So far, the quests I’ve done in World of Warcraft have all been of the following types:

  1. Either explore, in one of these ways:
    • Find a person (report to a person, deliver an object to a person, bring me an object from a person)
    • Explore an area (scout an area, report back and tell us the condition)
    • Learn to use a game function, such as buying an item from a vendor.
  2. or slay monsters, with slight variations:
    • Kill X number of a particular kind of monster.
    • Bring the quest-giver an object that is found on the body of a slayed monster.
    • Bring the quest-giver an object that is found in a monster-infested area.

I think the quests (sorry: missions) in Grand Theft Auto could be described in exactly the same way. Can you think of any exceptions? Do all quests and missions in all games follow these patterns?

My human warrior, currently at level 11I’d be interested to know if anyone’s written about this. I know Ragnhild Tronstad’s paper about how quests are performatives, and only become narratives after having been played, when they are retold, and I know Espen Aarseth’s followup paper on Quests as Post-Narrative Discourse (in Narrative Across Media) where he argues that adventure games, often thought of as being more narrative than, say, tetris or chess, could better be thought of as quest games than narrative games, and that that is significantly different. I also found the abstract of L¯vlie’s paper arguing that Max Payne is a counter-example to this.

None of that is quite what I’m interested in, though: I want to think about what on earth makes me prefer certain quests – or series of quests – to others when their basic structure is so simple and repetetive, and when the literary quality of the writing and the quality of the plots tacked onto these basic structures is, to be frank, mostly abyssmal.

I’m thinking it’s to do with the way in which quests cumulate and work together, which unsurprisingly brings me back to blogging and the way we read little capsules rather than grand narratives these days. More or less.

18 thoughts on “patterns of questing

  1. Frank

    “when their basic structure is so simple and repetetive”…”the plots tacked onto these basic structures is, to be frank, mostly abyssmal”………..

    like life?

  2. Espen

    Dostyevsky has been credited with saying that there are only two books ever
    written: Someone goes on a journey, and A stranger comes to town.

    Seems to me this is right in adventure games, too.

  3. xmachina

    nice observation. But, do real games have an objective?. I always thought that
    games have form, not content (objective).

    Moreover, isn’t so that these pattern reflect our society: you work hard either to
    improve yourself (in order to receive more money/goods in general property) OR
    you “obey orders” by destroying in order to bring someone else (usually a
    *single* person) something. Neither has to do with improving our society. Seems
    that such games prepare the players to “play” a particular role our society: be servant
    in a coorporate world. I wonder why no game has as objective, to escape
    the game.

    Sounds “marxistic” and i might be wrong, but that’s how i’ve perceived the


  4. Jill

    Well, I think Markku Eskelinen once pointed out how players always try to break the game, to find its edges. I’ve already looked into player-created hacks that would apparently give me advantages in game and obviously you can buy gold. I think both can get you banned from the game world if Blizzard finds out, but this kind of cheating definitely refuses to be a servant to the system.

    I see you point though 🙂

  5. Cornelia

    I wonder whether good old Vladimir Propp’s “Morphology of the Russian Folk Tale” might be helpful in this case? What could an alternative pattern look like? (Maybe the search for one’s own identity?) Cf. even the medieval Arthurian tales which obviously don’t differ too much from the narrative patterns you describe.

  6. JosÈ Angel

    Narrative is just a word, but prototypical narratives are retrospective, or at most simultaneous (minimally retrospective, that is). Games include a retrospective element (a narrative in the making) but they are future-oriented and developing in real time. Games may be retold (or an itinerary in them may be retold) and then they become narratives.

  7. Linn

    This is why I like Raph Koster so much. He uses, for example Ben Cousins’ ‘ludemes’, who says that the basic units of gameplay are ‘visit everywhere’ and ‘get to the other side’, which I think is exactly what you’ve found out. Koster’s ‘Theory of Fun’ recognises that the ‘fun’ in games is all about learning and recognising patterns. So maybe you’re prefering a certain type of quest because it entails a pattern that you’re starting to recognise and are learning from that pattern?
    Also, it is my belief that cheating is also still playing the game. You’re just doing it out of ‘the magic circle’ and creating a new gamespace and new form of gameplay.
    When it comes to the narrative…I just haven’t made up my mind yet. I don’t believe that we’re playing stories, cause as you mention, most of the narratives are just ridiculous – yet I enjoy playing them. But there is a relevance there somewhere…I just haven’t figured out what it is. I’ve also noticed that there are many games coming out now that are focusing on narratives – but most who play them are missing gameplay – which I think is interesting.
    Anyways…don’t mean to be an advertising post for Raph Koster, but it is a book worth reading (got it and finished it if you want to borrow).
    What I find interesting about MMORPGs however, is that you do have the actual freedom to start creating your own gameplay and stories. I recently read(Guardian Game Blog) that one female player in WoW was selling cybersex to get her gold (is that the currency in WoW?) up. There is a creative sphere (urgh…maybe not the right word to use) emerging from these games, but are they truely about the game or are they completely independent of the game. T.L. Taylor has written a bit about this on the game Everquest, which I’m sure you already knew.
    I could go on and on, but I’m sure you’ve heard of most I have to say…so I’ll try and stop here. I am, afterall, a mere insecure Master’s student who doesn’t know what she’s talking about (just self pitty cause I’m stuck).

  8. i1277

    Your observations remind me why it is that I think the GTA-games are so tedious. What first might seem like a new task is really just another repetition in disguise.

    Check out this article for a gamer’s spot on criticism of the industry and the games they release (e.g his second point).

    As for cheating, of course cheaters too play a game, just by different rules, which is fine and dandy in single player games, but online this is a breach of contract that just spoils the experience for others.

  9. JosÈ Angel

    “they miss gameplay…” Interesting, Linn. Although I suppose most of the energy that goes into gameplay is sort of pretty basic manipulation- some people (perhaps not many) can afford perhaps to lose a bit of that and go in for more complex role-playing (or rule-making).

  10. Marcin Tustin

    I can’t think of a story where the quest did not also fit those categories. I think that is in fact because of what a quest is, as opposed to merely a mission. A spy might just hang around in a location or with a person, which doesn’t fit the above stereotypes, but that wouldn’t be a complete part of a quest, to my mind. It might be a stepping-stone on their way to completing a quest, but that’s another story.

  11. Deena Larsen

    hmmm…what about gaining $ and power as an objective –as in monopoly? Would that fit into finding something or going somewhere? When I played D&D face to face, we usually had nested riddles to solve…to find the object, think of the answer, determine creative ways to use the object to open doors, treasure chests, etc.

  12. AndrÈ-S-C

    Itís competition. Give or take a few billion years worth of evolutionary conditioning, focused on competing for resources – we end up with a habit thatís really hard to break. The same basic patterns can be seen in business and especially globalisation. The preferences, I suspect, essentially concerns the aesthetic fit (in the broad sense of the word), between you and the game. (This plays out in intuitive, rational, emotive and instinctual aspects of engagement, and the quality and characteristics of narration, inter related to/with e.g. systemic complexity and ëfití between system model and playerís mental model and cognitive resources and probably mostly something to do with accessible opportunities for gratification). Just thoughts of the top of my head, donít know of any formal theory on this.

  13. J. Nathan Matias

    And people *do* retell the narratives.


    When I recently worked in an IT shop where many of the helpdesk employees played WoW, it was all I heard at the lunchtable.

    We would sit down and wait for our orders, maybe talk about some technical issue, and then someone would break in (either excitedly, as if about to burst, or casually, like an old hand) with a jarring statement. Something like:

    “We killed 100 Chinese farmers last night”
    “Rogues who try to tank are the worst”

    And then the stories would start.

    i do think that for people whose peer group plays WoW, the telling of stories outside the game is an important part of the gaming experience. Perhaps it would have been the same for a bunch of first millenium warrior-poet type guys, sitting around a table with mead, or whatever sort of beverage they preferred.

  14. Raymond Kristiansen

    I have not played WoW or other MMORPG’s, but I do have some MUD experience. Yes, it is the cumulative effect of quests that often draws prolonged interest, along with the challenge of it. In the end, the Way you got that rare piece of equipment is as pleasing as the fact that you got it.

    Speaking of virtual worlds, I recently saw this interesting movie about a player at “secondworld” that makes real money creating products in this VR world.

  15. Linn

    I’m sure you already know this, but maybe some readers would be interested as well. TerraNova – a whole bunch of academics who play and ponder over WoW and Second Life – They also have a great deal of papers available that have proved to be very helpful for me, at least. Some very smart people and they bring up some interesting discussions. However, they’re just a tad too pro MMORPGs sometimes!

  16. Susana

    I have a paper about that called “The Quest Problem in Computer Games”, not sure if it is what you are looking for, but was wondering about more or less the same stuff. 🙂 Here:

  17. Jill

    Oh, thanks, Susana! Printed it ready to read! Thanks everyone else too!

  18. Claus

    > i could tell you about this industrial single board computer site i found.

    Nice ad!

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