Dectus

That kind of focus for Elden Ring feels like poison, because getting lost and legitimately discovering things feels like such an important part of how you enjoy the game. Coming across catacombs or Bosses on the field, having the option to just pass them by and making a note (either a mental one, or through icons on the in-game map, which were added in a post-launch patch) to come back to them later is part of its magic.

On more than one occasion, I’ve come across something that just inspires a big “nope, turn around, can’t handle that yet” reaction from me, but it isn’t forgotten; it’s just something to tackle later when I’ve gained confidence and want to see where that thread goes.

In Dark Souls, that feeling also happens a few times, especially at the beginning of the game: only one of the three paths from the first hub is doable for players experiencing it for the first time, and the game is trusting the player to remember.

Having cool stuff happen as a result, or major progress be made, feels like a reward for that memory, planning and exploration. Finally tackling those other paths that kicked your ass when you strayed a bit too far means you get the internal “I’ve progressed, I’m stronger, I’ve come a long way” feeling.

It feels like a log system would surgically remove part of the point of Elden Ring, and also lessen the impact of quests that provide a lot of plot meat, exposition, or explanations of how this strange world works. While sometimes the rewards aren’t proportional to the work needed to complete questlines, these are often your clearest connections to FromSoftware’s games.

Making these quests into checklists removes some of that weight, and kind of conditions the player to expect to see the whole game in one go. Games like Elden Ring are not the type of game you just finish once and say “Okay, I am done with this.” It purposefully leaves a lot unanswered, and lets you speculate. I like that.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about games that become a part of the social media zeitgeist, to the point where people feel obligated to play them in order to be able to participate in “what everyone else is talking about right now.”

Elden Ring is one of those games, and when people find that game might require a lot of time or effort, they almost balk and say “Damn, this isn’t for me, and that isn’t a good thing. This needs to change.” I’m happy that there’s still focused vision to not give people what they demand in gaming, and yes, “unfortunately”, that means you might not have a complete picture of the story when you finish Elden Ring.

Even though I use a wiki for Elden Ring to get an idea of what I’m doing, I’m not about to view that as a flaw. I look at it like the Monster Hunter series: research and preparation is part of the point of the game, and you still need to execute.

While I told myself that I was going to go into the game blind and experience it for what it was, that didn’t last: I knew I might not play the game multiple times, but I’m also not going to demand it’s completely different. I’ve made my peace, and I’m neither faulting myself or the direction of the game.

The irony is, with Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition, the game was massively improved over the original game with the inclusion of a quest log, GPS/breadcrumb system, and “#/4 Objects Collected!” notifications. I thought it was interesting how these things conflicted, and wanted to spend some time thinking about why.

Sidequests are a somewhat important part of Xenoblade Cronicles. Sidequests develop relationships between your character and party members, and the communities that give the sidequests. These relationships help optimize the party and enable new materials to be traded, but are not mandatory.

Because Xenoblade Chronicles has a fully-voiced, dialog-heavy story, the directors can assume that you’re getting necessary information about the world by doing the main quest. If you’ve skipped all cutscenes, you’re going to be lost about the who-what-where-when-whys, but that’s your fault.

In Elden Ring, you aren’t going to get “the whole story” unless you care to find it. If you care enough to seek out the information, then you get to work to get the quests done to get your explanation. Maybe.

Sometimes, you don’t get a prompt that an NPC has more to tell you, even if that’s how you trigger the next part of the quest. A quick rule is to just keep talking until dialog starts repeating: that’s how you know you’re safe to leave. In Xenoblade, you aren’t finishing a cutscene without the necessary information to know where you’re going.

However, I’ve diverged a bit from the main quest and sidequests.

Xenoblade Chronicles Definitive Edition quest log
Xenoblade Chronicles has over 400 sidequests throughout the course of the game.

In the original Wii release of Xenoblade Chronicles, sidequests were a lot more frustrating, because it was less straightforward in informing you how to complete its sidequests. For clarity, the types of sidequests are:

  1. Classic “collect # of [thing] off the ground, or through trading with NPCs, and return to me”
  2. “Go pick up this thing at this location, and the quest will autocomplete”
  3. “Go kill a certain amount of these type of monsters”
  4. “Go talk to this NPC in order to advance the side-plot”

In the Definitive Edition for the Nintendo Switch, they added the ability to track sidequests, which would GPS you to their relevant location. They would also highlight enemies or items to collect with a “!”, so you knew that they were important.

I am fine with there being breadcrumbs, notifications and logs because at the end of the day, these types of quests aren’t that important. In many cases, the dialog from your party is canned, and there aren’t consequences in the scope of the world. There are over 400 of these things, and while they aren’t randomly-generated, they can feel that way.

While you’re getting extra XP, stat boosts, or materials to make your journey easier, but it’s not like you get the “good ending” for raising all communities to a 5-star reputation.

Maybe it’s a matter of the scale of the reward, but I didn’t find myself thinking they were either wastes of time or an absolutely imperative thing to do. They were somewhere in the middle: things to do in order to take a break from the main plot, or a chance to juice myself up so the future challenges were easier.

I just know it was really annoying for the game to give me a number of quests at the beginning of a huge, expansive area (where you’ll be spending the next 5-10 hours) and then me not completing the quest because I’m tired of running over these identical, randomly-placed item motes on the map because I’m hoping this one is a cabbage, not a carrot.

It’s similar to when games have animations for collecting materials on the overworld, or have enemies that don’t give (or stop giving) you rewards — if it’s a tedious experience and the consequences aren’t big for skipping it, why would you participate?

Xenoblade Chronicles Definitive Edition quest quality of life features.
Any one of these arrows could be a quest object. They could be the ones you need, or not. Do you want to run around the whole zone checking each one?

At that point, the game making a quest item an “!” icon doesn’t seem like ruining anything; otherwise, I’d be looking up a wiki to see where the item spawn was, and then running around to finish something that wouldn’t feel that impactful.

I focus on these “item collection” quests because they feel the most annoying: even when knowing where to go, there’s no guarantee they’ll be spawning in that area. It ends up turning into wandering around for something that doesn’t really matter, and at that point, why do it?

Xenoblade Chronicles Definitive Edition quest quality of life features.
The updated quest markers for the Definitive Edition. These “!” icons also show up on the map when you load into a zone, so you can choose an appropriate fast-travel point.

I can note the irony between what I just said about Elden Ring, and the exact same situation in Xenoblade Chronicles:

Players resent having to look up outside help for a sidequest due to very vague directions or very specific next-steps. They also resent possibly leaving undone or abandoning quests they feel may be valuable to do. Quest logging and breadcrumb GPS increases quality of life, and reduces the chance that players will experience more of the game.

To summarize, what I can feel the differences are:

  1. Having the lore and greater storyline told to you mean that you have more direct goals and understanding of the world of Xenoblade, whereas in Elden Ring, vagueness and piecing together your own interpretations are essential to the whole experience.
  2. The side quests in Elden Ring are often your only interaction with actual other characters in the world, while in Xenoblade sidequests can be very shallow in dialog, purpose, or development.
  3. As sidequests in Xenoblade are more tied to character growth (EXP, items, materials) than expanding the story, it’s less consequential that players are handheld towards completing them.
  4. Sidequests in Elden Ring are the replay value, as some endings and lore bombs are locked behind them. In Xenoblade Chronicles, you get the same ending regardless of how many sidequests you complete. The former is the lifeblood of the narrative, while the latter is busywork.

I guess it’s a subjective thing, especially when that whole “everyone’s talking about it” factor comes into play.

As I mentioned earlier, there’s a desire to just “close the book on a game” by seeing everything it has to offer in one go. I struggle with that desire, because it treats video games like a to-do list rather than entertainment: it becomes about crossing something off a backlog rather than “playing to play.” I’d rather not make that someone else’s responsibility, though.

I find that the arguments that use the wording of “accessibility” tend to lean on the moral argument of “more people playing = less gatekeeping = less exclusion = good,” which implies that FromSoftware’s punishing difficulty and esoteric storybuilding is a problem in itself.

The argument can be successful because it counts on the person to agree that “excluding people is bad;” however, I don’t think a consumer being able to experience a piece of media is always done purposefully, or with vindictive intent. Proponents of this argument would like you to think it is, though, because then you’d be a bad person for disagreeing with them.

Not all art is accessible to all people, and to demand that creative vision be compromised feels like a dodging of responsibility. It requires some introspection to ask yourself why you feel entitled to that complete experience with less effort; do you want to enjoy the game, or do you just want to participate in this thing everyone else is talking about?

That “I am unable to take part in the social media discussion moment for this thing, so this must be changed” aspect of this is something that really bothers me, mostly because there’s variables in terms of who is bringing these arguments up and why. Whether it’s a journalist who doesn’t have the time to play the game, or the gamer who’d rather not spend the time to learn, the answer is similar:

Sometimes things just aren’t for you. It’s okay to admit that. It doesn’t say anything about you personally. Accept it and move on.

Thanks for reading! Amazon links on this post may be affiliate links to help support Matt.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *