(Welcome to part four of our mini-series on Vampyr. If you missed part one, you can find it here. Today we’ll be continuing our tour of Pembroke Hospital, and doing some fun sidequests as we meet and greet (and try not to eat) the remaining staff and patients of Pembroke Hospital. Today’s side quests will mainly consist of: (a) finding lost wallets, and (b) violating people’s privacy.)
First, we bump into a young nurse – Pippa Hawkins, and then Milton Hooks – the hospital’s ambulance driver. Milton comes across, to be honest, as a bit of a dick – he never stops complaining, and he seems completely uninterested in the hospital’s patients. He does, however, give us our first proper side quest – the lofty charge of finding his lost wallet, which he apparently dropped while fleeing from a crazed flu victim outside the hospital grounds.
(side note: no one seems to realise that all these crazed, flesh-hungry people roaming the night are not just Spanish Flu victims, but skals – demi-vampires who eat flesh, not blood. Easy enough mistake to make, I suppose.)
We don’t have to help Milton out here, but hey, why not? Let’s go get him his wallet.
It’s a fairly standard fetch quest, but while fetch quests in RPGs (e.g. “I want 5 wolf skulls. Please go find me 5 wolf skulls”) are more often than not tedious filler, Vampyr generally makes them work. Which leads us nicely into…
THIS WEEK’S INSIGHTFUL GAME DESIGN LESSON:
Fetch quests are not inherently bad game design. In fact, most quests in most RPGs can be described as fetch quests (go here, find/kill a thing, come back). What separates good quests from boring ‘Please go find me 5 wolf skulls’ fetch quests is the RPG Autopsy patented (patent pending) ‘Triple C’ formula:
Context, Complication, and Constraint
Let’s look at a real-life example here: Dragon Age: Inquisition – specifically the Hinterlands starting area. Specifically specifically this one boring quest where you have to kill a bunch of wild rams for their wool/mutton:
(1) Context: the quest is given some context (some refugees need food and blankets because it’s cold), but it’s very thin, and it’s certainly not interesting context.
What we really need for good context is something like: a mystery, some interesting worldbuilding/lore, an important goal that is specifically relevant to the player/player character, some character development, etc.
(2) Complication: There are absolutely no surprises in this quest. We go out, we find sheep, we kill them, we come back, and we get a minor reward not worth talking about.
(3) Constraint: the Hinterlands – and Dragon Age: Inquisition as a whole – are absolutely chock full of these kinds of by-the-numbers fetch quests. One or two would be tolerable, but when the meat of your game is interrupted by dozens of boring fetch quests it really starts to grate (And sure – they’re optional. But (a) you literally need the rewards they provide to continue playing the main quest, and (b) optional isn’t an excuse for bad).
You (or the straw man I made up in my head) might counter: ‘But these quests aren’t supposed to be amazing – they’re just there to give the player something to do’. And if your goal is to fill your game with stuff, then sure – this is one way to do that, just as a chef promising to make twenty different dishes for a banquet could just fill ten of those dishes with different combinations of cornstarch and aspic.
But I’d argue the point of food is to be good, not just there. And the point of quests in an RPG is to be interesting, not just something to occupy some of the minutes between now and my inevitable and senseless death. In other words: if you can’t make twenty delicious dishes for my RPG banquet, maybe just make ten instead?
So Dragon Age is and always has been bad – that much is obvious and definitely uncontroversial. But what would a good fetch quest look like?
Well, there’s countless examples. The Witcher 3 manages to make most of its side quests work because they tick the complication box very well: Go beat up this guy who robbed the quest giver. Oh wait, turns out the quest giver took a job from the guy, and did it so shoddily the quest giver refused to pay him. Now you have to decide if you want to side with one of them, or if you just want to walk away and not get paid yourself.
That’s not fascinating stuff, but it’s pretty good for the most minor of minor side quests. It gives you both story complication (you’ve been lied to), and mechanical complication (you now have to make A Choice, where before you were just fetching something).
Or let’s look at Sunless Sea‘s The First Curator side quest, which tasks you with finding and acquiring different magical colours. Colours like Apocyan – the colour of memory and coral, and Gant – the colour ‘which remains when all other colours are eaten’. The context here is fascinating (cool worldbuilding, evocative writing) in classic Failbetter style. In fact, most quests in Sunless Sea are nothing more than prettied-up fetch quests, but the writing and worldbuilding is so good we don’t really care.
So yeah: that’s my obviously unique and not at all tedious gift to RPG game design criticism: Context, Complication, Constraint. If you’re making a side quest/fetch quest, ask yourself‘How can I make an interesting context here, or surprise the player in some way, and, above all, is this side quest necessary? Is it just filler for the sake of filler?’
Anyway, 700 words of digression later, we go look for Milton’s wallet. After finding and killing the rabid skal, we find it, and inside we see a picture of Milton and nurse Pippa together. Turns out they’re secretly a couple, which is very much against hospital rules (this is also an interracial couple, which, again…y’know – it’s 1918).
We also learn that Milton is charging people to use the ambulance – in other words, no bribe no ride. This is apparently so Milton and Pippa can save money and eventually start a new life together somewhere else far away from here.
So, while the context of this side quest (get me my wallet) isn’t anything special, it does complication very well: it develops Milton and Pippa’s characters in a way the player can later investigate during dialogue (using the game’s Hint system), and it lets the player make a choice: to threaten to expose their secret relationship, or to agree to keep it quiet.
There’s one more side quests in Pembroke Hospital before we finish today’s post: that of Mortimer Goswick, and his overbearing mother Beatrice.
Mortimer complains of terrible throat pain, and is heavily bandaged, but he won’t give us any more information. It’s only later, while fulfilling my doctorly duties of hiding outside the window and eavesdropping on people’s private conversations, that I learn enough about Mortimer to conclude (I’d already guessed) that he tried to commit suicide. After asking him about it/using our vampire mind powers to get him to spill the beans, he asks us to go to his house and find the suicide note he wrote – before anyone else can find it and read it.
This is, again, a standard ‘go and find something and come back’ fetch quest, but here the context is interesting (Vampyr writes good characters, and this quest is tied up to Mortimer’s character in an emotionally rich way), and it also gives some more complication in allowing you to make the choice between honouring Mortimers wishes, or betraying his confidence and giving the note to his mother instead.
That’s all the side quests I’m going to talk about for now. Next week we’ll do one more side quest, and then actually get to that morgue (sorry for not getting to the morgue yet).
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