Nemesis_22 joins us with the first of our Community Soapbox articles! If you’re interested in submitting a soapbox article, check here for more information. Mild spoilers for Skyrim may follow.
As I grow older, more jaundiced and fatter around the middle, I find that there is still one tried and true method to RPG games which never, ever, seems to die the death it so richly deserves: fetch quests.
You know the ones I mean – Some pitiful specimen calls out to you as you draw near them in some ratbag village, and goes, ‘You there, heavily armoured fellow whose destiny it is to save the world from terrible evils, kill me some insignificant rats/crabs/bugs and I’ll reward you with yet more shinies!’ And lo and behold, you find yourself doing it. And hating it. Or at least, you would be hating it if you were not obsessed with the reward you are going to get at the end, you greedy sod.
Because, let’s face it: This isn’t the world saving earth shattering quest you were hoping for. In fact, it will probably pop up while you are trying to stop a big bad evil guy from actually shattering the earth and killing all those puppies you swore to protect, or whatever it is that motivates your character. And for some daft, daft reason, you’ll pause in your mission of utmost importance to go kill a few rats and hand in their tails for a pitiful sum of money.
Why are they even there? That’s easy enough to answer — Fetch quests are padding. Games put them into RPGs to make them seem much, much larger than they really are. It’s a classic mixture – put in the right amount of awesome, give it volume with fatty horribleness that isn’t good for you, and people will eat that stuff right up.
Kingdoms of Fetchquestalur
A perfect example in recent memory was Kingdoms of Amalur. The fact that it was once an MMO is painfully obvious, as within minutes, you are not so much encountering fetch quests as much as being actively assaulted by them. In the face. With a spiky club marked ‘FTCH KWESTZ HEAR’. The game has so much of it, in fact, that despite its huge size it never feels anything more than purely exhaustive. Run here, do this, get paltry reward, just to get one step closer to doing things that actually matter, while the BBEG waits patiently waving a hand saying ‘don’t worry, no rush’.
And that right there, is the problem I have with fetch quests, much, much more so than the fact that they tend to be horribly boring. They don’t matter. They don’t feel important, usually because they are precisely that. And by doing them, you lower yourself. You are degrading your character. If you want your character to feel like the big goddamn hero that they are, you are going to have trouble achieving that by making them go and catch butterflies.
An RPG, more than anything else, is (usually) supposed to do one thing: make you feel like a big damn hero, and make your character an engine of destruction that makes bad guys wet their pants and go running back to mummy. So why do they insist, over and over again, to make you a little errand boy in order to be rewarded?
I can understand that the spirit of altruism and general kindness is important, and teaches humility, which is good in a hero, but honestly, would you have the temerity to walk up to the most powerful individual you’ve ever seen and say, ‘Hey, you. Get out there and do some task I’m too lazy or inept to do for me. Kthnxbai?’ I don’t believe you would. I know I wouldn’t say much more except ‘Oh god, please don’t hurt me’ while trying to run.
Kingdoms of Amalur was a prime example of this. So is every single MMO since they first began, but they are also a game where you are just a face in the crowd, never a person in charge (except nominally through a guild). Knights of The Old Republic did a good job of making them sound more important than they actually were – the wording was shifted to make it sound less like a fetch quest, and more like you were the ultimate last resort to getting the solution fixed. After a few hundred of these scenarios the effect wore a little thin, but the effort was there.
But no game in my recent memory was a worse offender than Skyrim.
“Surely not!”, comes the hue and cry. “It is an open world game! You don’t even ‘have’ to do the fetch quests! There’s no limit to what you can do!” Lies. Why, you ask? It is a bit of a tricky one to answer, but most of it comes down not so much to the fact there are fetch quests, but instead, by the way the NPC’s treat you in the game.
Now, let us get one thing straight. When I created my character in Skyrim, I made him to be a ‘good guy’ from the outset. Ulric The Sorrower was supposed to stride the world like a colossus, righting wrongs, saving the world and fixing the problems everyone was facing. And by the end, he did. Mostly. He was an absolute, undeniable titan of a fellow, able to take on entire hordes of enemies and swat them down with contempt. At level 60 or something, he’s a one-man wrecking machine who can fight, and win, against enemies that most would quail and flee from. He was capable of entirely ungodly amounts of carnage with sword, shield, magic and shouts. Everyone knows he’s the Dragonborn, a mythical super hero who has the power to shape nations.
So why the hell does some git sitting on his backside on a made-up pseudo-throne think he can tell him what to do? And don’t, whatever you do, get me started on the Daedra. I ended up selling Ulric’s soul without even realising it to so many different Daedra that when he dies, they’ll spend eternity over arguing who gets which piece of him, but man, even the nice ones were far from being actually ‘nice’. They usually hovered somewhere around ‘jerk’ to much more unmentionable levels of obnoxious arrogance.
Everyone in Skyrim acts like this. They don’t quail in the presence of a being who can turn a 100 foot long flying lizard into nothing more than his newest pair of handsome scaled leather shoes. It’s pretty common actually – people seem to have no instinct of self preservation in the way they deal with this walking terror. They give him orders, they see nothing more than a vassal for their self-entitled wishes. Tiberius Septim, the first emperor, was a Dragonborn! These are not people to mess with! And yet every single person you encounter treats you like some sort of muppet. Tolerated, ordered about, but never really accepted. Even the guards think they can push you around (‘no lollygagging’) instead of behaving like they should against a person who can single-handedly depopulate a city, which is either outright fear or respect. The amount of people and creatures that Ulric actually killed is something like ten times the actual number of normal NPC’s in the entire game. And yet some schmuck who cannot even hold a sword right tries to push him around.
It doesn’t even make sense
The thing that really tore it for me in Skyrim was the faction quests. You had two choices to side with – the Imperials or the Stormcloaks. I considered my options seriously, and for a while, I thought I should side with the Stormcloaks. After all, the Dominion are a pack of jerks who can choke on my battleaxe, and I would happily butcher them by the hundreds. In fact I did exactly that. Skyrim ran red with arrogant xenophobic jerk blood.
But then two facts reared their head. Firstly, the Queen is not that bad a person at all. General Tulius is a dyed-in-the-wool moron however, and treated me just like every other noble know it all. And second, no one is a bigger jerk in this game than Ulfric Stormcloak. The guy is a monumental nitwit. He’s thrown his nation into civil war, killed his king, and gone to war against a force that is just a buffer for an even bigger force just behind that. Basically, Skyrim is in big, big trouble and a very real danger of being stomped into the mud by the Dominion, just so he can get power. And that’s it. The complete breadth and extent of his motivation. He’s a greedy, power hungry war monger with no real motivation beyond what he can get for himself. If he wasn’t, he would have formed an alliance with his king and thrown the Imperials out together. But no, his first plan was to kill the king, and thus, make himself prime candidate to take the throne, by slaughtering the people he claims to stand for. The Queen herself said the king was amenable to Ulfric’s ideas, but the jackass killed his most powerful potential ally instead out of sheer greed. How could anyone follow such a twit?
I ended up choosing neither side in the conflict. Not the Imperials, because they are basically working for the Dominion, and I hated those guys (it was so very mutual). And not the Stormcloaks, because then I’d be helping a man I outright despised as a greedy, self serving swine who had gotten hundreds of his people he professed to care for killed out of his own ambition. I was hoping against hope that, in the end, I would be able to settle the conflict between them my way.
And finally, my chance came. I got to be the mediator between the two parties, deciding who got what at the negotiating table in order to secure both peace and a means to stop Alduin. Finally they were taking me seriously!
Or so I thought. What I actually got in the end was everyone thinking I was the biggest loser in the kingdom, as I burbled and blundered my way through verbal choices that sounded like they came from a half wit. At no point did the character try and steer things themselves, they simply repeated proposals from one side or the other like a moronic automaton, and in doing so, everyone got mad at him. Far from being the one who united them, the hatreds remained as strong as ever, and now, they both hated me just as much as they outright loathed each other.
So, instead of being the big damn hero of Skyrim, I ended up being the single most reviled individual in the entire world for doing the right thing. The game lifted me up from my role of menial labourer to become, for one shining moment, the guy that people listened to. And for that, he limped through the dialogue and became viewed lower than dirt. Even the Blades turned against me when I refused their petulant request to kill a certain ancient dragon because of crimes done in the past. By that token, with the crimes I had committed in the name of the greater good, they’d have tried to kill me not long after (note – they said this after saying they were sworn to serve the Dragonborn and protect them. Did they forget who their boss is supposed to be?).
The way it should have gone
If I had a choice, I would have done it differently. Very, very differently. I would have flown in on the back of Ohdaviing to Ulfric’s city, and slapped some sense into him. If he refused, I would have Storm Call’d and Fus Roh Dah’d his city into rubble. I would have sworn my allegiance to the Queen, a person who genuinely seemed like a real decent person, and told Tulius he had two choices – with me and Skyrim, or against me personally. If I told him this on the back of a mighty, massive dragon, do you think he would argue? Like hell. And then I’d have stormed out of Skyrim with a big army of Nords and Imperials, and given the Dominion such a kicking they would have been hurting generations later.
After all, who would argue with me? I’m the goddamn Dragonborn. But apparently, being the fabled hero to save the world from a creature known as the World Eater is something equivalent to being a janitor. Out of sight, out of mind, cleaning out the trash and being told to do menial tasks.
What I figured out, in the end, is that the entirety of Skyrim is one very cleverly veiled fetch quest, as you run around to the whims of another, never taking command. Designed to make sure you never rise above, you remain a prisoner from the very first moment you open your eyes on the execution cart. No matter how high you rise up, you are never seen for what you are – a true hero – and remain, forevermore, languishing in the mire of forgettability along with every other nameless soul to lift a sword in the name of a lord who does not care anything about you, except for what they can get out of you. That, right there, is the utter embodiment of what a fetch quest is – doing something beneath the doing of another for menial reward, something I understand a lot of people do for an actual job in the real world, but they sure as hell don’t need it when they are pretending to be a big damn hero. That is what real life is for. And I hope one day, RPG games learn to keep this aspect of real life well out of their genre.
Skyrim screenshots via the fantastic Dead End Thrills.